Build­ing a Meat-cur­ing Cham­ber


Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Michael Pend­ley

| Lo­gis­tics and pre­cau­tions for home­made, dry-cured char­cu­terie

Vir­tu­ally any­one who tastes dry-cured meats such as coppa, bre­saola, sausages, salamis or pro­sciutto walks away with two thoughts. The first is that the meat is de­li­cious. Se­cond, they won­der if they can make it safely at home.

For­tu­nately, you can, and it’s a pretty straight­for­ward process. Once the proper cur­ing con­di­tions are met, fol­low­ing sim­ple recipes can yield char­cu­terie that’ll com­pare to any sold in pricey delis and meat mar­kets around the world.

To start, let’s dis­cuss proper con­di­tions for dry-cur­ing meats, why they’re nec­es­sary, and how to main­tain them so the meat be­comes fully cured and doesn’t spoil.


The proper tem­per­a­ture for cur­ing meat is 45-60°F. If the tem­per­a­ture re­mains higher than 60°F for an ex­tended pe­riod, spoilage oc­curs and harm­ful bac­te­ria can bloom. Be­low 45°F, the dry­ing process slows down or even stops, greatly ex­tend­ing the time re­quired to cure the meat.

Char­cu­terie ex­pert Steven Jagoda prefers to cure his meat on the cooler side of the tem­per­a­ture range. “I be­lieve it speeds the dry­ing time a lit­tle to run it cooler,” Jagoda said.


Hu­mid­ity is the amount of mois­ture sus­pended in the air around the meat. Too much mois­ture pre­vents the meat from dry­ing prop­erly, and too lit­tle mois­ture dries it too quickly be­fore fully cur­ing. Ideal hu­mid­ity rates for char­cu­terie lie in the 65-75% range. Prefer­ably, you’ll be able to raise the hu­mid­ity slightly higher at the be­gin­ning of the cure, low­er­ing it as the meat dries.

The rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity varies by cli­mate. In the Deep South, the air will more than likely need to be dried to reach op­ti­mum con­di­tions. In the arid South­west, mois­ture will need to be added. Air-con­di­tioned homes are also typ­i­cally dryer than op­ti­mal.


Air­flow around the char­cu­terie is crit­i­cal to prop­erly dry the meat. If the air is stag­nant, mois­ture doesn’t leave the meat quickly enough to cure it safely. On the other hand, too much air­flow will dry the meat’s

“If you live in a dry cli­mate, in­sert a small ul­tra­sonic hu­mid­i­fier …”

outer surface too quickly, pre­vent­ing the in­ner mois­ture from es­cap­ing and pos­si­bly caus­ing spoilage.


Con­stant bright light en­cour­ages harm­ful bac­te­ria to grow. While open­ing the cham­ber to look a few times a day hurts noth­ing, a dark cham­ber pro­duces a bet­ter prod­uct than a cham­ber with a glass door that lets in con­stant light.

For thou­sands of years, these con­di­tions have been met in caves, base­ments, root cel­lars and even just shady open-air spots in ar­eas with the cor­rect cli­mate. But, sup­pose a prospec­tive sa­lu­mist (a per­son who makes cured sausages and meats) doesn’t have a cave handy. Home cur­ing cham­bers are the an­swer.

Build­ing the Cham­ber

Easy and in­ex­pen­sive to make, a qual­ity cham­ber can be built in a day or two for less than $250; less than that if you al­ready own an old but work­ing re­frig­er­a­tor. If you don’t have an old fridge sit­ting around, check lo­cal yard sales or Craigslist to find one. A stan­dard­sized, sin­gle-door re­frig­er­a­tor works fine; no need for any­thing large or fancy as you’ll be drilling holes into it dur­ing con­struc­tion.

Most stan­dard re­frig­er­a­tor con­trols won’t main­tain a tem­per­a­ture above 42°F. To make yours run at the re­quired 50-60°F, sim­ply em­ploy a tem­per­a­ture-con­trol unit. These can be found on­line or at restau­rant- or ap­pli­ance-sup­ply stores. Sim­ply plug the con­troller into a work­ing out­let, plug the re­frig­er­a­tor into the con­trol box, and set the de­sired tem­per­a­ture. The con­troller will work just like the re­frig­er­a­tor’s ther­mo­stat, kick­ing the unit on when the tem­per­a­ture rises above the de­sired tem­per­a­ture and turn­ing it off when it drops be­low.

Units like the John­son Con­trols A19AAT-2C freezer tem­per­a­ture con­troller can be pur­chased on Ama­zon for around $60. This reli­able con­trol box fea­tures an easy-to-read tem­per­a­ture gauge and a tem­per­a­ture probe

“Mount the tem­per­a­ture- and hu­mid­ity-con­trol units to the re­frig­er­a­tor, and make sure the mon­i­tor­ing probes are lo­cated near the cen­ter of the cham­ber.”

that can be in­serted into the re­frig­er­a­tor while the con­trol box it­self re­mains out­side.

If you live in a dry cli­mate, in­sert a small ul­tra­sonic hu­mid­i­fier, avail­able from any phar­macy or box store, filled with dis­tilled wa­ter. Dis­tilled wa­ter de­creases lime and cal­cium de­posits, which can shorten the hu­mid­i­fier’s life.

