Dry curing is very old news. Millennia before the Icebox Age, inventive eaters discovered that air drying, like smoking, fermenting and confiting, gave fresh flesh a new lease on life. Today the process remains largely unchanged: raw meat, whether left whole or ground and stuffed into casings, is salted heavily and hung to dry, thus thwarting bacteria that spoil meat and sicken eaters.
(Additional fermentation, used in soppressata and other salamis, develops “good” bacteria whose acidic environments keep pathogenic ones at bay.) Happily, dry curing brings with it a whole spectrum of extraordinary flavors and textures; whoever said “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” never had a slice of real country ham.
That dry-cured meats happen to taste spectacularly good is a fact not lost on modern eaters. Carol Diuguid, senior editor of the Zagat NYC Guide (and Park Slope resident), points out that the salumi surge “fits in nicely with the current obsession with pork and offal in their every permutation. Also, wine bars and eateries serving tapas-style small plates have proliferated, and for them the charcuterie plate is almost a defining element.” Restaurants and food shops now offer hams of various nationalities from pigs of various diets (acorns, hazelnuts, peanuts, whey)—not to mention salamis and saucissons, lomo and lardo, even prosciutti from duck and wild boar. The latest indication that meat mania has reached fever pitch is the advent of businesses like Brooklyn Cured and emporia like Marlow & Daughters, the Meat Hook and Bklyn Larder, where the refrigerated cases and encased meats are front and center.
Many restaurants serve imported prosciutto di Parma or jamón ibérico or the domestic incarnations cured stateside by producers like Fra’ Mani, La Quercia, or New York’s own Salumeria Biellese, whose products show up on tables all over the borough at meat-minded eateries like Roberta’s. And with the spike in Southern joints, country ham from Virginia or Tennessee has become a staple: Seersucker serves Edwards’, Buttermilk Channel and Rye have Benton’s.
Recently, in keeping with the boroughwide DIY disposition, a certain adjective began popping up next to salumi descriptions on menus: “house-cured.” Then, just as quickly, it seemed to disappear.
Ask chefs about their in-house curing and you’ll meet feigned ignorance or furtive glances cast over shoulders, or else you’ll be sworn to secrecy: while kitchen curing is on the rise, nearly all the chefs I spoke to for this story would talk only on condition of anonymity. It’s as if house-cured meats were a banned substance—and in a way, they are. Like sous vide’s spike a few years back, dry curing’s rise in popularity has caught the attention not only of trendspotting bloggers, but also of the thermometer-toting Health Department, which, unswayed by nose-to-tail initiative or the umami of perfect prosciutto, has been cracking down on would-be charcuterie all over town. You’ve heard the line that laws are like sausages—it’s better not to see them being made. Evidently laws about sausages are ugliest of all.
Certainly the DOH has noble intentions—protecting the noshing masses from nasties like E. coli, salmonella and staph. But thousands of years have demonstrated that keeping properly salted meat at the preferred 60 degrees and 70 percent humidity is perfectly safe. For fermented sausages, like chorizo and coppa, such conditions are necessary for the good bacteria to work their magic. And few small restaurants can afford a dedicated temperature—and humidity-controlled space.
So while no one’s heard of a diner falling ill from a restaurant’s house-cured charcuterie—and it’s generally easy for a well-trained cook to tell if cured meat smells funny or has sprouted troublesome mold—the Health Department’s rules are as rigid as frozen sausage and, for some chefs, as hard to swallow. Gabe McMackin, who worked the stoves at Roberta’s, said he knows of other restaurants that have had their handiwork destroyed by the Health Department. He noted with incredulity that “if you don’t have the right tags or proof of purchase from the purveyor, they’ll make you bleach that. If you have stuff sitting out”—and dry-cured meats are most flavorful at room temperature—“they’ll make you bleach that, too.”
As it did with sous vide, the Health Department intends to kill pathogens with paperwork, requiring kitchens to provide an approved Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan before taking pancetta into their own hands. Elliott Marcus, associate commissioner for the DOH’s Bureau of Food Safety says such plans “standardize the process to ensure the food is safe every time it’s produced.” There isn’t a general set of dry-curing guidelines, he explains, because everyone develops their own recipes.
But when asked about their meat magic, even restaurants with a DOH-approved dry-curing HACCP plan in place prefer to demur; several restaurateurs declined to be included in this story, all saying essentially the same thing: “Why bring ourselves unwanted attention from the Health Department? That would be dumb.”
Through the HACCP program, developed by NASA in the ’60s and more commonly used by industrial food manufacturers—in making juice or processing seafood, for example—a producer identifies points at which something could go wrong and addresses how it will minimize risk. “It’s quite a lengthy process,” one cook (we’ll call him Mike) told me, especially if the restaurant starts with whole pigs, as his does for its secret charcuterie program. Formulating a HACCP plan and getting it approved by the Health Department can take months; Marcus says many restaurants hire consultants to help with the process. But that would be too much for Mike, who says, “A little restaurant like us, we can’t afford the time and effort to sort that out.” Instead they keep their meat under wraps in their wine storage space, which, like the laundry rooms and locked closets in other restaurants I heard about, isn’t typically inspected by the Health Department.
Vogue food critic Jeffery Steingarten—who famously blasted Brooklyn-based food writers as biased borough boosters—thinks it’s important to distinguish between curing smaller whole cuts and sausages and hams. “It’s not rocket science to cure guanciale,” he says. But “salami is not an entirely easy thing to make. Sausages like saucisson de Lyon, garlic sausages, kielbasa and all of those take a lot of skill and equipment. It’s not likely that a restaurant is going to be able to do that, in any quantity. Almost all restaurants that want to make something like salami or soppressata should actually be buying it and not trying to reinvent the wheel.”
So if good product is readily available—and making it in-house is a bureaucratic no-no—why do restaurants bother? For one thing, it’s because increasing numbers of chefs are getting meat directly from small farmers—who often prefer to sell whole animals.
Part of the nose-to-tail trend stems from the legitimacy and satisfaction gained from knowing how to dispatch entire beasts and turn them into dinner. One chef, whose restaurant has had a clandestine charcuterie program for eight years, takes the philosophical approach: “My journey as a cook is to recover traditional techniques and learn how to use the entire animal.” But in practical terms, buying whole animals can be far more economical than buying small cuts in large quantities. Besides saving on processing by breaking down whole animals in-house, kitchens can use less desirable parts to stretch their food-procurement dollars. Sausages, guanciale and lardo go for many times more than the cheap cuts they’re made from. Ancient preservation methods are also a necessity for chefs literally grappling with an entire carcass, especially in small restaurants where margins and storage quarters are tight. “It wasn’t like, ‘I want to make sausage,’” another cook I’ll call Matt told me. “It was: ‘I just bought a pig, I got eight pounds of loin out of this thing, and I’ve got 200 pounds left, so I better learn quick how to make good use out of it.’”
But all the cooks I spoke with agree that the most fundamental reason they cure is taste. That’s what cooks like McMackin love to do: “to make something your own way and to follow an idea that you have and explore it. The whole thing about going to somebody’s restaurant is to see how they approach a subject, how they make their argument for the best possible way to eat.”
Several chefs I spoke to are intent on making their dry curing legit and are setting up their own production facilities, with the requisite storage conditions and space, whether independently or in partnership with a farmer or butcher. The Health Department has no plans to make certification more accessible, but perhaps with a few establishments leading the way in setting production standards, more restaurants will find the road to certification a little less thorny. In the meantime, psssssst—pass the soppressata.
Ask chefs about their in-house curing and you’ll meet feigned ignorance or furtive glances cast over shoulders.
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell and Melissa Hom.