First of all, Happy Thanksgiving! Normally I spend Thanksgiving week doing a lot of shopping, prep work, and pie baking but not so much this year as we’re celebrating with some friends. Even though I’m in charge of the turkey (and my favorite stuffing) I found I actually had time to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while: cold smoke some cured pork.
The purpose of cold smoking (instead of hot smoking, think bbq) is to get the smoky flavor of the wood onto the meat without actually cooking it. For example, smoked cheeses, certain hams, and smoked salmon are cold smoked. I don’t think it’s a coincidence cold smoking is a winter-time activity. Pigs are slaughtered in the fall and hams get smoked and hung to dry during the winter months when the air is drier and cool. Makes sense, especially if you’re really in a thinking mood and ponder on where in the world cold smoked items are popular. Lots of smoked fish and meat in those northern climates. And probably in lower southern climates as well, can’t forget the other hemisphere. But I digress . . .
Ideally, when cold smoking you want the temperature in your smoker well below 100°F and most instructions recommend between 60 and 80°F. This is important if you’re doing it in the summer when you really need to have a separate smoke box pumping smoke and no heat into the chamber but not so much in winter. It’s already cold, all you need is smoke. I thought about it and figured one of those smoke boxes you put chips would be fine for generating smoke without me having to tend to a fire and running outside all the time. Again, cold outside. Sure enough, I found something which was even better: the A-Maze-N-Tube-Smoker. Go ahead chuckle about that, I’ll wait. Ok done?
My super-diligent research told me the smoker tube works great for cold smoking, and a lot of the BBQ’ing and Smoker forums I looked at seemed to sing praises of it. There are three sizes and it burns wood pellets which come in quite a range of wood flavors. Since I was going to be preparing some speck and a blackstrap molasses country ham I opted to get some beech pellets (the tube comes pre-filled with a Pit Master mix) which apparently is what is used to smoke speck. The recipe for the country ham said it is very similar to northern European smoked hams and since I was smoking them both at the same time I decided it would get the beech smoke too.
This is a perfect tool for cold smoking. Pack the tube with pellets, light, and let it smoulder away. I purchased the largest one because it is supposed to smoke continuously for 6 hours which is what I wanted, but according to the instructions included it can go as long as 9 hours for cold smoking if packed full. While the tube can turn your regular grill into a hot smoker I was concerned only with its cold smoking capability. Works great. All I have to do is pick my head up from where I sit at my desk tapping away and make sure there’s still smoke trickling out. I didn’t have to back outside until I took everything out of the smoker.
‘Wait a minute,’ you say, ‘what was that about speck and a country ham?’ That’s right. Last week I was introduced to a place in the West Loop of Chicago called Peoria Packing. The West Loop used to be the meatpacking area (also home to Haymarket, of the historic Haymarket Riot and Oprah’s Harpo studios) but like many industrial areas in cities it’s now full of lofts, restaurants, and tech companies. Nevertheless, there are still a handful of meatpackers there where pork-loving Chicagoans can still buy big primal cuts at low prices.
Anyway, I had asked my friend Chef Julius Russell about getting my hands on some good fat back for making lardo (still need to get some) and he said ‘oh I’ve got a place for you’ and took me to Peoria Packing. As you can see from their website they claim to be a butcher ‘store’ but that’s a bit of a stretch. You walk in and it’s basically a big cooler with tables full of primal cuts (and some retail cuts). They’ve got all the little bits which would make Bourdain happy too, ears, tails, heads, etc. If it’s on a pig they’ve got it on a table or in a tub. Yes, I was in hog heaven.
Now I’m going to confess, I’m not really doing hams. Instead, I’m using ham cures and techniques but with shoulder cuts. Hams take a long time to cure and dry, e.g. prosciutto can take years to develop, so for my initial cold smoking and dry-aging experiment I didn’t want to have to wait a year to see if it worked. By using shoulder cuts I can learn the techniques and if successful eventually move up to a bigger piece.
The other issue for whole hams is space. They’re rather big and most recipes call for the ham to get packed in salt. This presents two more problems: I don’t have a vessel big enough for packing a ham in salt and I’d have to get a Costco sized bag of salt. The shoulder and picnic ham are much more manageable and fit inside the fridge better (especially during Thanksgiving week).
