Who Grows There (bacteria hurdles)

November 25, 2009

How can this be safe to eat? Why doesn’t aged uncooked meat make us sick?

Turning raw animal muscle into a delicious, well textured, and safe food item is all about controlling the battle ground between “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria”. Both bacteria camps love moisture and sugar and neutral pH (acidity) and temperatures between 40-140 degrees F, and when they’re happy, they reproduce. When they are comfortable (the right background music and lighting….plus the physical conditions mentioned before), their numbers multiply, and this directly affects the degree of toxicity or awesomeness found in the final result of their host….your beloved meat.

By monitoring and controlling temperature, time at given temperatures, acidity, moisture, and salt, Herschel will be able to age safely. If this were just a science experiment, and I wasn’t concerned about the final flavor of the meat, I could control all the bacteria with any one of the variables. But making it taste good requires a little bit of control over all these elements.

[the info below may look a bit like a textbook, but some of it is very interesting and useful for everyday cooking]

  • Temperature: At 140 degrees F, bacteria starts to die, and at 160 degrees, bacteria dies. Cooking the meat to 160 F would kill all the bacteria, and solve all of our concerns, but then I’d end up with 22 pounds of pork roast. I don’t want to cook it. Instead, I’ll keep the temperature cool enough to slow down the growth of bacteria, and rely on other factors to help keep the meat safe. An interesting fact to know about food safety is that the number of bacteria on a piece of meat doubles every 38 hours when meat is stored at 32 degrees (in the freezer).  At 40 degrees (in the refrigerator), bacteria double every 12 hours.  At 80 degrees (perhaps your countertop on a summer day?) the bacteria on that same piece of meat will double every 1 hour.At 90 degrees, bacteria double every 30 minutes. In warm conditions, you can get a lot of bacteria on your dinner in very little time. Be careful! [from Marianski]
  • Acidity (pH): Bacteria grows well when the acidity of the host is between 6.0 and 7.0 pH. Raw meat happens to naturally have pH of somewhere between 5.1 and 6.8, which means raw meat is good place to grow bacteria.  Lowering the pH (increasing the acidity) of meat is a quick way to control the growth of bacteria. Again, if the goal were not to eat the meat, we could just add battery acid to the meat, and the pH would be lowered very quickly….and bacteria would die. But this is supposed to be food. I don’t just want to make a poisonous bacteria-free hunk of protein. There are lots of ways to increase acidity,  slow down the growth of bacteria, and maintain a flavor that everyone can enjoy. So you can’t rely entirely on acidity to keep things safe and tasty at the same time.
  • Water Activity (Aw): Water activity is the amount of water that is available for bacteria to grow on. High Aw means that bacteria will thrive. Low Aw means that bacteria can’t do much of anything, much less reproduce. When the prosciutto or any sausage dries out, the Aw is lowered, controlling bacteria, and making aged foods safe to eat. Fresh meat starts off at an Aw level of .99,  By just adding salt we’re able to quickly lower the Aw to .97. Dried salami has an Aw of about .87. Once you get below .91 almost all bacteria wont grow.
  • Time & humidity: The amount of both time and humidity spent at any of the above conditions affects bacteria’s ability to reproduce. Gotta keep that in mind.
  • Salt: Adding 5% salt to meat will kill everything and make it safe. But that would taste horrible. Most sausage uses about 2.5% salt, and relies on a balancing act of everything else I just described.

His Name Is Herschel

November 24, 2009

Enough about turkeys! Let’s get back to the recently re-salted prosciutto……the leg has been named.

Continuing to refer to this overly documented, meticulously monitored, ever-changing, somewhat feared, and visually stunning (apologies to my vegan and kosher friends) as “the leg” isn’t adequate, and it is not very much fun to say.

I’ve decided the prosciutto leg will now be referred to as “Herschel”.

I’m not from Georgia, but I expect this prosciutto to change the world…just as the other Herschel did. Ok, that’s overstating things. But this gives me an easy excuse to invite Herschel Walker to come over and join the dinner party when we’re ready to eat in 18 months.  I invited Walter Payton to my wedding in 1996 (a no-show). Why shouldn’t I invite Herschel Walker to dinner?

Turkey Day: My farm to plate experience

November 23, 2009

It is the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and I am going to a friend’s farm to process a turkey for our dinner on Thursday. I’ve never killed an animal before. But I’ve eaten many.  I don’t have any hesitation about the action I’m about to take. I know that I’m planning to cook and eat a turkey on Thanksgiving, and this is a nice way to slow things down, meet the bird, meet the farmer, and be responsible for more than just the “kitchen-to-dinner table” portion of the bird’s presence in my life.

