Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Call Me Captain Ham!

Can you smell it?
So its been four weeks.  A long four weeks... Four weeks since that 18 lb ham went into the brine.   I used Pop's Brine recipe from The Smoking Meat Forums.  I'd done some bacon in the same exact recipe and been pretty thrilled with the results.

The process consisted of mixing up the brine which was 1 cup of non-iodized table salt, 1 cup of brown sugar, 1 cup of regular sugar, and 1 ounce of Cure #1 pink salt (by pink salt, I DO NOT mean Himalayan salt - this is curing salts which is something totally different - google it if you are unsure what I mean) per gallon of cold water.

Then I did my best to inject brine along the bone lines.  The idea being that you want the ham to cure from the inside out as well as from the outside in.  Pop's recipe states that you should inject anything that is thicker than 2 inches or so.  This ham certainly fit that bill.  Along that line of thought, I injected quite a bit all over the place - since I was told that you can't really over cure by injecting too much.

I submerged the ham in about a gallon and a half of the brine and then weighted it down (to keep it underneath the liquid) with a big old liter beer mug (known as a Maßthat made its way home with me from an evening at the Oktoberfest in Munich many moons ago.  Some people will fill a big ziplock with water and close it to use as a weight - but after reading about one person whose bag opened and diluted the brine, I erred on the side of caution, even if it was somewhat undignified duty for the the trusty old glass mug.

A couple times through the brine process, I turned the ham in the brine to make sure that all surface area of the meat had ample time to be in contact with the cure.  Dunno if it was necessary, but it certainly couldn't hurt.

Pardon the lousy novice butcher trimming job!
I had noticed that the salt in the bacon I'd similarly brined was a bit high for my tastes.  So... I thought I'd soak the ham a bit to see if I could take out a bit of the salt.  Why I didn't slice off a piece and fry it up BEFORE soaking in fresh water is quite beyond me.  That's the third time in a row I failed to do a test piece... talk about forgetting the basics!  DUH!

So, I soaked in cold fresh water for about 24 hours with one water change in the middle.

Then, I removed the ham, patted as much of the liquid off as I could and put it uncovered in the fridge for about 36 hours to dry off and develop that tacky pellicle that is supposed to be helpful in getting the smoke to stick to the meat.

One by one pellet loading keeps your helper busy for HOURS!
Then I had my faithful assistant load up the Amazen Pellet smoker with a mixture of hickory, cherry, and maple pellets.  Its pretty dangerous work, hence the hard hat.

After that, I cold smoked in the Big Green Egg for about 10 hours.  It was about 60 degrees outside and the internal temperature in the Egg never got above 70 so that certainly qualifies as cold smoking.

My original plan was to cold smoke it a while and then remove it and build a hot smoking fire in the Egg.

You can see a little bit of the brown color from the smoke
However, it looked like the weather was going to get crappy and I didn't feel like building a fire in the rain.  I figured that the ham already had some nice smoke on it so I'd just finish it in the oven.

One thing I did notice (and the same thing had happened to one of the slabs of bacon I'd cold smoked) was once the temp inside the Egg hit a certain point, the meat started to sweat.  I am sure this has to do with ambient temperature, meat temperature, relative humidity, air circulation, and the airspeed velocity of unladen European swallows, but frankly I don't really care that much.  I dobbed up the sweat with a paper towel and kept smoking.

Smells great!
 Once rain was imminent, I declared the cold smoking process "complete" (convenient, eh?) and brought the ham inside to the fridge and let it sit overnight.
**NOTE**  If you place a piece of meat that has been smoked into your fridge for any period of time, your fridge will take on that lovely aroma for a long while.

The next day I cranked up the oven to 250 and cooked the ham until the internal temp was 155 degrees.  This took quite a while (5 or 6 hours?).  After a few hours, I pulled it out, scored the fat cap, and applied a maple-brown sugar glaze.

Pork candy!

In hindsight, next time I may try to trim a little more of the fat off and try harder to keep a uniform fat cap.  The fat tastes SO good that I want to make sure that there is some on every slice if I can help it.  But I don't want so much of it on each slice that people have the urge to trim it off... because they'll trim more than they need to I think.

As I started to carve it up (talk about a hack job...), I noticed one small part (about the diameter of a quarter and about 2-3 inches long) that was gray.  I've seen pictures of meat that have failed to cure all the way through and it looked just like that.

That little gray section is the culprit!
You can see what I am talking about to the left.  Basically, its where the brine failed to penetrate.

I smelled it and it smelled like cooked pork.  That said, I generously trimmed around it and tossed that section in the trash.  Given that this was a long cure (28 days), I was worried that if there was any section that wasn't cured completely that it might have soured but I didn't get that impression at all.

