We Should All Be Performing Meat Sorcery and Curing Our Own Bacon
Curing and smoking meat is the antithesis of fast food. Dry curing, brining, hot and cold smoking takes good ingredients and turns them into elevated versions of themselves.
All photos by Gavin Kingcome.
In the simplest of terms, curing and smoking is preserving and flavouring. In practise, it encompasses craft, tradition, science, and sorcery.
Everyone should be producing simple cured products because they offer so much value to the amateur cook. Curing expands your knowledge of food and increases your repertoire of dishes, as well as taking you on a journey of discovery. It enables you to take good ingredients and turn them into elevated versions of themselves.
Dry curing, brining, hot and cold smoking are techniques that go a step beyond your average recipe. They represent a deeper level of engagement with food than baking a cake or simmering a stew, perhaps because they require the deployment of ancient skills.
Of course you can spend hundreds of pounds on professional chillers and dehumidifiers, but you can cure almost anything in a domestic fridge. At River Cottage we have chillers set to the right humidity and temperature (around 70 percent humidity and 10 degrees Celsius) but we also adhere to the traditional craft of air drying and hang our hams outside.
There is something about the vagaries of the weather and the microflora in the air that has a positive effect on the overall flavour. It also appeals to my romantic notion of continuing the craft of curing as it would have been done before refrigeration. Some things are better left alone.
The cook who makes their own bacon enters a different arena from the one who roasts their own pork. And, correspondingly, he or she reaches a new level of gratification—by no means instant, but always lasting.
The cook who makes their own bacon enters a different arena from the one who roasts their own pork. Correspondingly, he or she reaches a new level of gratification—often by no means instant, but always lasting.
The rewards for your dedication are immense. Curing meat or smoking fish doesn't just result in a delicious end product. These are processes that unlock the secrets of some of our best-loved, most useful ingredients. They give you the keys to the citadel of smoky, salty-sweet-savoury moreishness: the hallowed place where bacon, air dried ham, smoked salmon, and kippers dwell.
The crucial ingredients of curing are salt and fat, that's what really fuels the affair. Of course there are health issues related to these key players. If you ate nothing but bacon, chorizo and ham, you would have cause for concern, but modest quantities of home-cured produce, consumed as part of a balanced diet, can be enjoyed without anxiety.
Anyone who embarks on the process of curing, fuelled by salt and smoke, will understand how deeply connected curing methods are to food history. It's the antithesis of fast food and has been honed through times of economic necessity to manage food preservation. It's a craft which represents the beginning of cooking and maintains a key part of any kitchen to this day.
Curing continues to move and is never completely fixed, which means your own experience adds to the momentum as well as drawing directly from it. A few simple main ingredients can yield so many wonderful products. That first cooked rasher of your own home-cured bacon will metaphorically link you into the long line of tradition.
It will also be the best bacon you have ever tasted.