Over the years, my husband and I have raised a lot of pigs. It started out when we were living in a travel trailer on the property I was given. We were looking for ways to eat well and have a little extra while putting everything we had towards building our own house.
There was a lot of land to clear and pigs are not the hardest animals in the world to grow. We had a good source of some of the best piglets around for a mere $50 so we built a fence and allowed them to free range.
If you have some extra space this is something worth considering for at least awhile. Pigs can cause a lot of damage and erosion if not rotated out of the pasture some. If you have access to buying a half or whole pig from a quality farm then you can do really well putting back some pork at a good price.
You can get a dressed pastured pig in our area for $3 per lb. Sure you may occasionally find cheaper pork at the grocery store, but that is not going to be near the same quality and you sure are not going to get any bacon for that.
Bacon and ham go for a real premium at the grocery store and you are not in control of how much sodium is within the meat or the flavor. Curing your own pork at home can save a lot of money and offer you the chance to create cured meats that are flavored the way your family likes them the most. Those on salt restricted diets may actually be able to enjoy pork once more.
You can also choose to cure with natural curing agents and reduce the level of nitrates in your diet. Keep in mind that nitrates are one of those controversial food ingredients. They do occur naturally but like many food ingredients, too much of something can be a bad thing.
This article covers the basics of bacon and ham curing. It is impossible to fit every aspect of curing into one article but I hope this gets you thinking about curing meats in general. You may find that you want to make your own cured sausages or even make prosciutto!
Temperature Control With Curing
Curing meat requires colder temperatures. In the past people would only kill hogs during colder times. There were multiple reasons for this of course. When it started turning cold a hog would be fat on the mast that fell during the fall. Also the temperature would be low enough for flies and other insects to not be as much of a problem.
Then there was the fact that pork had to be cured to keep for very long at all. Curing thus had to be done during the cold part of the year. Modern times mean we have refrigeration so we can cure meats year round if we want.
38 degrees is the optimum temperature for curing pork. Colder is fine as well so long as it doesn’t freeze. The salts you use will help prevent freezing if temperatures accidentally dip.
Protecting Your Meat
Sure we have all seen smokehouses and places in pictures where meat was cured. I personally like to use a fridge or a chest freezer with a temperature regulator on it to keep it at 38 degrees. This ensures quality and food safety and keeps meats secure from pests.
Everything loves to eat pork. If you leave a hog hanging unprotected then you are inviting raccoons, opossums, coyotes and other varmints for a meal at your house. The same goes if you are just curing a little meat. Even if you are in town and don’t see them, they are there.
This is probably the most popular pork product out there and one of the most expensive. Good bacon is not cheap. Don’t be fooled by those packs you get in the store for a low price. Chances are when you cook them up you are getting mostly fat by weight.
You know what I am talking about if you have bought bacon and been amazed when it reduced in size by 75%.
Package sizes are also meant to fool you. A pack of bacon is not necessarily a pound. There are plenty of bacon products sold in ½ and ¾ lb sizes for a substantial price so when you are estimating how much it will save to cure your own, it is key to remember the package size and the quality you are getting.
Dry curing can be done but it requires being diligent about keeping salt and spices rubbed in and covering the meat at all times. If you are just starting out curing then I suggest finding a good dry mix that has been blended for you.
You don’t want to risk messing up a dry cure and losing meat. Here are a few suggestions. Keep in mind you should add whatever spices you desire to these mixes. These mixes only contain salt, sugar, and nitrates. If you want some pepper in the mix then you need to add it in.
Whitt’s Complete Sugar Cure
Morton Tender Quick
Personally, I like the flavor that is imparted by a wet cure. It also ensures that saturation of the meat happens so you don’t have spots that go bad because they didn’t get enough curing agent. Using this method, you keep cuts of meat in a salt brine solution until the desired flavor is reached.
It is important to keep in mind that the middle of a cut will have less cure to it than the outside so if you slice off a small piece to fry up and see how it is coming along, the thicker the cut, the more different the flavor in the middle is going to be. You will learn what works best for your taste preferences the more experience you get.