So, decision made for crafting speck and a black molasses country ham, my first steps were curing and smoking them. Looking at the recipes I found both would cure in the same amount of time based on their weights and after recalculating for the smaller picnic ham, about the same time for cold smoking. Good ones to start with as well as being two different types of cures: one sweet, one savory. Hopefully you’ll see some positive results in about a month or two.
Homemade Blackstrap Molasses Country Ham (from Charcuterie by Ruhlman & Polcyn)
- 6 lb picnic ham
- 1 ½ lbs kosher salt
- 6 ounces Insta-Cure #2 (DQ curing salt #2)
- 8 oz dark brown sugar
- 1 1/8 C blackstrap molasses
- ½ C dark rum
- 1 Tbs fresh ginger, grated
- 1 tsp pimenton (orig. cayenne pepper)
- 1 Tbs coriander seed, crushed
- 1 Tbs juniper berries, crushed
SideRoam: The original recipe in the book is for a 12-15lb fresh ham. For reasons stated above I used a picnic ham which weighed 6 lbs before curing. I have adjusted the amounts in the recipe as well as smoking time for this weight. Smoking time in the original recipe called for 18 hours. I did between 6 and 7 and was happy. Again you’re not cooking it, just getting smoke on it.
Combine the salts together in a large bowl and mix. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir together.
You’re going to have a big bowl of paste-like mixture.
Place the picnic ham in a large baking dish. Pour and rub the cure all over the picnic ham, making sure to get in and around the bone ends.
Place the baking dish on a tray. There will be a lot of water drawn out so the tray is a ‘just-in-case’ safety measure. Mine didn’t overflow but it was a lot of liquid.
Place another tray on top of the picnic ham and weigh it down with 10 pounds. (I put the curing speck on top and then a weight on that, doubled it up!)
Refrigerate one day for each pound of pork. 6lbs = 6 days. About halfway through flip the picnic ham over and redistribute the cure on it.
Remove the picnic ham from the fridge and rinse off the cure with cold water.
Soak it in cold water for up to 8 hours in order to remove any residual salt (I did not do this as I felt it wasn’t in the cure for two weeks so washing it off should have done the trick, we’ll see)
Place the cleaned off picnic ham on a rack, uncovered, and refrigerate overnight to develop a pellicle, a tackiness which protects the meat as well as helps grab smoke flavor.
Cold smoke for 6-7 hours. Weigh the meat and record. Hang the ham in the curing fridge and dry for at least 4 weeks. Should be aiming to lose 30% or more of post smoking weight.
Side roam: In the original recipe the air-curing time is supposed to be 7 weeks. Again we’re about half of the weight so I’m going to see if 4 weeks works. According to Ruhlman you want the center to be “as dense as any dry cured ham” however if it isn’t dried all the way through you can still use the undried part in any cooking dish where you’d use ham, soups, greens, etc.
Homemade Speck, sort of (made with de-boned pork shoulder, adapted from Salumi by Ruhlman & Polcyn)
- 7-8 lb boneless pork shoulder (10 lb shoulder should weigh this if you cut off the coppa and why wouldn’t you?)
- 8 oz kosher salt
- 2 tsp Curing Salt #1
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 4 Tbs juniper berries, crushed
- 4 Tbs allspice berries, crushed
- 4 Tbs black pepper
- ½ C dark brown sugar
- 1 Tbs bay leaves, crushed fine
Lay the shoulder out flat on the counter and pound with a meat hammer or heavy pan until you have a uniform thickness of 4-5 inches.
Mix the cure ingredients together.
Rub the cure all over the shoulder, making sure to get into any cracks.
Place the pork on a baking sheet, cover the top loosely with plastic wrap. Place another tray on top and weigh down with 8 lbs.
Flip the shoulder over every day or so and redistribute the cure on it.
Cure for 5-6 days.
Remove the shoulder from the fridge and rise off the cure under cold water. Place the shoulder on a rack and put in fridge uncovered to develop the pellicle (see above).
Cold smoke for 5-8 hours (according to Ruhlman, I did 6).
Weight the shoulder and record the weight. Poke a hole in the shoulder and run a string through it, hang in curing fridge until it loses 30% of post-smoking weight.