In this week's feature, "Designer Meats", we take a look at Houston chefs who are curing and hanging their own meat in-house. And while you may not have Chris Shepherd's space to hang your own Virginia ham or Justin Bayse's expertise to create your own soppressata, there are some charcuterie items that you can make at home.
I spoke with Mike Tremoulet, a local food blogger who's been making basics at home -- such as duck confit, rilletes and bacon -- for nearly nine months. Having tasted his amazing rilletes and bacon, I wanted to know what inspired him to start crafting his own meats at home and, moreso, how I could do it myself.
Eating Our Words: How did you first get interested in curing meats?
Mike Tremoulet: I'm a big fan of technique-based cooking: learn to do techniques correctly and well, and not only will following recipes be easier, but improvising gets that much more straightforward.
Curing meats is an ancient technique that is being lost in the modern convenience-driven kitchen. What amounts to minimal effort -- coat a pork belly with salt, leave it for a week, then smoke it -- gave way to commercial packaged bacon, which gave way to already-cooked-for-you commercial packaged bacon, with a hideous detour into Bac-O's along the way.
Being able to cure meats is a connection with an ancient cooking method and technique and gets back to the roots of the food we eat. Pulling along food history is important to me, less for a sense of authenticity and more for knowing that good food -- truly good food -- is born out of two things: first, invention in times of scarcity (e.g. all the wonderful things we can do with offal, or the whole idea of braising and using tougher, cheaper cuts of meat to make great food), and second, obsessive drive for perfection (e.g. Escoffier). I can break away from mainstream, mass-produced, everything-is-the-same food and get back to something pure by learning these ancient tricks.
That also doesn't take into account the quality angle, or the control over what I eat. Perhaps it's my chemistry and chemical engineering background, but I'm not as bothered by the list of chemical names that appear in many foods. (It helps that I can pronounce all of them.) Modern food on a mass-production scale requires this sort of alchemy, like using ascorbic and citric acid in place of a vat of lemon juice. Also, this is becoming a trite and almost religious argument, and loses some of its effectiveness, having been played out so. many. times. I will say that the quality of what I make is head and shoulders above supermarket brands, not to mention the pride at having done it from scratch myself.
EOW: What was the first recipe you tried?
Tremoulet: It all began with duck confit. This was stuff that had only existed for me in cookbooks and on the Internet, something magical and delicious and very French but that I hadn't come across -- even in international travel for my job.
The first Christmas after I got married, my wife found me a used copy of The New Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman. In here was a wealth of cooking skills, really my first foray into cooking techniques as opposed to recipes. I still haven't read through all of it yet, but there on the page, staring back at me, was a recipe for duck confit. In exacting detail. Suddenly, this culinary feat was achievable.
Eventually, I did buy and thaw a duck, seared the duck breast for salad, and confited the legs using a tub of amazingly expensive duck fat procured when a friend was shopping in Central Market and called me. The duck breast was good and the confited legs eventually were tasty, even if I did mangle them a bit reheating the legs trying to crisp the skin. Much milder than I expected.
I remember the first time I actually ate professionally prepared duck confit: warm, on a bed of mashed potatoes, I think, at Chez Georges. Dinner with my Dutch boss on a business trip. Suddenly it all made sense. It was comfort food on a cold night, and I now had a standard to aspire to, something more than words on a page. I've since had it once more, in the cassoulet at Feast (divine), and I have a pair of duck legs maturing in the refrigerator now, that were put in at the start of the year.
Confit is a gateway drug. Somewhere early on, in reading about preserving meats, I came across Polcyn and Ruhlman's Charcuterie, shortly after it was released. It's been on my Amazon wishlist ever since, but on reading excerpts from the book and associated forums where the authors really gave a lot of extra information, I had put it out of my mind as impractical fantasy. Curing meats, especially hanging them to dry, depends on a cool environment with stable humidity. Houston is really anything but that. Lacking the resources or handy skills to go create a drying chamber out of old refrigerators or the like, I dismissed curing meats as something left to artisans and avid cooks in more accommodating climates.
EOW: But you did eventually progress to bacon, right?
Tremoulet: Yes. Bacon isn't dried like ham, pancetta, many sausages, et cetera, and really only needs a bag and a week in the refrigerator. Michael Ruhlman really simplified this, and I don't recall if I picked up on that fact in The Elements Of Cooking, Ratio, or online someplace. Regardless, armed with some online posts about bacon, I set out to try this for myself.
The first problem? You can't very well make (American crisp or "streaky") bacon without a pork belly, which isn't exactly standard fare at your local Kroger. Nor would the big new H-E-B out on 249 carry it or order it for me. Thus began my obsession with finding a meat place that I trusted that would carry pork belly. Conventional wisdom held that Asian markets would be a good place to look, but the big one on 249 ("Hung Dong") didn't carry it, at least none that I could identify on sight or ask for. There are a few meat processors out here, aimed at the hunters who bring home their prize deer, but they didn't carry pork belly. Finally, I got tipped off to B&W Meat Market, off Shepherd, in what may still be considered the Heights.
