It’s time for another edition of KUT’s Summer School. Every Friday this summer, we head out to learn new skills from people in Austin who are experts in their field. Today’s subject? Meat curing.
Our instructor is a butcher who used to be a vegan for almost ten years: Salt and Time Butcher Shop and Salumeria co-owner Ben Runkle.
"I understand why people become vegetarian, especially when you see how bad factory farming can be, but I don't think it's the only ethical response anymore," Runkle says.
Listen to the audio or read below to get a basic idea of the process.
Step 1: Get a good cut of meat. "With very few exceptions, we have a personal relationship with the person who's responsible on a day-to-day basis for raising the animal," Runkle says. "We've been to almost all the ranches." Here, we're using a cut of coppa from a pig.
Step 2: Rub it in a mixture of salt and spices. "One thing to always do is make sure if there's any crevices, little flaps, work it in underneath there, make sure it's totally covering the entire surface area," Runkle explains. "It's worth massaging it in a little bit."
Step 3: Put it in a zipper storage bag or plastic container and leave it in the fridge for about a week. When you take it out it should look something like the photo below. "You can see that the spices really started to penetrate," Runkle says. "The meat has taken on the colors of the paprika, and there's moisture that's come out of it."
Step 4: Rinse off the meat and towel dry it. Then hang it up to dry in an area with the correct humidity and temperature. "We shoot for 73 percent humidity and 55 degrees," Runkle says. "For a home person, a little wine fridge is actually really good."
How do you know when it's done? Depends on how thick the meat it is. A coppa takes four months, but a little snack stick sausage might be dry enough in a couple weeks. Runkle says this is where you just have to do it a bunch and learn for yourself.
"It's kind of one of the beautiful and torturous things about this," he says. "It's not ready till its ready."
"You can't cut into it," Runkle explains. "If you do, you'll kind of ruin it. When it's ready it's not going to squish. It's going to be firm. It will not feel like a piece of raw meat at all. You'll be able to tell the difference."
Step 5: Slice thinly. "It's hard to do with a knife, but with a sharp enough knife you can do it," Runkle says. Or you could buy a deli slicer.
Step 6: Eat! "You get a really cool natural process that produces a really complex flavor," Runkle says. "The best chef in the world couldn't apply any technique that nature hasn't already done to this to make it taste any better."
Next week: KUT's education reporter Kate McGee learns a skill that just might come in handy the next time she's interviewing a group of elementary school kids – making balloon animals.
Disclosure: Salt and Time is a sponsor of KUT.