Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Brining meat brings incredibly succulent results – and surprisingly little saltiness

Roasted to perfection – if I do say so myself!
Last year, I shared my recipe for roast chicken. Since then, however, I’ve discovered the joys of brining. I’d known about this technique for years, but like many, I thought the results would mean a slightly salty finished product. My wife Vicki, in particular, doesn’t like things salty, so that was another reason to discount it.

Shortly after writing that post, I decided that, since my salt-cured meats weren’t coming out all that salty, I should give brining a closer look. I did a lot of reading up both in cookbooks I respect and also online.

What I found is, if done correctly (ie: the amount of time per pound you leave the meat in the brine), you can get not only a more succulent end result, but you can get it salted precisely the way you like it. Brining works especially well poultry, although we now brine pork roasts and pork chops, too. So far, I’ve not brought myself to brining beef (except for making corned beef). I suppose it would work there, too. I’ll keep you posted on that…

Brining is simplicity itself, but it does take a bit of planning ahead. You cannot put meat in hot brine because that’s unsafe, so your brine must be made ahead and chilled. No big deal, really, but you need to know ahead of time when you’re planning on preparing a dish containing brined meat.

The basic thing you need is salt and some sugar (to mitigate the harshness of the salt). Past that, you can add whatever herbs, spices or flavorings you think would add to the taste of the particular meat you’re using, or simply use whatever you have on hand. It’s that flexible.

For the past two Christmases, we’ve brined our holiday turkey. We bought a fresh, pastured, organic bird that didn’t come with bionic-looking breast meat (you know the kind I mean). We have this big brining bag which I don’t completely trust, so I make double the brine and use a very large, corn-cooking pot we bought my mother-in-law to hold it. The turkey stays in the brine for one-half hour per pound. Two critical things: the brine must be chilled when the bird goes into it with everything kept chilled throughout, and the bird must be completely submerged at all times (as should any meat being brined).

After brining, we put it into the fridge, uncovered, for about 12 hours so the skin dries out a bit – meaning it will crisp up better by the time the bird is done. If you’re cooking chicken, do the same thing, although I have lately been timing chicken at one hour per pound. I guess smaller takes longer.

For cooking, I do my usual method, that is cooking it covered, so it steams as well as roasts. The results have been amazing every time. Plus, your bird cooks a bit faster (so watch that internal temperature).

Seasoned and ready for the oven.
One other trick I use is to put some bourbon, brandy or scotch in the bottom of the roasting pan. For a chicken, I use about a half-cup, for a turkey, a cup or more. You have to be a bit careful that your oven doesn’t explode from those alcohol fumes. (Don’t laugh. It happened to a friend of mine. There was no major damage other than two singed eyebrows and one frightened cook.) To avoid this, don’t open the oven for at least an hour and a half for a turkey or until you suspect your meat is cooked for a chicken. If you’re cooking your bird enclosed (the only way the alcohol seems to have its effect), you won’t be basting anyway. My theory is the alcohol fumes drive the flavor into the meat. Regardless, you’ll have amazing gravy. Just don’t tell my mother-in-law I’m using her Jack Daniels when I make the Christmas turkey. Promise?

As for the final temperature, government tells us to cook until 180°. Okay. But be aware if you let your bird rest for 15-30 minutes (and you really should), the temperature going to rise at least an additional 5° and possibly more. That means your 180° turkey might be closer to 190° by the time you carve it – and boy, will it be dry then.

So here’s my go-to brine for chicken or turkey. Feel free to mess around with the flavoring ingredients. There’s no right or wrong here!

Poultry brine for roasting a chicken or turkey
Makes 1 gallon (that’s plenty for a chicken. You may want to double it for a turkey.)