To con­trol the amount of mois­ture the hu­mid­i­fier adds to the cham­ber, and to main­tain it at the proper cur­ing level, the hu­mid­i­fier must be plugged into a con­trol unit like the Day­ton 1UHG3 hu­mid­i­fier con­trol. This unit works sim­i­larly to the tem­per­a­ture-con­trol unit, turn­ing the hu­mid­i­fier on and off as needed to main­tain ideal con­di­tions.

Au­ber In­stru­ments makes a con­trol box specif­i­cally for cur­ing-cham­ber ap­pli­ca­tions that con­trols both tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity in a sin­gle unit. The tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity con­troller for cur­ing fridges can be pur­chased rea­son­ably on­line at Au­ When set­ting up your cham­ber with an Au­ber unit, Jagoda rec­om­mends check­ing the tem­per­a­ture with a se­cond ther­mome­ter in case the unit mea­sures warmer or colder than the ac­tual cham­ber tem­per­a­ture.

For the fresh air­flow needed to prop­erly cure meat, sim­ply open­ing the cham­ber door once or twice daily is usu­ally suf­fi­cient. If you don’t an­tic­i­pate peek­ing into your cham­ber that of­ten, sim­ply drill a few holes in the top of one side of the re­frig­er­a­tor and the bot­tom of the op­po­site side. A small com­puter fan mounted over the lower holes to blow stale air out and draw fresh air in from the top vent can be added, if needed. Make sure to cover the vent holes with a fine mesh screen to keep in­sects and pests from en­ter­ing the cham­ber.

To eas­ily mon­i­tor all con­di­tions, a dig­i­tal tem­per­a­ture-and-hu­mid­ity gauge can be added to the front of the cham­ber by sim­ply drilling a small hole through the door and in­sert­ing the mon­i­tor­ing probes so that they rest in­side the cham­ber it­self. Some of these units have a pro­gram­mable alarm that alerts you if the con­di­tions in­side the cham­ber vary from your set­tings.

Putting it all To­gether

To as­sem­ble the cham­ber, be­gin by re­mov­ing any shelves and draw­ers from the re­frig­er­a­tor. In­sert one shelf at the high­est po­si­tion in­side the fridge to pro­vide a rack for hang­ing the meats. Thor­oughly clean all in­side sur­faces with a wa­ter-bleach mix­ture. Use a small brush (a tooth­brush works well) to clean any cracks and crevices too small to clean with a rag or sponge. The goal is to rid

the cham­ber of bac­te­ria or mold spores lin­ger­ing on the sur­faces. Since the meat will be hang­ing in the cham­ber for long pe­ri­ods of time, the fewer con­tam­i­nants, the bet­ter.

Mount the tem­per­a­ture- and hu­mid­i­ty­con­trol units to the re­frig­er­a­tor, and make sure the mon­i­tor­ing probes are lo­cated near the cen­ter of the cham­ber. Plug in the hu­mid­i­fier and set the tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity con­trollers to your de­sired lev­els. Mon­i­tor the con­di­tions for sev­eral days be­fore adding meat to the cham­ber in case ad­just­ments are re­quired.

Long­time char­cu­terie maker Chris Varner rec­om­mends in­oc­u­lat­ing the cham­ber with a de­sired strain of mold be­fore adding meat. This mold, nor­mally white and pow­dery, can be taken from meat cured suc­cess­fully in an­other cham­ber, or or­dered from Butcher­ Mold-600 Bactoferm is a sin­gle-strain cul­ture con­tain­ing spores of Peni­cil­lium nal­giovense in a con­ve­nient freezedried form. Mold-600 sup­presses growth of un­de­sir­able or­gan­isms such as indige­nous molds, yeasts and bac­te­ria. The cul­ture has a pos­i­tive ef­fect on the dry­ing process by pre­vent­ing the emer­gence of a dry rim. Fur­ther­more, the mold de­grades lac­tic acid dur­ing mat­u­ra­tion, re­sult­ing in a ph in­crease and re­duced sour­ness. The freeze-dried pow­der is re­con­sti­tuted in wa­ter, then sprayed on all sur­faces of the cham­ber.

“… sim­ple recipes can yield char­cu­terie that’ll com­pare to any sold in pricey delis and meat mar­kets …”

Rec­om­mended Re­sources

Once your cham­ber is up and run­ning, it’s time to cure some meat. I rec­om­mend pick­ing up a cou­ple of de­tailed ref­er­ence books for meth­ods and recipes. I of­ten use Char­cu­terie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Pol­cyn, and The Art of Mak­ing Fer­mented Sausages by Stanley Mar­i­an­ski. Both con­tain time-tested recipes, de­tailed de­scrip­tions on meth­ods and tech­niques, and tons of gen­eral in­for­ma­tion on cured meat in gen­eral. The Face­book page, The Salt Cured Pig, owned by John Pat­ter­son and now nearly 14,000 mem­bers strong, is also a wealth of in­for­ma­tion, pro­vid­ing nearly in­stant an­swers to char­cu­terie ques­tions from mak­ers around the world.

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