Smaller cuts take on the flavor and become preserved faster than large ones so taking the time to cut pork belly down to 1 lb slabs for curing is going to speed things up a lot.
To be honest, most of the time we did not use any nitrates when wet curing because we were just going to vacuum seal and freeze cured out meats anyway. If you want to add some pink salt into the mix then I recommend adding about double the usual amount you would use for a dry rub since the water solution is going to take away from the amount that is in the meat.
Honestly, I would just leave out the nitrates if you are going to do like us and tender cure the meat to freeze. The intensive nitrate salts are really only necessary if you want to have meats that are shelf stable without refrigeration.
Note Regarding Cure Methods:
Getting meat so that it is shelf stable without refrigeration of any sort is different than what I am describing in this article. These methods are for those that want to freeze or can meats after curing.
Salting heavily enough and smoking meats and then vacuum sealing them is possible but also much more time intensive in some ways. Smoking meats is just not something you can do without time and space to do it in. Small smokers are great and can be used in a lot of places but not all.
The amount of sodium in country style hams and side meat for example is well beyond what a lot of us would want to consume on a daily basis. In a survival situation though, salt is very important to consider so having some high salt content meat around would not necessarily be a bad thing so you may want to cure and put back using several methods or different cure recipes.
Our Basic Wet Cure Recipe
Matt and I make a curing brine consisting of 1 ¼ lbs of salt per one gallon of water. If you want you can add some brown sugar, molasses, honey, sorghum, or maple syrup, to this mix as well.
To do this, you measure the salt and water and optional brown sugar into a large pot and heat it until the salt is perfectly dissolved. Let the brine cool while covered with a lid.
This recipe can be used to make as little or as much brine as needed. All meat needs to be totally immersed for this to work. If you have to weight down the meat then use something food grade and make it happen.
Grocery store bakeries or restaurants sometimes will give away or sell food grade plastic buckets. We got plenty for $1 or $2 from the grocery bakery. Any food grade bucket will do such as that used to brew beer or wine. Stainless steel pots work too but a bucket has a lid that can be sealed well to avoid spills and other issues.
You may be like us and live near a place that sells used or new food barrels. These types of places often sell food grade buckets with lids. Salt is hard on surfaces so always make sure to use food grade materials. This is not a case where you can just make do with whatever. Even a ceramic crock can be used for this if you have one not in use for making saurkraut or pickles!
How We Smoke Bacon At Home
For those that want that don’t just want cured bacon but desire smokiness as well, there is the option of taking it a step further and smoking your bacon. Here are the basic steps.
- Take bacon out of curing brine. Shake or use paper towels to get off excess moisture.
- Soak your smoking wood or chips in water for 20 minutes.
- Start a small fire in the smoker. Add wood slowly, making sure the fire does not get too big.
- Add some water soaked wood to the fire.
- Brush on molasses, honey, sorghum, or maple syrup mixed with a small amount of water. Sprinkle on some cracked red and black pepper.
- Add bacon to smoker racks.
- Place roofing tin on smoker pit or close door if you are not doing this in a pit.
- Add smoking wood as needed to allow the bacon to smoke at a steady pace for 8-12 hours depending on desired level of smokiness.
- Let bacon cool slightly before removing.
- Place in refrigerator or ice chest and chill well. Add a little black pepper for a pretty appearance and flavor if desired.
- Slice, vacuum seal, and freeze.
Curing Salts: Natural Versus Processed Nitrates
There has been plenty written about the possibility of nitrates causing health issues. There are also a lot of products out there that claim to use natural ways of preservation such as celery powder.
Guess what celery powder is? Yep, a source of naturally occurring nitrates! So while naturally cured may sound good you are still getting some nitrates in your diet. Maybe not as many as with some very processed meats that are commercially distributed but still some.
Regardless of if you choose to use celery powder or the standard curing salt mixes, you need to be sure to use the required amount for your own safety. Never add a lot of extra nitrates or use too few! The dosage goes by the pound.
