I am very excited about this week’s post. The first time we ate nduja was years ago at The Purple Pig here in Chicago and neither of us knew what it was, except that it was really fricking awesome. It’s a Calabrian sausage (toe of the Italian boot) and it is spicy! Spreadable, you can eat it on bread or add as a flavoring to soups, stews, stuff chicken breasts with it, mix in with sauce and pasta, have with eggs; it’s a very versatile sausage. Nduja also introduces a new technique for the artisanal craft sausage maker, fermenting. I don’t know if this technique is the pinnacle of sausage making but it sure seems so.
Fermented sausage has the same basic construction as a regular sausage but with the addition of special meat curing starter cultures. The cultures you add increase the effect of good bacteria in the meat, turning sugars into lactic acid which lowers the pH, which makes a hostile environment for bad bacteria. The acidification also helps develop the tangy flavor of fermented sausages.
After mixing in the cultures you need to kick-start the fermenting process by placing the sausages in a warm, humid fermenting chamber (basically your oven, the oven light on, and a pan of water) then hung to cure in the curing fridge. They can also be cold smoked for more flavor before drying. That summer sausage you love (or not) is an example of fermented sausage. There is a lot more active science going on here than just making brats or coppa.
Because of the cultures, you won’t know if you’ve done everything correctly until the sausage is ready to eat. For example, when I make a regular sausage I can cook up a piece and sample it to check my seasonings. With a fermented sausage I can check the seasoning prior to adding curing salts and the starter cultures, but that won’t give me the final taste. It’s much more like curing a ham. You’re just not going to know if it’s a success until it’s done.
Ok, I’ve bored you enough with the technique, back to the wonderful spicy red meat butter that is nduja.
The main, actually only, seasoning ingredient in nduja is paprika. Most recipes you’ll find for nduja will use a combination of hot and bittersweet paprika. But for originality you really should get your hands on some real Calabrian peperoncino. It has a very distinct taste, like the pickled pepperoncini peppers you get at the deli. Of course, Calabrian paprika is very difficult to find here in the USA. It took a much longer scouring of the internet but Cheryl found some at Craft Butchers’ Pantry. Since they also had some of the bittersweet paprika required for the sausage, I ordered some of that too.
How did the nduja turn out? Amazing! Although it’s probably not as HOT as it could be, it’s still pretty damn fiery. You’re not getting a lot of nuance here with the flavor. It’s straight up paprika and heat, but it’s not a lingering or burning heat and the spice dissipates quickly enough that you don’t shy away from another bite. Basically tastes like an extremely spicy pepperoni without the solid feel/texture and bits of white fat. And a little bit of smokiness.
Speaking of texture I am extremely pleased with the smoothness of my nduja. The sausage is soft enough to spread on bread but has a firmness to it which makes it semi-sliceable. It’s not oozing-soft, but squish-able. Kind of like a really firm putty, but a putty you can slice, spread, and eat. I’m glad I made little chubs because they will be very easy to use when adding to pasta, sauces or simply spreading on some bread. Simply snip off a chub and go.
Normally when air curing meats you go by weight loss to determine when it’s done. Because there’s so much fat in nduja (the really good ones are upwards of 90%) you’re not going to lose much weight. Fat just doesn’t lose water like muscle so it is more of a time cure. I followed all of the directions and gave my chubs an extra day before giving a taste test. They’re fine and delicious. Of course you can likely let them hang for longer if you like. Since larger nduja stuffed in beef middles can age for a year I don’t see much of a problem letting these sit in the chamber longer.
Nduja (from Ruhlman’s Salumi)
- 5 lbs pork belly, the fattier the better, cubed to fit in your grinder
- 250 grams peperoncino powder HOT (about 2 C)*
- 190 grams bittersweet paprika (about 1 ¼ C)*
- 56 grams sea salt (about 3 level Tbs)
- 1 Tbs dextrose*
- 1 tsp DQ Curing Salt #2 (Instacure #2, pink salt #2, NOT bacon curing salt which is DQ #1)
- 10 grams bactoferm (F-RM-52)*
- 2 Tbs distilled water
- 10 feet of hog casings
Partially freeze the cubed pork belly so it is stiff but not frozen. Will make a huge difference when grinding due to the high fat content.