1 gallon water (or try half water, half chicken stock (homemade with no added salt or low-sodium if you must buy)
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 head of garlic, sliced in half horizontally
2 lemons
12 stalks of parsley
16 sage leaves
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tsp ground black pepper


  1. Throw everything into a big pot, except for the lemon. Cut it in half and squeeze the two halves into the brine, then throw the peel in, too. Heat everything until it’s not quite boiling and the salt and sugar are completely dissolved. (The heating allows the release of more flavor from your seasonings.)
  2. Cool the brine, then refrigerate it until it’s chilled. Never put meat in warm brine. If you have some cold winter weather going for you, use that big natural fridge outside.
  3. Truss your chicken or turkey (always truss meat that’s going to be roasted) and completely submerge it in the brine, making sure the brine goes into the cavity. If you’re using a plastic bag, this is easy. If you’re using a pot, you’ll probably need to weight the bird with something (I use a dinner plate or two or even three.) If your turkey is enormous, you’re on your own. I guess you could use a cooler or something.
  4. For a chicken, brine for one hour per pound. For a turkey, brine for one-half hour per pound.
  5. When it’s done brining, take it out, pat it thoroughly dry inside and out. You can cook it now, or let it dry for several hours in the fridge.
  6. Roast as you normally would, but be prepared for your bird to cook faster than usual. For a chicken, this will probably be about 15 minutes less. For a turkey probably about a half-hour, possibly more. Always check a bird’s doneness by using a thermometer. It’s really the only reliable method. I usually check the thigh and the thickest part of the breast. Make sure the probe isn’t near bone or the reading won’t be accurate.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Home curing your own pancetta

Home cured and far better tasting than store-bought!
As mentioned in my December report on our first batch of salume (guanciale) this curing season, we’ve also branched out into making our own pancetta.

There is lots of information on the Internet about what this Italian pork delicacy is (and isn’t), so I’ll leave it to you to do some research on it if you wish. The quick and dirty explanation is that pancetta* is the Italian version of bacon. Generally, it’s not smoked (you can find smoked versions of it, though) and it can be made one of two ways: the more usual arrotolata (rolled) or stesa (flat). The rolled version is often used as part of an antipasto plate. The flat version is most easy to slice or dice for cooking. Regardless, pancetta is simply salt-cured pork belly with whatever herbs and spices tickle your fancy. It’s dirt simple, takes little time (except for the waiting), and is really quite fantastic, far better than what you generally find in stores.

I normally make something at least a half dozen times before sharing a recipe, but there have been developments with the pancetta recipe that really need to be shared immediately with everyone who’s interested.

I stopped in at Gasparro’s a couple of Saturdays ago and Jason (one of the butchers and a real talent at his craft) asked how our pancetta was coming along. There was a substitute butcher helping out that day (I didn’t know there was such a thing!), and we got to talking. He was Italian and seemed to have a lot of experience making salume.

He asked if I washed my pancetta in white wine after the curing was complete (and prior to hanging it). I told him I do that with guanciale but not pancetta. Then he laid a bit of information on me that I hadn’t considered and is really quite transformational. Washing cured meat in wine has an important function beyond adding flavor and aroma. “It neutralizes the salt.”

Very intriguing. So two days later, after rinsing the cure off my chunk of pork belly, I put it into a shallow glass dish and poured over a couple of ounces of Orvieto (our Italian house white) and rubbed it into the meat really well. The aroma coming off the pancetta was incredibly amplified. To check the action of the wine on the salt, I fried up a small piece cut off before the wine bath, and then after. The salt was noticeably reduced. But things might change after the week-long drying process as liquid is reduced throughout the meat. (I was making pancetta stesa.)

I brought it upstairs last night and unwrapped it (I use a cheesecloth wrapping as suggested by Michael Ruhlmann). The fragrance still noticeably showed the wine. Quite frankly, my pancetta smells amazing. I cut off another small piece and fried it lightly. The wine had definitely had an effect on my perception of saltiness. Mind you, I generally cure things a bit less than some would, simply to keep the salt level down, but this batch was markedly better than the first two I made. If one of you makes it and uses the wine wash, I’d be very interested in knowing what your results are.

From here on in, I’m going to wash all my salume in white wine. My guanciale is better for it. The new pancetta is better. And if this holds true, my lonzino should also be improved. It’s certainly worth a try.

So, if you’ve got a yen to make your own pancetta, here’s a recipe that will give you pretty darn good results, if I do say so myself. It’s more or less Michael Ruhlmann’s recipe from his fantastic book, Charcuterie. I’ll throw in the wine-washing tip free of charge.

It certainly does pay to talk to people!