I'm pretty confident that it would have been safe to eat given that this was a large whole muscle cure and at no point did that section ever come into contact with air.  And the fact that it was submerged in brine the entire time (aside from the smoking and cooking period), I can't imagine that the risk is high at all.  That said, I didn't want to take any chances so I pitched it.  Had this been a commercial operation, my guess is that they would have had to discard the entire ham... fortunately I'm not subjected to that kind of scrutiny.  I will say that next time, I'll be even more diligent to ensure full brine penetration via injection.

Someone is hovering for scraps.

So, after carving off enough for dinner (which was delicious by the way), I was faced with putting it into the form of slices for sandwiches.

Admittedly, having a meat slicer here helped quite a bit.  I can see where having an even nicer meat slicer would be even better though as ours just isn't "cutting" it sometimes (HA!).  It always manages to pull some of the bottom part of the meat downward and not slicing it evenly.  This results in a lot of trim - which is okay in some instances because you can use those trimmings in other dishes.

Where's that loaf of rye bread?
I diced up all the trimmings as best I could and we'll use those for omelettes, ham/potato hash, or maybe even ham salad.

I gotta admit that I'm looking forward to having some sandwiches with this stuff.  What a great flavor and that fat tastes unlike anything I've ever had before.  You really can just eat it by itself.  Now I'm going to do more exploration of preparations that are done just with fat (lardo?) so I can leverage even more of that for the next hog we butcher.  While we've really enjoyed all the lard we rendered out, skillet frying up a nice slab of cured fat sounds like something I really want to be a part of!

Holy Ham Batman!
I wish I weighed everything up after I vacuum sealed it.  I've eaten ham a couple of days for left overs from some of the larger chunks that I trimmed up.

So yeah, in hindsight, the only things I think I'll do different next time are;

 - try to trim the fat more uniformly and a bit thinner

- be sure to inject like a banshee!

- fry up a test piece BEFORE I soak it

Aside from that, I got this ham thing down.  Now, what do I do with this?

Split pea soup anyone?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Last of the Bacon... For Now.

So the other two slabs of pork belly came out of the cure this past weekend.  These were brined using Pop's Brine from The Smoking Meat Forums website.  It's well regarded and from what he says, being a less salty cure, you can go past your target date a bit without going into "Too Salty" territory.

Happiness is a crisp morning with a smokin' Egg.
 Essentially, the recipe is pretty darn easy.  1 Gallon of cold water (obviously, the better the water you've got, the better off you are - I used tap water with the chlorine and fluoride filtered out), 1 cup non-iodized table salt, 1 cup regular sugar, 1 cup brown sugar, and 1 ounce curing salt (Cure 1, pink salt, prague powder 1 - there many different labels this stuff has - but we're NOT talking about Morton's Tenderquick or Cure #2 here).

26 hours of Apple smoke can put some color on your bacon!

Mix it all together (no reason to heat the water - it'll all dissolve just fine with some heavy stirring.  Pop says that for full bellies, you should go for between 10-14 days in the brine.  Since my bellies were a little on the thick side - just a hair over 2 inches at the thickest part - I went the full 14 days.

I pulled them from the brine and let them dry on a rack in the fridge for a day or so to get that tacky pellicle to form.  Then I smoked them over Apple wood for about 26 hours straight (I let it go all night) and then back in the fridge to get cold before slicing.


My meat slicer (the Edgecraft 610) gets a workout on this process.  I can say now that I understand why some say to just save your money and buy a used Hobart slicer off craigslist.  This slicer tends to pull the meat downward which seems to leave a chunk along the bottom that I find myself having to trim off.

But, the good news is that there is plenty of trim bagged up to use to flavor soups, stews, greens, and who knows what else.

I gotta admit, it sure is a neat thing to see piles of sliced bacon all over the counter waiting to get the vacuum pack treatment from the Food Saver.

Not from this batch.  But still pretty!
Okay - full confession mode here.  I can't believe this but I actually forgot to save a couple slices to fry up.  My wife and I were not feeling 100% due to a head cold that has been making its rounds and we were anxious to get the job done.

So, the picture you see to the left is the previous week's bacon... the stuff I said was a little on the salty side.  As soon as I've finished off cooking what is left of that bag, I'll thaw out a package of this week's bacon to see how different it is.

In the future, I'll need to remember to slice off a chunk when it comes out of the cure BEFORE hitting the smoker.  That way, if its too salty, I can soak it in cold water before smoking it to help draw out some of the salt.  I failed to do that on BOTH of these batches.  I'm such a rookie!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

When In Doubt, Braise It! Beef Short Ribs

Thanks to Rocking Chair Ranch Cattle, there are several packs of grass fed beef short ribs from the half cow we got last year in the freezer.  They've been taunting me every time I open the door.  On the previous half cow we got, I opted to have the short ribs just done up in ground beef because I didn't know how to cook them.  This time, I told myself that I'd have to figure it out.  Alas, most of that half has been used up and we're getting down to the cuts that we tend to use the least (or don't know what to do with at all).  So, now it was time to put up or shut up with those short ribs.

