Home-cured meats – off-the-scale delicious | Food

I discovered domestic curing in an absolutely stunning book, Salt, Sugar, Smoke by Diana Henry, where there’s a recipe for salt beef without which my adult life would have been immeasurably poorer. The beauty of home-curing is twofold. For some reason, it is off-the-scale delicious. Better still, you end up with tons of meat, more than you could ever justify buying in a shop.

But cured meats are steadily becoming infamous as a lurking cancer risk on the scale of tobacco. Meat, generally, wreaks havoc upon your colon (red meat is associated with cancer risk if you eat it in large amounts), and a meta-study in 2011 found that cured meats could increase your risk of colon cancer even if you just like the occasional slice of ham. And slices of ham, like cloves of garlic, are almost never consumed in ones. There is also evidence of a breast cancer risk. The World Health Organization places bacon in the same category as asbestos, alcohol and arsenic.

It’s all about nitrates and nitrites, which have traditionally been used to keep meat pink and kill botulism: saltpetre, which you use in the salt beef, is potassium nitrate. There are other ways to avoid botulism: parma ham makers haven’t used nitrates or nitrites in 25 years. But even processed meat marked “nitrite-free” often uses vegetable extracts – celery or beetroot juice powder – that go on to produce nitrites, either in the preserving process or when they meet your bacteria. The best way to ensure you’re not eating them is to cure meat yourself. Pinkness sounds like the most trivial matter, until you consider what the alternative is to pink: grey. Nobody wants to eat grey food. But let’s worry about that in 10 days.

As I salted some pork belly to make my own bacon – plainly, the food most of us would choose over longevity – I also cured some beef using saltpetre as well as salt, to act as a kind of scientific control experiment. What am I talking about? Of course that’s not a control. I just fancied it.

The salt beef is pretty straightforward, although Henry’s recipe involves a wet cure, which means you soak the beef brisket in brine, rather than covering it in salt, as with a dry cure. That may cause the beginner a little confusion (how do you get it to submerge when it wants to float? How, though? How?). About the third or fourth time you do it, you’ll drop the perfectionism and accept that some corner will always be poking above the waterline; just remember to turn it.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, meanwhile, has the least intimidating recipe for dry-cured bacon, featuring not a single ingredient that your grandmother wouldn’t have heard of: pork belly, salt, demerara sugar, bay leaves, juniper, black pepper. It takes a little bit of looking after, but more in the region of looking after a plant than, say, a pet.

I put the pork belly in a large Tupperware box. Mixing all the curing ingredients on day one, you use about one-fifth each day to massage both sides of the belly, which you then cover with a tea towel and keep in the fridge. Each day, for five days, I poured off the resulting liquid, added more cure, poked it a bit to see what was going on, noted that it wasn’t going grey, but was more of a deep, scab-red, such as you might choose for a coat of arms. At the end of that process, I rinsed the meat, dabbed it gingerly with a cloth soaked in malt vinegar (to fight mould) and wrapped it in another tea towel, intending to stick it outdoors for another five days so I could call it House of Zoe’s air-cured bacon. Then there was that mini-heatwave, and it was back in the fridge until day 10.

So, about this colour business: it ended up maroon on the outside, but it was a bit grey near the middle and, crucially, it was never the same colour in any two places. Curing nerds will respect the authenticity, I’m sure, but evenness of tone is an elemental marker I would usually use to tell if something’s safe to eat. But I ate it anyway. I’m not a jessie.

Slicing it will present a challenge to anyone who isn’t particularly dexterous. You can get through it beautifully; the texture has a beautiful giving firmness, like meat crossed with wax. I just couldn’t get it uniform.

It was, as promised, totally delicious, but nothing could disguise the weird colour. It cannot be beyond the wit of man to find some non-toxic way to dye things pink, right? That’s what I’d suggest, for the bacon eaters of the future.

The salt beef, meanwhile, was incredible – the colour of a spring red sky.

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