Weigh meats using some type of scale and go from there. Some mixtures have spices and curing agent already mixed together and will have directions of how much to use per pound. Mixing up your own cures is actually kind of fun because you can get all types of flavor profiles that you just won’t find in the store or deli.
Useful Supplies To Have
- Food Grade Buckets Or Stainless Steel Containers With Lids That Fit In Your Fridge Or Temperature Regulated Freezer
- Non Iodized Salt – Water softener salt is a great deal and works well
- Spices (Black and red pepper, chili powder, and celery) – If you cure much then you will want to buy spices in larger sizes and quantities. $5 for a little shaker of spice is too much when you are curing.
- Brown Sugar
- Molasses (Not Black Strap unless you like a very strong flavor)
- White Sugar
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Soy Sauce
Curing Salts Or Pink Salt
Sodium Nitrate is a special salt for curing. In small amounts it cures your meat but in large concentrated amounts it can be dangerous. Make sure to keep this salt put well away when not in use and that it is always in something that is well labeled.
You don’t want to mistake this for gourmet salt and put it in a dish or have an animal get into it. A little goes a long way so if you buy some you will probably have it around for awhile.
NOTE: Be sure that when using commercial spice blends made for curing that there is not already enough nitrates for meat curing. If it says curing blend then it might already have the recommended amount. If nothing is listed then you will need to add your own pink salt or celery powder.
Anthony’s Pink Curing Salt #2
This is enough to last you for a very long time so if you might want a smaller size if you don’t plan on doing this a lot. On the other hand having some curing salts put back is not a bad prepping move to make since it gives you more food preservation potential in a situation where you are hunting and/or butchering out your own livestock.
Curing Large Amounts
A refrigerator works just find for curing but you can get away with using ice and coolers if you really need to. It is a lot more work so I have to say that you should probably just save the money for some extra refrigeration or if you can get a cheap used chest freezer you can use that with a temperature regulator to cure a lot of meat.
A used fridge would work too. It really makes it a lot easier if you can just put your meat in a space and let it cure out. I want to share a recipe we like to use our bacon for.
Bacon with Ramp or Leek and Shiitake Mushroom Scrambled Eggs
We eat this in early spring when wild leeks (ramps) are available, the hens have started laying, and the final bacon is cured and smoked. Spring usually sees our first flushes of Shiitake mushrooms. Regular leeks or scallions can easily be substituted for the ramps. Any edible mushroom can be used in place of shiitake.
- Fry bacon until crispy then place in the oven to keep it warm.
- Sauté the shiitake mushrooms for 4 minutes and then add the ramps or leeks. Sauté for another 2 minutes.
- Beat eggs with a splash of milk and add to the mushrooms and leeks.
- Serve the eggs with the warm bacon.
Getting Started With A Small Batch Of Cured Meats
I advise starting with a small cut or two of meat if you have little experience. If you can get a 5 lb slab of pork belly then that is an excellent way to experiment with bacon curing. In fact you can split it up into two or more batches and experiment with different seasonings and cure times if you want.
I know that some of this article might seem like it is not straight forward here is is what you need to do step by step but that is because curing meat is an art that can be tailored to individual and family tastes. I don’t like to give specific recipes for spices and such because it is definitely best to learn as you go.
When my husband and I started curing meats, we just kind of winged it. The main guidelines we adhered to were just basic food safety like using a sufficient amount of salt and making sure that we used a vacuum sealer and froze meats for use over the course of a year or so.
That being said Backdoor Survival would love to hear any cure recipes or tips you might have come up with over the years. Part of the fun in doing your own meats is definitely trying out cures that go beyond that you find in the store!
About the Author: Samantha Biggers lives on the side of a mountain in North Carolina with her husband and pack of loyal hounds in a house her husband and she built themselves. When not writing she is working in their vineyard, raising Shetland sheep, or helping her husband with whatever the farm and vineyard can throw at them.
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