The weather outside is magnificently shitty, even for Seattle.  There is a hard rain coming down and it’s about 40 degrees. Seriously, this is a dark and nasty day. But that’s fine. It makes the contrast of spending most of my week indoors seem a bit exciting. The turkeys have other things to complain about aside from the weather. Off to the farm I go.

The turkeys we will process are a heritage breed called Bourbon Reds. Unlike most commercially available turkeys that have been bread with unnaturally over-sized breast meat (good for the farmer’s finances, but bad for evolution), these Bourbon Reds still have functioning brains, and they are in fact able to reproduce without human intervention… a sadly lost skill of most turkeys in the US, thanks to so much creative income focused  breeding.

Well, I like bourbon, and I like turkeys, and I like supporting a group of turkeys (and their farmers) who still live and operate like members of nature. So bring on the carnage.


I hate to sound obvious or stupid, but processing a live animal involves knives and blood and death and yes, even a pile of eviscerated guts. There is no getting around this.  It isn’t pretty if you’re at the dinner table, but the process doesn’t happen without this reality. The insides of the animal have to be removed, and they do not just fall out when you tip the bird upside down.

My pictures and descriptions below are pretty specific about what occurred during the entire process. If for any reason you think I’ll be censuring my pictures….you’re wrong.  Turn back now and please tune in to my next blog posting if you aren’t up for the facts about preparing my Thanksgiving turkey. And if you’re still reading, I hope this is interesting for you. I had a fascinating and eye opening day. Its about time I set myself up for this really amazing experience, being so directly involved in my diet and cooking.

[END OF WARNING…you’re on your own now.]

Transition from “alive” to “not-so-alive”

Birds seem to become very mellow when they are held by their legs upside down. In many parts of the world, you will see chickens tied to a shoulder pole, being carried around. They really don’t struggle or put up a fuss when you hold them upside down. And guess what position they are in when you cut and bleed them to kill the bird?  Upside down. It doesn’t remove all my anxiety of death, but the turkeys did not struggle or put up a fuss.

A Tom is carried upside down by his legs to the cones.

Still upside down, the turkey is placed into a metal cone. This is not fancy technology. The head will stick out the bottom, with the bird’s relaxed body in the cone. Seriously, they seem very relaxed.

A sharp knife cuts the vein on the side of the bird’s neck. The trachea and esophagus are left intact and not cut to make the cleaning process more precise.

While holding onto the two feet, the turkey is dunked into a 160 degree F scalding tank for 50 seconds to loosen the feathers from the skin. (Chickens are scalded for only 30 seconds). After scalding, you can pull a large feather out to test and ensure that everything loosened up like it should have.

Now it is time to remove all of the feathers. Pulling the feathers out by hand would take a bit of time, but it really isn’t that difficult to do. Probably a 5-10 minute task if you’re working without equipment like this rubber finger de-feather tumbler shown below. The bird is placed in this bucket, which spins and rubs the “fingers” across the birds skin, removing almost all of the feathers. The whole thing is over in about 20 seconds. The tub is rigged with water jets to spray on the bird in the middle of the de-feathering process. This helps move things along if too many feathers are covering the rubber fingers.

When the de-feathering is complete, this turkey looks exactly like something you would buy at the store and think of as food. Very little time has passed since a live animal was walking around the pen, and the moment when this clean, naked, and very familiar looking turkey is on a cutting board.

Next step is to cut off the feet. Suddenly, you see the shape of a drumstick. That looks familiar!

Cut the neck skin up toward the shoulders to give yourself enough room to start clearing the trachea and esophagus and then the body cavity. Like it or not, your hand is going into this hole to do a lot of work soon.

Create some separation between the neck bone and the neck skin. don’t cut the two tubes shown in this picture. They are the esophagus and the trachea. Pull gently on both tubes and let this guide your hand down the neck into the body of the bird as you separate connective tissue between the body and the organs. There is a lot of finger wiggling and tugging on this connective tissue. It is a blind act, and the first time sticking your hand into a bird is a bit mysterious. It is warm (the bird was very much alive only a few minutes ago), and it is not possible to see what you’re doing. The connective tissue is surprisingly tough and requires a lot of tugging to get through. By the 2nd and 3rd bird of the day, it all became much more familiar and easy to do. By the end of the day, I had done 3 turkeys, and finally a chicken too. The chicken proved to be a lot easier to process, being so much smaller , more tender, and simply easier to tidy up.