Soak the hog casings in warm water for 30 minutes.
Grind the pork through the smallest die you have, most likely the 1/8 inch/3mm plate.
Add the peperoncino, paprika, salt, pink salt, and dextrose. Mix thoroughly. I normally mix with my hands but this is one where you can use a stand mixer if it is big and strong enough. If not, just keep mixing it like dough until all of the powdered spices are incorporated. At one point you will have a lot of powder sitting in the bottom of the bowl which doesn’t look like it will get absorbed, keep going, it will.
Dissolve the starter culture (bactoferm) in the distilled water.
Add to the meat and mix well. Make sure it gets distributed throughout the meat. Use the stand mixer if possible for this step.
Stretch and push the hog casing onto the stuffer tube attachment, leaving an inch or two hanging off the end of the tube.
Stuff the sausage keeping one hand on the end of the tube where the casing is getting stuffed and help it along if it gets stuck.
Tie the end in a bubble knot (see below) but do not cut off the long end. Twist into small links (4-5 inches). From the bubble knot, take your twine and ‘tie’ off the links with a the continuous tie as you would a roast. Once you get to 8 chubs tied, cut off the section of links and tie off the other end with another bubble knot. You may need to squeeze out some of the sausage in order to get enough of the casing to make the bubble knot. Continue until you’re done.
Prick the casings all over (and I mean all over) with a sterile needle or a sausage pricker to help let air out in the drying process. The casing will shrink and you want any air trapped to escape.
Turn your oven light on. This should make the temperature in the oven about 80°F. Place a pan of water inside as well to add some humidity. Hang the strands of chubs an oven rack placed on one of the high tracks. Close oven, leave light on, allow chubs to ‘ferment’ for 24 hours.
Next day, take chubs out of oven and cold smoke for at least 4 hours.
Hang in your curing fridge for 7 days before eating.
*Notes: The original recipe in Ruhlman’s Salumi called for 300 grams of ¼ C of hot paprika and 140 grams of bittersweet. The peperoncino powder I bought came in a 250g bag so I added 50g more of the bittersweet which is probably why I lost some heat with these. Whatever, it’s still pretty damn spicy.
While I have tried to give tsp and Tbs equivalents, you really should get a kitchen scale if you don’t have one. Science-y things need more accurate measurements, especially when it comes to starter cultures.
The mixed nduja is very dense. It will take a bit of effort to stuff the casings as it is not as ‘loose’ as regular sausage. If using a hand crank canister stuffer like me you will find a lot of resistance when cranking. Just go slowly and make sure not to overstuff and break the casing.
If you decide to go further down the rabbit hole of charcuterie and make fermented sausages you will eventually need things like dextrose, bactoferm, and Mold 600. There are many reputable suppliers where these are available. I purchased mine from Butcher and Packer. Craft Butchers’ Pantry also carries them. Both carry all sorts of things you’ll need when you’re ready to level-up.
All of the cultures you purchase can be safely stored in the freezer for 6 months. One packet will, according to the suppliers, work for 100kg of meat. Using half a packet for 5 lbs may seem like overkill but from my understanding the bacteria is contained in a powder and there’s more powder than bacteria so by using at least ¼ of the packet you are ensuring enough of the bacteria will get into the meat. You’ll see recipes for 5lbs of salami which call for 10 grams, 15 grams, and 20 grams (the packages I bought are 25 grams), so you will get a little confused. For this recipe I used the 10 grams specified in the recipe (I used the remaining 15 grams of the packet for some chorizo – coming soon!). Since it’s more than ¼ of the packet I feel safe, especially since you can eat it after a relatively short curing time in the small chub/links form.
Tying a bubble knot: