Friday, August 26, 2011

Constructing the Language of Charcuterie

South African Salt Cured Beef (Biltong)

Cure and Curing

Cure A chemical agent [Emphasis mine] placed in or on meat or poultry for use in preservation, flavor, or color. (USDA

The USDA definition of cure seems reasonable until you examine some of the implicit assumptions made by the agency before its construction. For example, the language of the USDA implies that salt and sugar are not "chemicals"

Chemical Preservative Any chemical that, when added to a meat or meat food product, tends to prevent or retard deterioration thereof, but does not include common salt, sugars, vinegars, spices, or oils extracted from spices or substances added to meat and meat food products by exposure to wood smoke. (USDA)

By arbitrarily removing salt and sugar from their rightful place as chemical compounds, the USDA eliminates hundreds of products that are traditionally cured with one or both of these chemicals. So, in the obfuscating terminology of the USDA, an Iberico  ham that is so well-preserved with salt that it can hang for two years is not cured while one that has added nitrite but can't last a week in the open air (e.g. Virginia ham) is cured ham. 


And what about this definition of curing that states that only pork can be cured?

Curing  Curing is the addition of salt, sodium nitrate (or saltpeter), nitrites and sometimes sugars, seasonings, phosphates and ascorbates to pork for preservation, color development and flavor enhancement. (USDA

Add the same handful of chemicals to beef and it's not cured it's, what, seasoned? Given that the USDA's definition of cure allows it to be applied to "meat and poultry," the restriction to pork is probably the result of sloppy editing. Still, it's annoying and confusing. 

I  suspect that the USDA drew a dividing line between naturally occurring chemicals like salt and sugar to make a distinction between curing agents which are toxic only at very high doses (so high that no one would ingest food so treated) and  substances like nitrite which can cause serious damage in small  amounts (Nitrite in Meat). But really, for those of us who want to understand what curing is and how it occurs, this regulatory language is more shadow than light.

I think that those of us who practice the craft of charcuterie, while staying mindful of the law (and compliant if we produce commercially) will be better off thinking about cures and curing based on an understanding of what curative substances actually are and how they behave within and affect the foods into which they are introduced.

All of the substances that we use when we cure meat and other animal products (and plant products too, but we'll ignore them for now) have the following characteristics
  • They are water or fat or protein soluble or some combination thereof. In other words, they are chemicals that can pass thru cell membranes and dissolve in tissue.
  • They inhibit the growth of spoilage microbes limiting the bugs access to water (i.e. lowering the water activity on and in the food) or via intoxication (poisoning) or cell damage or some combination thereof.
  • In some applications they enhance water retention by the product cured
  • They alter the color of the cured product via chemical (nitrates) and physical (sugar) means
  • They change the taste and sometimes the aroma of the product

With these shared characteristics in mind, we can make a first rough draft of a new definition of cure) as in curing agent)

Any substance that is capable of dissolving in meat (or any comestible animal product) that has the effect preventing or limiting the occurrence of spoilage microbes and altering its flavor and color.

This definition seems to permit the full range of products that are used for curing to be accepted as curing agents. Salt, all the sugars, slaked lime (Calcium hydroxide, used to make cured Century Eggs) lye (Sodium hydroxide e.g. lutefisk), celery and cherry juice powder (both rich in nitrate) and synthetic nitrates and nitrites.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Homo sapiens or Homo ingurgitate?

As you can see from the graph, about 1.2 million years ago there was quite the big shake out in hominid affairs as the species of the genus Homo replaced all previous iterations of hominins to become the dominant hominid. I suppose that you don't need to look at the graph to know that the last species of Homo standing is Homo sapiens.

If asked to explain why early humans ended up in the winners circle while our phylogenetic cousins were booted into oblivion what would you say? An evolutionary biologist would surely cite aptations like the ability to run long distances and precocious communication skills along with a host of other morphological and behavioral phenotypic characteristics.

But I wonder if anyone has considered the possibility that Homo sapiens won the race to now because we were able (aptated) to eat faster than other species of hominids? I'm exasperating  exaggerating, of course, but there is abundant evidence that humans can eat a lot of food very quickly and it is not unreasonable to entertain the idea that it was, at minimum, a factor in our success.