Organs are loosened and starting to come out through the neck hole.

Kitchen sheers are used to cut and remove the neck right around the shoulder point of the turkey.  Then the head is cut from the neck. The neck and head go into stock. Nothing edible will be wasted. These birds were raised by hard working people, and it would be rude to throw something out that’s useful.

Now, onto the other end of the bird.

Cut a hole just above the vent (ass) of the turkey. This snip shouldn’t go too deep or it will puncture and rupture an intestine. There is no blood in the cavity, so once you cut a hole into the body cavity, you can see what you’re doing pretty well. But you have to cut though the skin and then a pretty tough membrane of tissue beneath the skin. Cut slowly and carefully the first few times. And if you do, you’ll see how much room there is to get it right. But if you rush, or if your knives aren’t sharp, you can easily have a mess.

The horizontal cut is now expanded with two vertical cuts around the vent. While cutting, you still have to remember NOT  to cut into an intestine.

With bare hands, you now get to (lucky you, right?) reach into the cavity of the bird and disconnect the connective tissue that holds the organs in place, connecting the ribs with the insides of the bird. This “connective tissue” probably has a anatomical name, but the farmer never used that word. We said “connective tissue” many, many, many times on Sunday afternoon.  There are intestines and other mysterious tubes of goo that should not be ruptured in the bird, but after processing a couple birds, this whole part of the process becomes MUCH more familiar than the first time reaching into the turkey.

In addition to a handful of guts that will be discarded, the inside of the bird also produces a heart, gizzard, and liver, all seen below. All are very good and edible organs. The rest of the intestines and fatty material was discarded.

At the end of the day, we had processed 8 turkeys and one chicken. The finished birds are stored in ice water while all the work is being finished up, and then they are moved into plastic bags and refrigerated.

That’s about it.

Locating a farmer who raises and sells heritage breed turkeys is not easy to do. And finding a farmer willing to include you and teach you the process of turning their livelihood into your dinner is pretty unique too. So, my thanks go out to Dog Mountain Farm http://www.dogmtnfarm.com/ for letting me spend Sunday working with the Turkeys. Good patient teachers are rare, and Cindy was amazing at letting me experiment, make mistakes, and work through a lot of turkeys….which ended up looking pretty damned good.

The experience has not turned me into a vegetarian by any means. But I do feel a lot more aware of the time and energy that goes into raising every bird on a farm, and into getting that bird into the refrigerated meat section at the grocery store (or into my home refrigerator in this case). Animal protein is a great thing to cook with and to eat. But I’m now ready to be a lot more particular about how frequently I “need” to eat chicken. I have a new found respect for the birds and the energy that goes into this whole process.

If you ever get the chance to slaughter and butcher your own meal, I hope you will give it a try.

2nd Salting

November 20, 2009

Is it really ok to use Kosher salt for this?

Fourteen days have passed since the leg was trimmed and initially salted. After the first week, I removed about 1.5 cups of liquid that had drained to the bottom of the plastic tub. Now at the 14 day mark, I’ve emptied another 1 cup of liquid.  The picture below shows the leg as it appeared when I first pulled it out of the salting tub. The meat is a bit darker in color, and just a bit more firm to the touch. There is not any visible salt on the surface. Everything still smells like fresh raw meat. Not anyone’s favorite odor, but it sure beats the smell of anything that’s spoiled. That would be sad.

The flat surface is created by the 25 lb weight and cutting board I’ve had pressing on the leg during the salting stage. This gives the leg a classic prosciutto look, and more importantly, it helps press moisture out of the meat during salting. After all, I do want it to dry eventually.

Compare Day 14 (above) to Day 1 (below). The meat color is a bit darker red, and the shape is certainly different. I did not weigh the leg at this 14 day 2nd salting.

It is now time to apply the remaining salt and wait another 14 days in the mildly humid (measured at 60% each day) and refrigerated (measured at 37-39 degrees F each day) conditions. Similarly to the first salting, I rubbed and pressed the remaining salt into the entire surface of the leg, paying more attention to the exposed muscle and exposed bone areas.  The “sandwich” (sloped cutting board, pig leg, another cutting board, and a 25# weight) was recreated in the plastic tub, and I returned the entire thing to the basement refrigerator. We will be back in another 14 days to rinse, and start the 90 day drying phase. I’ve finally begun describing this project as a 3-step process. All you have to do is (1) Salt the leg, (2) dry the leg, and (3) age the leg.