Makes however much you want

pork belly, skin removed (measure the weight in grams to make the following calculations easier and more accurate)
kosher salt: multiply the weight of the meat by .022
curing salt: multiply the weight of the meat by .005
brown sugar: multiply the weight of the meat by .011
coarsely ground black pepper: multiply the weight of the meat by .0175
2 grams juniper berries: multiply the weight of the meat by .0045
1 clove of garlic per 500 grams of meat
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper per 500 grams of meat
1 dried bay leaf per 500 grams of meat
1 sprig of fresh thyme per 500 grams of meat
1 gram freshly grated nutmeg per 500 grams of meat
2-3 oz dry white wine (for the wash afterwards)

  1. If you’re going to roll your pancetta, make sure the piece is squared up. I’m not going to include rolling instructions, but direct you instead to YouTube where you’ll find some good videos available if you want to go that direction. If you are going to keep your pancetta flat, you don’t need to square it up.
  2. You’ll notice that the ingredient list has everything is dependent on the weight of the pork belly you’ll be curing. If you’re seriously interested in home curing, you really need to use a scale. It’s the only way to be really accurate. I’d suggest purchasing one that will measure up to at least twenty pounds. I find metric measurement is easier to work with accurately, but suit yourself.
  3. Obviously, it’s critical to get the proportions correct – especially where the curing salt is concerned, because in high amounts, it can be dangerous to your health and to those you’re feeding. Just to show you how it works, let’s assume you have a 2 kilo (2000 grams) piece of pork belly. (Get out your calculator!) The cure ingredients would be measured out thusly: 44 grams kosher salt (2000 x .022), 10 grams curing salt (2000 x .005), 22 grams brown sugar (2000 x .011), 35 grams coarsely ground black pepper (2000 x .0175), 9 grams juniper berries (2000 x .0045), 4 cloves of minced garlic (1 x 4), 1 tsp cayenne pepper (1/4 x 4), 4 dried bay leaves (1 x 4), 4 sprigs of fresh thyme (1 x 4), and 4 grams freshly grated nutmeg (1 x 4). Is that clear? Notice that the proportion of curing salt is about 1/4 of the kosher salt. Don’t mess this one up!
  4. Pan toast the juniper juniper berries for a few minutes to really bring out their flavor, then crush them using a mortar and pestle, the side of a knife or the bottom of a frying pan. Chop the thyme sprigs coarsely. Now mix all the cure ingredients thoroughly in a small bowl.
  5. Place the pork belly into a glass pan or other non-reactive container, pour on the cure and rub it into the meat very thoroughly on all sides.
  6. Take the pork belly and put it into a large zip-lock freezer bag. Also add in any of the cure not already clinging to the meat (there shouldn’t be much).
  7. Refrigerate for around 7 days (depends on the thickness of the meat), turning it every other day and additionally rubbing in the cure some more (this is known as “overhauling”). Don’t expect it to throw off a lot of water.
  8. You’ll know your pancetta is fully cured when the meat feels firm at its thickest point. If it’s still feeling a bit squishy (like raw meat), place it back in the fridge for another day. Continue the cure until the meat feels firm all over.
  9. When the pancetta is fully cured, thoroughly wash off the cure under running water. Watch for bits of thyme stem and juniper in cracks and crevices. Pat it dry.
  10. Put the pancetta into a glass pan, pour 2 oz (or more if it’s a big piece) of dry white wine over it. We prefer Orvieto, but you might also try Pinot Grigio or Colli Albani. Thoroughly rub the wine into all sides of the meat.
  11. Wrap the pancetta in two or three layers of cheesecloth, make a sling for it with string and hang it where you dry your cured salumi. We have made our basement cold, so it’s between 50° and 60° during the winter which is pretty well perfect. Ideally, you’d like the humidity to be around 75%. We use a vaporizer on a timer to accomplish this – especially in the dead of winter when it tends to be driest. Expect your basement to suddenly smell very wonderful!
  12. One week of drying gives me the best results. You don’t want the meat to dry out too much and get hard (especially if you’re going to slice it thinly for antipasto).
  13. Late-breaking news (from another post): you’ll know your pancetta is ready when it’s lost 35% of its original weight.
Unwrap your pancetta and enjoy! Last year I found an amazing sandwich can be made by lightly frying thinly sliced pancetta and then putting it on a roll with sliced tomato out of the garden, some provolone cheese and a bit of mayo – sort of an Italian BLT. Some of this latest batch of pancetta is going to be frozen and saved for that.

*Note: Pancetta is correctly pronounced as if the “c” was a “ch” as in “panchetta” (accent on the “ch”) – just to help your Italian along a bit.