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The art of curing and preserving meats with salt and smoke has been around since long before refrigeration was invented. In fact, it's been in use by humanity for longer than iron or glass. Ancient Romans learned how to preserve meat with salt from the ancient Greeks, who likely learned the process from the ancient Egyptians, while the Chinese had similarly been preserving meats for thousands of years.
Curing meats with salt isn't exactly a treacherous endeavor. After all, this is what Justin Basye — executive chef at Stella Sola — accurately refers to as "peasant food." The basic process is simple: Cover a piece of meat, usually pork, in salt. Leave it to dry. Remove salt. Eat.
The term "charcuterie" arose in 15th-century France to describe not only the process of curing and preserving meats but all the activities that surround butchering and using every piece of the pig, which is the meat traditionally associated with the craft. The resulting foodstuffs are most compactly described as anything made with forcemeat, which is a mixture of ground meat and fat combined with seasonings, although some forms of charcuterie — such as the huge, swaggering hams hung from barn rafters and doorways, old world-style — are nothing more than pieces of meat dried and cured with salt. Forcemeat is used to make everything from terrines to Tuscan salami, from pâté to pepperoni.
Many modern restaurants will order a whole pig only to use one or two parts, then throw the rest away. This kind of wastefulness has been a luxury afforded to us only recently, and it accounts for higher food costs where it's practiced. Restaurants paying a premium for a whole hog yet using only its loin are throwing away the potential for hams and dozens of different sausages as well as delicacies like headcheese or guanciale, not to mention the potential for money that could be made off these items.
The scientific process behind curing meat is fairly simple. Salt acts as a means of dehydration, pulling water molecules out of the meat and creating an environment in which bacteria — which need moisture to live — cannot survive. Or, as Ruhlman and Polcyn put it in Charcuterie: "By pulling water out of the meat, salt, by definition, dehydrates it. When it enters the cells of the meat, it also dehydrates the microbes that cause decay and spoilage and other potentially hazardous bacteria, either killing them or inhibiting their ability to multiply. This is salt's main preservative mechanism — dehydrating microbes."
In other words, properly cured meats are just about the safest kind of meat to eat. Not to mention they keep very well without spoiling and taste delicious with a glass of Spanish wine.
What's the risk of restaurants making their own charcuterie, according to the Houston health department? The department has no qualms with things like terrines, pâtés and lardo, which are all examples of refrigerated charcuterie. It's the hanging and cured meats that shift the operation into what's referred to as the "danger zone."
To be considered safe by the health department, meat must be kept at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Most curing takes place at around 50 degrees. And it's not just the temperature that's at issue. "We're concerned with both time and temperature control," says Carolyn Gray, the health department's chief sanitarian. "We don't want the meat kept in that danger zone — between 41 degrees and 135 degrees — for more than four hours. Otherwise, dangerous bacteria can start to grow."
There are other factors. "A lot of times when you start curing meat, you're working in a temperature that's in the danger zone," adds Key. "You're starting to add nitrates or nitrites to sausages — things to kill bacteria or extend the shelf life. And that would be against our normal operation, things that we normally do."
Restaurants can get approval to cure their own meats by both obtaining a variance and instituting a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan. A variance is a written document from the Houston health department, the Texas Department of State Health Services or the U.S. Department of Agriculture that basically says that modifying or waiving one or more requirements in an ordinance is, in their opinion, not a hazard. Smokehouses require variances, for example. "And if you were to hang your sausages at room temperature instead of in a refrigerator, it would require a variance," says Gray.
Then there's the HACCP plan. In restaurants, this plan is required when the kitchen is processing or handling food outside the normal scope of its procedures and the health department's ordinances. Even a brief overview of a typical HACCP plan on the FDA's Web site is enough to put the most legally inclined person to sleep. The plans are extensive, highly meticulous and require an entire team of professionals — from lawyers to microbiologists — to create.
"They have to provide a flow diagram showing us every step that the product goes through from receipt to service," says Gray. "In that flow diagram, they have to identify the hazards — whether bacterial, chemical or physical — and then they have to show us how they're going to control those hazards. They have to have an employee and supervisor training plan."
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