Sounds simple, right? We’ll see….So far so good.

While We Salt

November 12, 2009

While the prosciutto leg is salting for the first of two 14 day stretches, I thought I’d share some pictures and a bit of background on some of the fresh, cured, fermented, smoked, and/or dried meat projects I’ve taken on over the past couple of years.

Many of these project have worked out wonderfully, and I’ve been able to share some very unique and pretty freak’n awesome product with friends. Every so often, things fail. It’s a bummer to see the good meat and investment go into the trash, but the failures (case hardening, fat smearing, and furry molds that I didn’t recognize, etc.) have all been the best learning opportunities for me. My knowledge of bacteria, fermentation, environmental control (temp and humidity in particular), pH (acidity), and Aw (water activity) is dramatically more thorough than it was not long ago. I’m no microbiologist, but I am getting pretty capable of understanding and controlling the ongoing battle of  “good vs. bad bacteria”. My friends call it “controlled rot”. If my final product comes out tasty and safe, you can call it whatever you want to.

So many good things in life are fermented. It is not a fast process. Slow Food takes time, and care. But if you do it right, everyone gets to have meat, cheese, and wine. How awesome is that?

Fresh Sausages

It all started in Ballard around 1998. Bruce Naftaly of Le Gourmand was demonstrating his version of cassoulet to a class of 10 people, and with food processor, a sausage press, and some very simple ingredients, I was exposed to my first hand-made sausage. So simple, and so much opportunity for experimenting with different meats, spices, fat percentages, and shapes. Eleven years later, and several hundred pounds of meat later, I have made fresh sausage from most readily available animal products as well as “donated” hunting game. 80% meat and 20% fat is the general rule for all fresh sausage. Spices are up to the individual.


Emulsified Sausage (Mortadella)

Mortadella is about a million times better and more gratifying than store-bought bologna. It is hard to accept that the original emulsified Mortadella has been able to sink into the depths of mass-produced salty american sandwich protein. Sliced thin and stacked on a sandwich, Mortadella is full of spices and character that bologna doesn’t even pretend to imitate. Whole pistachios and whole cubes of “large” visible back fat are traditional, as shown in the picture below, but dried currants or other nuts or dry fruit can work really well and make this very unique compared to mortadella’s made by most artisan shops.




When I first started fermenting and drying sausages (salami in most cases), I relied on the temperature and humidity of my Seattle basement. This is a damp and cool climate for so much of the year, and it works out very well for this type of work. The salamis in the picture below are hanging directly from the garage ceiling.


Salt Cod

For 12 years, I have been part of a 10 friend “dinner club” that gets together 6 times each year to cook hard and eat well. There’s some drinking involved too. In 2008, a Basque themed menu gave me some inspiration to make salt cod, which would become fried fish fritters (bacalao) at our dinner. Fresh cod was salted and air-dried until it was hard and inert. This stuff could have been stuck on a ship and sent around the world without spoiling. When it was time to make the bacalao, I soaked and reconstituted the salt cod, squished it up with potatoes and fried up some very good fritters. Of course, looking back on this project, I probably could have just bought fresh cod on th day of the meal and prepared everything in an hour.

Salt cod might make a nice stocking stuffer too.



Coppa is the first whole muscle sausage I made. It is large pieces (not ground) of lean shoulder meat. Sometimes spicy, and sometimes a bit sweet. This is one of the prettiest dried foods I’ve made and eaten. If I could only make stuff like this, I’d be happy. This coppa dried for about 8 weeks before it was ready to cut and eat.



The Big Leg Adventure: Prosciutto (FIRST POST)

November 10, 2009

I’ve made fresh sausage. I’ve made fermented dry sausage. Now, it is time to jump into a serious pig adventure.

Sunday morning, Cora hopped in the bike trailer, and we rode to the Ballard Farmer’s market to pick up the leg that would begin our prosciutto adventure. The pig was slaughtered on Tuesday, and it has not been frozen (not easy to find). Brandon from Sea Breeze Farm http://www.seabreezefarm.net/ butchered the animal, and trimmed the leg into a nice clean drumstick shape.