The place is a mecca. It has the largest full-service butcher I have ever seen anywhere. Small armies of people ready to take your order, cut any part of meat down to whatever you need, and I do mean any part of meat -- again, I saw for the first time cuts of meat that had only existed on the page before. And killer prices to boot. I have no idea about the provenance of the meats, but I'm not holding my breath for small-ranch, hand-raised, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, organic, free-range beef.
When I get set on something, I want to do it now. So, you can imagine my dismay that the damn pork belly was frozen, and that I'd have to wait for it to thaw. Add another day or so of anxious waiting for the belly to thaw in the fridge. I had already managed to find a source for pink curing salt (sodium nitrite, available from Allied Kenco).
My first attempt at bacon was a very plain, ordinary recipe -- really just the cure, a mix of kosher salt, granulated sugar, and pink salt. Spread enough on a cookie sheet, dredge the belly in the cure, knock off the excess, put in a big zip top plastic bag, squeeze the air out, and stick it in the fridge for a week, turning every other day to redistribute the cure. Liquid will be pulled out of the belly, and after about a week, it'll feel pretty firm. Cook in a low oven until the temperature reaches 150 degrees Farenheit, I believe, then cut off the rind and you're essentially done. To be honest, it should be smoked instead of slow-roasted, but I don't have a good way to slow-smoke, so a simple roast in the oven for me.
What you get from this method looks like bacon, but is recognizably pork at the same time, if that makes sense -- seeing the whole slab uncut somehow gives context to the slices of bacon. It's at its best cut on the thick side and cooked slowly, never over more than medium heat on the cooktop. Because the water isn't in the belly anymore, and because this isn't more of a wet cure like the industrial process (injecting a brine), it's much less resistant to high heat. The flavor is very clean, and the fat is much clearer and easier to use for sauteed potatoes or vegetables than the renderings of commercial bacon.
I've since done a second slab of bacon, this time incorporating some thyme, black pepper, garlic, and bay leaf -- basically, the same cure I used (at the same time) to make pancetta, but this didn't go through the extra step of rolling and drying. You have a very blank canvas to work with flavors, either sweet (bourbon and maple syrup?) or savory (herbs, garlic, spices).
Oh, and I've done pancetta. It's wonderfully different than bacon; air drying really does change and sweeten the flavor. Who knew?
EOW: And what about your amazing pork rilletes?
Tremoulet: For one of my birthdays, a friend of ours brought over duck rillettes for everybody as a gift. I hadn't actually seen rillettes before, but I think I ate close to half of the batch that was supposed to feed everybody. I had read about them a few months earlier when Bourdain's Les Halles cookbook was released, and bookmarked it for further study. If you haven't ever had rillettes, think of something like pulled pork or shredded chicken, minus the barbecue sauce, and with a little more fat to keep everything together. Ultimate comfort food. And, by all accounts, dead easy: just put the meat in a pot with a bit of water and slow cook the hell out of it, basically.
Not wanting to jump in with duck, I figured pork was easier to work with. I knew I was looking for a decently fatty cut of meat, and opted for a pork shoulder I could find at Wal-Mart. I duly cubed the meat, put it in a pot with water, seasoned, covered, and cooked per the instructions. Remove the meat, shred, and put in little covered containers to go in the fridge.
So many things went sort of wrong here. I tried to cover the meat with water by a couple of inches -- I even had a ruler out -- but the blasted cubes of meat kept floating up and screwing with my measurement. There was ultimately about twice as much water in the pot as I needed. (You don't use the water as a cooking medium, rather as a way to get the fat to render and to give you some buffer before the meat fries. It should all be cooked off.) So, the pork came out gray and wet, and the remaining liquid in the pot was way too watery to be useful in sealing up the rillettes (which you can do with excess fat, once the water is gone). The rillettes themselves were dry and hard, yet still pretty tasty to eat.
I've since conquered rillettes, after a couple more tries, to the point that I'm happy about it. One tip (from the folks at Feast, through Twitter) was to go with pork belly instead of the shoulder I had been using. That, plus some aggressive seasoning and a much ligher hand with the water in the pot made for some rillettes worth sharing. Which led me to serve rillettes on toast points from a cooler in the back seat of my car, drug deal style.
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EOW: And those rilletes were pure brilliance. Soft, fatty, meaty brilliance. Any last tips for the amateur cook who wants to try making their own bacon or rilletes at home?
Tremoulet: It takes time. This isn't an overnight, spur-of-the-moment thing. You're investing time now to have a pantry staple available in a day or a week. You don't get to do this and then eat the results for dinner that night, so it takes a little planning.
Bacon is dead easy, and requires no mess at all beyond a cookie sheet or baking dish before the cure, and a cookie sheet and a rack afterwards. Pancetta is about the same, add a bit for the kitchen twine and some way to hang it to dry where the pets won't get to it. Rillettes are definitely messier, as is confit -- there's more actual prep or physical transformation involved, and at the least you'll go through a stack of bowls. However, it's really not bad -- I've done a lot worse just cooking weeknight dinners.