As luck would have it, I recently listened to a podcast from the illustrious Chef Keith Snow from Harvest Eating.  In it, he described braised beef shanks.  I didn't have beef shanks... but I did have short ribs.  And darned if at the end of the episode if he didn't talk about other cuts you could prepare the same way, beef short ribs being one of them!

For those not familiar with braising, if you've done a chuck roast in a crock pot, you've essentially braised it.  I'll outline the process here.

A pile of short-ribs
Like any good braised short rib recipe should, it starts with the short ribs.  So... get some short ribs.  Short ribs are a pretty tough cut of beef - lots of connective tissue, fat, and such.  And with all that comes lots of flavor... like a chuck roast.

I had a couple packs thawed - about 4lbs or so.  Some of them were great big chunks, with a big bone and others were slimmer... all depending on which part of the rib that chunk came from.  Season with salt and pepper.

I heated up some lard from a recently butchered hog in an enameled dutch oven and browned the meat.

There are some who think that searing the meat will trap moisture and keep it locked up inside the tissue.  I think the science actually proves otherwise.  That said, searing the meat DOES have value in the form of the "fond" that forms at the bottom of the cooking pot... you know, those little brown bits and fat that you eye suspiciously, wondering how much elbow grease it'll take to remove it from the pan?

That fond is a concentrated meat flavor that forms as a result of a process called the Maillard reaction.  And you want to preserve as much of that as possible.

So after you've nicely browned your meat, remove them and set aside in a bowl.  Toss in a couple chopped carrots and onion into the pot and cook until tender.  You don't have to go full on carmelize mode - but some brown isn't a bad thing.  Add some other aromatics here as well - minced garlic, thyme, rosemary... whatever works well with your tastes.

Now, toss in some tomato paste - a couple tablespoons and keep it moving in the mixture.  Everything should get pretty sticky and really start to brown onto the cooking surface.  Act fast here to make sure you don't over cook it and scorch the paste that gets stuck onto the sides and bottom of the pot.  Just when you think you're about as far as you can go without burning, start stirring in some red wine (a cabernet perhaps - or whatever you have left in that bottle from last night).  This will deglaze the pot (meaning remove all those brown bits that have been getting stuck to the surface) - help it along with a wooden spoon to be sure you've scraped up all the fond and gotten it up into the braising liquid.  I added about half a bottle of wine.

Get braising, you little ribs!
I then nestled the ribs back into the pot, trying to arrange them in so that they were pretty well packed in.

I had so many short ribs in the pot that I needed to add some beef broth so that most of them were covered.  I had a few poked up out of the liquid - which is good.  As they braise in the 250 degree oven (which you should be preheating by now), the ones sticking up will brown further, giving us even more flavor.

Make sure you have a really good heavy lid that seals well.  Le Cruset dutch ovens are good for this.  Cover the pot and put into the oven.  You'll know if you lid is any good when you check it after an hour and it doesn't appear that any liquid has cooked off.  If it has, be sure to add some more wine or broth.  Total cooking time should be at least 3 hours.  Four is better and five is great.  Much more than that though, and you'll probably start to dry the ribs out.

Time to skim the fat.
You can tell when you are getting done. Things should start to look like this and you'll be able to pull the meat right off the bone with no effort.

The fat should have rendered out a lot.  Skim the fat as best you can.  This is one of those dishes that works even better the next day so if you have time to wait, let it cook down on the stove top and then toss in the fridge over night.  When you remove it tomorrow, you'll be able to lift the solid fat out with a spoon or fork with no trouble before you heat it all back up.

Round these parts, we call 'em grits!
Tradition would dictate that this dish be served with mashed potatoes.  I didn't have any.  So I made creamy corn grits (or polenta for those of you so inclined) and served it over that.  Rice would work in a pinch too.  Just remember that this classic comfort food.   And while you could serve it along side some sauteed kale, you're missing out if you don't hit the starch hot and heavy with this dish.  The sauce is too tasty to let go to waste on a bare plate... get some bread in there and sop it up!

I've made this dish twice and have just about used up our short ribs.  A chuck roast would be good this way... Next time, I'll ask for the beef shanks and save them from the grinder.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Bacon is the Word. Help Spread the Word!