After eating a cinnamon crepe and listening to a few fiddle tunes, Cora and the 21.92 lb leg (to be named later) climbed into the trailer, and we rode home to get to work.


The leg weighs 21.92 pounds. That’s 9952 g. For several years, all of my kitchen projects, particularly charcuterie-related projects are always done in grams. Pounds and ounces are a pain in the butt to deal with when very small percentages of salt, spices, and other colorful sprinkle-ables need to be calculated accurately.  The leg is about 2 1/2 feet long. And fortunately, we have enough counter space and refrigeration space to get the initial trimming and salting work done. After wiping down all the counters and boards with a bleach solution (gotta do my best to keep things clean if this thing is going to survive 18 months of aging), it was time to get to work. Here is the fresh leg before any work was done.


Removing the aitch-bone.

Using a flexible boning knife, I cut along the bone and removed the aitch bone, leaving a big shiny ball, and eliminating a joint where bacteria could likely grow. A few small pieces of meat were trimmed off to tidy things up a bit….and to give us a bit of pork for dinner.



Working with meat requires precise measurements. Salt, Sodium Nitrite, and Sodium Nitrate need to be accurately measured based on the weight of the meat if we intend to control pathogens, and keep the meat palatable, if not delicious. Sticking with metric units, specifically grams is the only way to stay sane and confident that everything is going to work out consistently. In all reliable sausage recipes, ingredients are given as a percentage (of meat) and GRAMS. This is good. This is manageable.  So, why would the recipes and experts who I rely on, tell me to add sodium nitrate at  “one level teaspoon per 5 lbs of meat” . Teaspoons and pounds are not metric. Sure, I can and did easily convert pounds to grams (1 pound = 454 grams) , but is a  “level teaspoon” really the precise quantity of the ingredient that is supposed to turn away botulism and its other pathogenic friends. Is a “level teaspoon” really going to help me understand the PPM (parts per million) or the percentage vs meat weight?  So….after a bit of reading, and recipe comparing, and calculating, I settled on 4% salt (Len Poli’s number) and .0024% (24 g) of Cure#2 (which is salt, 6.24% sodium nitrite, and 4.0% sodium nitrate).

OK, I’m feeling confident that I’m using the right stuff, and using the right quantity too. But I’m a bit annoyed that I had to do all this math to get here. It’s a big leg, and it’s going to be a 18 month project. Totally worth the effort, so I should settle down, right? Out of curiousity, I grabbed teaspoon and spooned out and weighed the amount of Cure#2 I intended to use . Guess what? 24 grams of Cure#2 happens to be exactly 4 (plus a little) “level teaspoons”. That’s exactly what I needed. Len Poli was right (He has done this a time or two before), and I could have just trusted his seemingly stupid units of measurement. In the end, my recipe was perfectly adequate, but I’m still glad I understand how to do the math.

Salts are measured, mixed, and ready to go…

salt and cure#2

Gloves on, and the massaging begins. Not too much “scrubbing”, but mostly patting and pressing salts into the flesh and skin and all of the exposed surface area. Extra salt was pressed into the area where the exposed bone is surrounded by the muscle. We only used 2/3 of the salt at this time. The final 1/3 of salt will be rubbed into the leg in 2 weeks.


Cora kept her gloves on, avoided sneezing, and was truly helpful with this.


Completely salted


First Salting

The leg was placed in a sanitized plastic tub. I made an angled “sandwich” with cutting boards on either side of the leg, and a 25# weight on top of everything. This should help press liquids out of the muscle as it is salting. At the bottom of the plastic tub, is a glass lid, used to create a slope. Juices will run downhill, and away from the leg.

At first, I built this sandwich setup on the kitchen counter. It looked well organized, and I was pleased that I actually owned all the appropriate gear needed to get through this first stage of salting.  Anxious to pack the leg away in its new refrigerated home, I picked up the whole tub, and took a few steps toward the basement stairs. Guess what. This thing is heavy, and awkward, and carrying it down a steep flight of stairs was a recipe for an unmitigated pig disaster. Removing the 25 pound weight from atop the tub made life much better. That was not difficult to resolve, but looking back, I can’t believe I was brilliant enough to try carrying the whole thing the first time around. I laughed….oh well.


The whole tub was then placed into a refrigerator. I put a hygrometer (measures humidity) and a thermometer in the tub, and then put a lid on the whole thing. The leg will remain like this for 14 days. At that time, I will rinse off the leg, and apply the rest of the salt, and wait for another 14 days.