Last Wednesday evening, Chef Brian Polcyn, co-author with Michael Ruhlman of the now nearly biblical volumes on curing meat Salumi and Charcuterie, as well as being a well-known restaurateur, cooking instructor, and now wide-ranging food entrepreneur, gave a 4+ hour demo class in the theater kitchen at KVCC’s fabulous new culinary school building. In the space of 4 hours Polcyn broke down two sides of pork, one in the American way, where with the aid of a bone saw you get five primal cuts (shoulder [butt], picnic ham, center-cut loin, belly, and ham), the other in the traditional Italian method, which follows muscle seams and so doesn’t require a saw, and is designed to maximize cuts for dry curing. The biggest difference is in the front half of the pig, for the Italian method cuts the ribs further down the back in order to preserve the long neck muscle (coppa) as a cut to be cured whole, instead of leaving it as part of the shoulder to be roasted, ground, or whatever. Both methods remove the tenderloin (filetto), which is on the inside of the backbone, and both allow recovery of fat from different places, organs, tongue, jowl, ears, and tail (although Polcyn didn’t talk about the tail), as well as bits of trim that can be ground for sausage, terrines, etc.
In the hands of an expert like Polcyn, the American method takes about four minutes, the Italian method ten times that – and you really have to know what you’re doing. (The economics are obvious from the point of view of a meat processor. That’s why, if you lack a good local butcher, as, sadly, we still do in Kalamazoo, you can’t get some of the specialty cuts for curing that are common on the continent.) From all this Polcyn prepared bacon, pancetta, and guanciale, all of which are still in a fridge at KVCC in their initial salt-cure phase (no doubt under heavy security). He also prepared, with cooking help from KVCC chefs, spuma (lard from the belly fat whipped into a mousse-like consistency with salt and pepper, and sprinkled with the cracklings that came out of the lard rendering), a terrine of ground pork and seared pork tenderloin, and a porchetta-like dish whose name I missed which involved butterflying the meat cut from the pigs head, seasoning it, laying the ears and tongue on it (for some reason there were two tongues), rolling it, and braising it.
Seeing a master at work was a treat, but there were lots of takeaways for home curers like me and my friend Joan, who was there with me, and with whom I’ve been making sausage and salami for more than a year. Maybe the biggest thing was just seeing the lack of slavishness to the recipes. The books give the impression that precision is essential in terms of proportion of meats to salt and seasonings. Now, Polcyn has decades of experience, so when he has, say, a slab of belly in front of him, he’ll be able to judge by hand and eye many things that it’s still best for us to measure. But even so, it was clear that there was some wiggle room. Forgot to season the jowl for guanciale? Just scrape some of the seasoning of the belly that’s being made into pancetta. Need the right amount of fat in your sausage? Judge the fattiness of the meat by eye and don’t add extra if it looks good. And so on. Preparation of the recipes seemed more like cooking than baking.
More concretely, there are two things that I learned that I think will have the most effect on our ground-meat products (which have, to date, never been less than delicious). (a) Don’t substitute belly or leaf fat for back fat in salami. The back fat is harder and renders less easily, so it will remain in the sausage as it cures or cooks. We’ve had somewhat crumbly salami, I think because we substituted one of the soft fats, which weeped out as the salami hung. We used the soft fat because it was what we had on hand, and it seemed wasteful to go buy other fat, but now we know better. (b) It’s OK to mix the ground meat and fat by hand to get the primary bind (the goopy meat mess that gets stuffed into the casings). Following the books, we’d been hesitant to do that, because we were worried about the heat from our hands warming the meat too much. Joan asked about this though, and Chef Polcyn not only said it’s fine (provided you don’t overdo it), but showed a good test for when you’ve mixed enough: if you hold your hand up and the meat stuck to it doesn’t fall down for ten seconds, it’s sticky enough.
The evening ended with a nice meal cooked up by various supporting chefs from KVCC, including some of the dishes mentioned above, as well as fillets of (uncured) coppa, and a range of tasty non-pork offerings. The spuma was a little intense for me, I have to say, but I think it would make a great touch to appetizers that have some sweetness and acidity to balance its fattiness. The other pork dishes were great.
The pig, by the way, came from a Mangalitsa pig raised by Mike de Schaaf at 1936 Meadowbrook Farm in Benton Harbor. Mangalitsas are a very fatty, furry heritage breed from Hungary — click the link to see the pigs. I’ve got a (trotter-less) ham from one of them hanging in my basement, along with one from a Berkshire-Duroc cross (if I remember right) from Dave Warkentein of Young Earth Farm in Decatur (see my ProZooto post about my first ham made with his pork). I’ve made bacon from pigs from them both too, which is an order of magnitude better even than bacon made from the same pigs done by their processors. Now if only we could get a good butcher in Kalamazoo, I could get a nice coppa to work with!