Benjamin Franklin once said that beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.  I'm inclined to agree with him on that count but I propose that he also meant to include bacon in that statement but ran out of ink for his quill.  Furthermore, being a Christian, I often rejoice at Christ's gift of deliverance from Kosher law.  Without which, I'd be stuck with corned beef (which is no bad thing in and of itself, of course).

Salt cured pork belly, otherwise known as bacon, has experienced quite the increase in popularity of late.  And its easy to understand why.  It's mind boggling just how good it is; with chocolate, with pancakes and syrup or just by itself.  Salty goodness with pork fat!

I tried to make bacon a couple years ago.  I was brand new to meat curing (well, I guess technically I still am, but I've made corned beef a couple times and even a pastrami) at the time and it looked so easy from Michael Ruhlman's book, "Charcuterie".  You just rub a big pork belly down with a mixture of salt, sugar, and curing salt, stick it in a ziplock, wait a week, and you're done.  After that you can cold smoke it, hot smoke it, or fry it up as is.  What could be easier.

I tried it.  And the results were... salty.  Like WAY too salty.  Not to mention that I'd intended to hot smoke it in the Big Green Egg until it reached about 150 degrees.  But it rained the night I was planning to do it so it went into the oven to cook.  But I left it in too long and it got to about 175 degrees...  to make a sad story short, I chunked it as inedible.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago and my first adventure in pig butchery.  I now had about 12lbs of pork belly to figure out what to do with.  As I mentioned in this post about my post butchery plans, I was going to do bacon in two different methods.

This time, per the advice of another bacon maker, I used Ruhlman's basic cure mixture at a ratio of 4% by weight to the belly.  I can't remember what this section of belly weighed but lets say it was about 4lbs or 1800grams.  4% of that weight would be 1800 grams x .04 = 72 grams.  So using that method would call for 72 grams of the basic dry cure to be rubbed.  So... that's what I did.

Then I put it in a ziplock bag and put it in the fridge to sit for 7 days.  Over that time, I flipped it everyday.  From other descriptions of the process, I expected the cure to draw out a great deal of moisture which would form something of a brine in the bag.  However, I didn't experience that at all - as a result, flipping the bag every so often was kind of pointless (as the idea is to make sure that all sides of the meat spend quality time in the brine).  However, I could tell the meat was curing as it was getting quite a bit firmer.  By about day 3 or 4, it was pretty rigid.

Rinsed and dry
 After a week, I removed it from the bag and rinsed under cold water and then patted it dry with a towel.  Then I let it sit over night uncovered in the fridge to form a pellicle.

A pellicle is a tacky film of sorts that will form on the surface of meat as it dries.  Its very helpful in making sure the smoke adheres to the meat.  If you smoke wet meat, you wind up with something that sort of looks like splotchy ashes.

So, into the fridge it went.  The next morning, I pulled it out and it felt tacky as I'd hoped.  Unfortunately, I learned a little something about my fridge.  I'd put the belly on the top most shelf (as the whole bottom of the fridge was filled up with brine buckets), right below where the cold air comes in from the freezer.  So there were a few parts that got overly dry and I wound up trimming those off.

After 12 hours of cold smoke

After resting in the fridge after a day of smoke

Sliced bacon is a lovely thing

Trying out the new slicer.

Then I started up the smoker (my Big Green Egg combined with an A-Maze-N Pellet smoker tray) and in the bacon went for about 12 hours.

After coming out of the smoker (which had a blend of hickory, apple and maple pellets), I let it rest in the fridge (not the top shelf this time) overnight.

I fried up a slice in a skillet to see how it came out.  While a little saltier than I'd prefer, it had great flavor - strong pork flavor with a touch of sweet/salt.  My wife (who is less sensitive to salt) loved it.

I got to give the new meat slicer a workout.  While it wasn't perfect, it certainly sliced in better than I could have with a knife.

Certainly the thinner the slice, the less salt you get in every bite.  Slicing it by hand would have yielded slices that were too salty for me to enjoy so having the meat slicer kind of saved me,

I vacuumed up 1lb portions in the Foodsaver and then put all the trim/end pieces in another pack to use in beans or soups and such.  Too nice and smoky a flavor to toss out.

All in all, I'd call this a great success.  The cold smoking process is easy with my rig and I think it really adds a great flavor.  I meant to take a picture of the final product fried up but I was too busy eating it!

As a side note, since this bacon is cold smoked, its not safe to eat until fully cooked.  So when handling it, treat it as if it were raw (in terms of cleaning up and washing hands etc...).

I still have two more slabs in a brine that I'll give the same treatment to later on this week.  This time I plan to smoke a little longer and with just maple pellets.  Looking forward to it.

The problem will be having the patience to wait until I can try all the different recipes for bacon that are out there.  Maple extract, bourbon, brown sugar, molasses, jalapeno...  Too much bacon, not enough time!