Aging vs. Drying

February 26, 2010

A friend just asked for clarification about the difference between “drying” and “aging“, described in my last post on 2/24.

Here’s the way I understand things:

After three months of drying, the pig leg should have lost all the necessary water weight to make a good safe ham. But it is not completely dry. That would be Jerky if it were completely dry. Probably tasty, but very tough to chew through.

Spreading a paste of peppery-lard (mixed with semolina flour) onto the exposed lean meat part of the leg should slow down (stop?) the rest of the water from escaping from the muscle. The ham can then age for about 12 months (same temp and same humidity), which will give the proteins time to continue breaking down (softening), and hopefully mellowing out the flavor of the salted pork. My understanding is that aging is all about improving the flavor and texture. Drying is focused on making the leg safe by getting rid of moisture (lowering the Aw – water activity) and making the leg an inhospitable home for bacteria.

Piggy Photo Shoot

February 24, 2010

Today is drying-day #78 of 90.  That means I’m 108 days into this entire project.  It is almost time to cover the ends of the pig leg with a thick coat of pepper/juniper loaded lard and settle in for the third and final (and lengthy) aging step. Herschel weighed in this afternoon at 14 pounds. We started at 22 pounds as a freshly butchered limb. I was expecting about 30% weight loss during this drying period, but as the numbers show, the weight is down 36%  from the original “green weight”.

The skin is hardened now, and the entire surface of the leg is very dry. But squeezing the thick part of the leg shows plenty of give. The center of the large muscle is still soft as you squeeze the leg. The exposed muscle has dried out and hardened a lot. Some of this exposed meat looks more like jerky than like fancy prosciutto. But I have faith that the moist tender leg meat that remains is going through its magical metamorphosis, and doing what prosciutto is supposed to do.  As I’ve done every week, I gave the leg a very thorough sniff from trotter to thigh. Everything smells sweet, like cured ham. No spoilage is evident….which makes me happy.

Below are a few pictures of Herschel on Day 1 vs. Day 108. Changes in color, texture, odor, and overall awesomeness seem obvious to me. Hopefully you can see all of this clearly in the photos. (maybe you can’t sense the change in odor, but trust me….its just fine)

A fresh 22# pig leg is pictured below:

And below is the same leg after 108 days (30 salting, and 78 drying):

Another Day#1 shot before any work occured:

The same angle on day 108. Everything darkened a lot. This leg has not been exposed to sunlight at all during the entire process….for those who were asking.

My happy assistant salting the fresh leg on day #1:

Kitchen staff (still happy) inspecting the leg on day #108. During the past 108 days, we’ve read “Charlotte’s Web” 3 times. Such a nice story. That Wilbur is so cute!

Back in the drying room. 12 days to go until this prosciutto is smeared with lard, and we begin the 365 day countdown of aging, softening,  and mellowing the meat.

Below, the leg is back in the curing room, hanging from the ceiling. The bundle in the forground is a 2 lb Mangalitsa boneless leg that is just about ready  to taste. It lost 25% of its original green weight in only 23 days. The photo makes it look a lot larger than it is. Remember….Herschel is losing weight, but he still weighs 14 pounds.

Overall status:

30 of 30 days of salting are complete

108 of 120 days of drying are complete.

0 of 365 days of aging are complete.

My Shiny Big F. Dick and Some New Gear

February 5, 2010

I am now the proud owner of an F.Dick sausage stuffer.

Over the past few months, I have slowly searched for and acquired some newer and more substantial equipment for making sausage. The equipment I owned for years was functional, but not nearly as precise or as much fun to use.  Below are a few pics of old vs. new.

This German designed beauty holds 12 pounds of ground meat, and cranks so smoothly and easily. Here’s to German engineering!


Below is the first stuffer I owned. Kind of looks like an industrial strength Playdough toy.  It holds 3 pounds of meat at a time, but in reality, it didn’t work well if you filled it more than halfway at a time. That’s a lot of messy refilling of the chamber every time you want to make sausage. None of the pieces are particularly tight, so a lot of ground meat squirts out of both ends as you press down the lever. Mostly, it is really difficult to press down the lever and control the speed (can I say “through-put” in a non computer context).

The new F.Dick works with a very large crank, and a nicely fitting plate to push meat downward and out into casings. Much more manageable for a 4-year-old assistant. And much more pleasant for me to use too. Plus, it proudly displays its “DICK” label, which makes me laugh. Fitting 10 meters of sausage casing over the stuffing tubes (not shown) looks really dirty, and is worth a laugh.

PH Meters

I’ve discussed the importance of accurately measuring the change in acidity during the fermentation process when making salami. These inexpensive pH strips work, but I recently upgraded.

Below is a digital pH meter with a probe, which is much more precise. I just need a holster so I can strap my cell phone and fancy new pH meter to my belt. Its all about fashion in my world of meat.

Water Activity (Aw) Meter

In previous posts, I’ve tried to explain the importance of measuring the water activity (Aw) in meat. In order for meat to be shelf-stable at room temperature, you have to reliably know that the water activity measures less than .85. This ensures that there is not enough moisture for bacteria to grow. Unfortunately, most Aw meters cost a fortune. $1600 is the cost of a hand-held digital Aw meter, and someday, after I’ve sold thousands of pounds of charcuterie, and become unreasonably wealthy from this protein-hobby, I will go digital.

In the meantime, I was able to find a German-made analog Aw meter made in the mid 1970’s that works nicely. Who knew that something like this could be found on EBay. This Aw meter consists of a stainless steel cup with a sensor built into the lid. Fill the cup with water, screw on the lid, and wait 3 hours. The Aw meter should read 1.0. This is the simple calibration exercise used to ensure that the dial is lined up correctly. To test the Aw of dried meat, a sample of chopped up salami is placed in the cup. Wait 3 hours, and hope that the number is at or below the required .85. If not, the salami needs more time drying.

Below is a hand-held digital Aw meter. Very pricey, but it provides an accurate reading in just 5 minutes.  I am perfectly happy waiting 3 hours for the final measurement. $50 for a perfectly functional antique is much more inline with my budget these days.

Humidity and Temperature control

Below is the humistat/thermostat I’ve been using for fermenting and aging. Yes, if you look closely, you’ll see that it is made by “Zoo Med”, a company that makes gear sold in pet stores, and used by reptile owners. But it is accurate and serves my needs perfectly. This dual-purpose tool allows me to plug in a fan (or AC) and also a humidifier, set the maximum allowable temp and humidity. When the temperature reaches 60 degrees F, the fan (or AC) turns off. When the humidity reaches 70%, the humidifier cut off. A very simple concept, but it saves the day when you need to monitor and control temperature and humidity.

Walk-in cooler

Below is a work-in-progress. The new walk-in cooler has insulated walls, floor, and ceiling, and plenty of shelving. When this is done, it will be an environmentally controlled (temp and humidity) box, with circulating fresh air, and plenty of space for hanging treats to age. There should be plenty of room for wine and cheese too.

Status on the prosciutto:

Salting: 30 of 30 days complete

Drying: 56 of 90 days complete

Aging 0 of 360 days complete