Actually, what got me thinking along these lines was the discovery of the existence of an organization called the Major League Eating and International Federation of Competitive Eating. It appears to be an organization that organizes, promotes and manages events where eater athletes try to out eat each other. The very idea of competitive eating is completely disgusting  but it may offer a hint about how, by being pigs,  we ended up being the last hominids standing. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Do the Cure in Italy in 2012


Sean Timberlake, a virtual friend of mine and the founder of the cooperatively blogged blog Punk Domestics (Great name, right?), asked me to let my readers know about a culinary tour- set of cured meat and fish classes he is hosting in Emilia-Romagna in 2012. Of course, me being the lazy blogger that I've become, I copied and pasted the details of the trip from Sean's blog with only minor edits.
Self-deprecation aside, I can say that it looks like a great trip. 
I've been to Emilia-Romagna exactly once to visit Parma, Bologona and some relatives in Borgo Val di Taro -my father's ancestral village- and I can assure you that  the cuisine of this region is superb. I also think it's kind of cool that the tour takes you to Casa Artusi, named for Pelligrino Artusi, the first guy to write a comprehensive book about Italian cooking from all of the regions of Italy and which was one of the books I used to teach myself how to cook. -Bob dG 

Working with my friend Vanessa DellaPasqua, who creates and manages premium culinary tours, we have established an itinerary that we think will offer a truly unique experience. Stationed in the charming Adriatic town of Cesenatico, this seven-day, six-night trip will include:
  • Six nights at the family-owned Hotel Sirena on the Adriatic Coast, in the heart of Romagna;
  • Four hands-on cooking classes featuring the best of local products;
  • All meals, including drinks and local wine selection;
  • A tour of Parma and Modena to discover the secrets of Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamico;
  • An English-speaking guide throughout the tour;
  • A unique opportunity to learn the art of salumi, cured fish and preserves at the seasoned hands of the DellaPasqua family and their trusted norcino in one of Italy’s great culinary regions.
pesceWe'll kick the trip off with a bang, working with a freshly slaughtered pig and getting to work making many traditional salumi: salami, salsiccie, ciccioli, coppa di testa, pancetta and more. Later, we'll learn about preserving fish with vinegar, oil and salt methods. And on our final full day we'll take oninfusions, jams and savor, a local jam with fruits and nuts.
Will we be learning at the hands of professional preservers who follow the ways of their ancestors, but all work and no play makes Johnny a dull punk, so we've peppered the trip with a few outings to allow you to experience the splendor of Emilia-Romagna's rich culinary history. We'll visit one of Romagna's musei del gusto , showcasing Italy's epicurean traditions; Casa Artusi, the museum of Italian home cooking; Cesenatico's fish market along the harbor designed by Leonardo da Vinci; learn about a local sheep's milk cheese that's ripened in pits dug in the soil; and of course Parma to see the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Modena to learn about traditional balsamico.
The trip will occur January 7-13, 2012. This is the period of time when the hog is traditionally slaughtered and cured, according to the age-old traditions of the norcino.

All this for just $2,500 (USD). You can download a comprehensive itinerary in PDF form here.Interested? You bet you are! We've already sold five spots, so now's the time to act if you're interested in joining us for this unique opportunity to learn  about preserving in Italy's culinary heartland. Just contact us and we'll get the ball rolling

Monday, August 8, 2011

What Will Happen When Most Don't Cook?

According to Richard Wrangham  in  Catching Fire  How Cooking Made us Human,  cooks are responsible for the changes that led to the development of modern humans from raw-food eating australopithecine ancestors.  Wrangham argues that because cooking unlocks nutrients from food making them more nutritious, (Apologies to raw food advocates who are happy to get few nutrients per unit mass of food consumed.) natural selection favored the survival of individuals who understood how to cook and, since knowing how to cook also means knowing how to use fire, these individuals were crucial in the development of technologies that depend on the controlled release of energy (in other words, all technology).  

If Wrangham is right, every one of us owes our human identity and genome to cooks. It also implies that people who don't cook are opting  out of an activity that is as much a part of what makes us human as the ability to walk up right, speak, make and use tools, anticipate future events and recall and analyze the past. And since the number of people in Western industrial and post-industrial cultures have been abandoning cooking for decades in favor of food cooked by others and machines, one really has to wonder what the long term effect on human evolution  is going to be if the trend continues unabated.