Preservation society: salt cures

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and historian Angela Clutton explores the art of curing

Words: Angela Clutton

Anyone who happened to come round to my flat over the last few weeks might have been a little surprised to find a row of pork tenderloins strung up. Less so if they had read the previous instalment of this Preservation society series where I was, frankly, boasting about my home-curing exploits. Sad to say I now have to admit those came to nought. If this seems like it’s not the most auspicious start to a feature on curing food, stick with me and I’ll go back to the beginning.

Salt as a preservative draws out moisture that would otherwise enable the growth of the type of bacteria that makes things go off. So far, so similar to what drying does to, say, pulses or tomatoes. Salt, though, does even more than just get the moisture out. It travels the opposite way to get into the flesh of the meat or fish and encourages the growth of good, harmless bacteria, while enhancing the flavour. Add sugar, herbs and spices to the salt cure and the flavours get even better.

It is obvious what a huge boon that would have been to families in days gone by, who needed to find ways to preserve the meat from their livestock. All kinds of cuts were and still are cured with salt, before being air-dried or smoked into something delicious. Beef topside becomes bresaola. Venison haunch becomes biltong. Duck breast makes a fine prosciutto.

Traditional bath chaps
Autumn used to be the traditional time for slaughtering pigs and curing was one of the most useful ways of making sure none of the precious meat went to waste. Think of cheeks into traditional bath chaps, shoulder into speck and, yes, tenderloins into salumi.

In defense of both me and curing, it was the air-drying where the wheels came off for my tenderloins. The curing stage was no problem, but to air-dry cured meat you need the temperature to be around 10-18C, have high humidity, and a flow of air. If I lived in a draughty old place, my chances of successful air-drying would have been pretty good—I don’t, so despite my best efforts, it was too warm.

The pork dried too fast on the outside and barely at all inside. If you do have some draughty windows or a proper basement / cellar, then I hope you will think about having a go at curing and air-drying some meat. I have to accept that my charcuterie will continue to come from Cannon & Cannon (no bad thing, that) and turn my curing attentions elsewhere—definitely to pork belly, which can be easily home-cured into streaky bacon, so long as you have a good piece of meat and a fridge. No air-drying needed.

Dill-laden cure
I can also be sure of success preserving lemons or limes in salt for a month or so. They’ll be lovely in all kinds of north African-influenced dishes. Gravadlax is another curing favourite. ‘Grav’ from the Scandinavian word for ‘buried’ referring to how the salmon (‘lax’) used to be salted and preserved in a hole. My recipe adds bourbon, coriander seeds and orange zest to the classic dill-laden cure and I’ll choose it every time over a smoked salmon.

Most such oily fish take well to curing, far more so than white fish, therefore making salt cod a bit of an anomaly, but who cares when it’s so tasty. For those living in the heat of the Mediterranean sun, salt cod became a staple ingredient long before refrigeration arrived. The cod is so dried-out after salting that it needs to be rehydrated before use.

Salt cod’s enduring popularity—as with so much cured produce—is testament to just how delicious the impact of salting is. So good, I’ll carry on curing anything the confines of my London flat will allow.