HOW TO BUILD YOUR OWN CURING CHAMBER FOR GAME CHARCUTERIE
If you ever enjoyed playing with a kids chemistry set as a child, then making your own game charcuterie is most definitely for you. Its pure alchemy and my most enjoyable way to play with food. If there is a finer way to spend your Sunday than hanging mouldy pig bits in an old fridge I haven’t found one.
There are 2 main forces which need to be controlled to make charcuterie. Temperature and humidity. First, for temperature control, you will need a fridge.
The fridge. You will need a frost-free domestic fridge which you can buy second hand online for little money. Take your time to get the right one. If you can find a tall larder style with an interior fan at the top then brilliant. Bosch made many of these so keep an eye on eBay. Please don’t be tempted to buy a fancy wine cooler or a commercial fridge with glass doors. I get that a glass door will let you stand and drool at your salame for hours, but trust me, white domestic ones are easier. The reasons are that they work by pumping cold dry air in. This then condenses at the back and drips out through a hole at the bottom. Because they run “dry” and we can then add the correct moisture via a humidifier. Wine fridges and glass-fronted ones tend to cool directly from a plate at the back of the fridge, and although they condense the water out of the air like a domestic fridge, they tend not to have the hole at the bottom for the moisture to escape and so they run “wet.” They are designed for chilling cans and bottles, not food.
The problem with this is that as you are putting raw, moist meat in there to dry. As it loses moisture, that moisture will have nowhere to go, and will continue to build up, making your chamber too humid, most likely resulting in spoilage through toxic green/black mould. Yuk and not something you want anywhere near your food. Of course, this can all remedied I’m sure by people with better technical abilities than your average chimp but to be honest I find that my good old white fridge works perfectly well so I haven’t tried.
A Humidifier. The humidifier sets the correct level of moisture in the chamber to ensure that the charcuterie dries correctly. You want to get an ultrasonic one and run it exclusively on distilled water. I find that best and largest ones are sold by hydroponic guys for marijuana growing, so you may get some nods and winks when you ask for one. Mine is an 8 litre bought off eBay for £50 by ‘The Pure Factory’. They assured me that it would be delivered very discreetly in plain packaging and to their word it was. I didn’t bother explaining that I wanted to make salame instead of ganja, and doubt they would have believed me if I did.
A Hygrostat and Thermostat. These will regulate your temperature and humidity for you. Mine was bought from a reptile store and is a thermo-hygrostat in one made by Trixie. There will be two sensors with you need to place inside the fridge, one reads the temperature and the other reads the humidity. Plug your fridge into the socket for heat/cool and your humidifier in the socket for humidity and then plug the thermo-hygrostat into the mains. Follow instructions to set it for 12 degrees c and 74% humidity. Easy peasy.
A ceramic heating bulb and dimmer plug. I find this to be invaluable in getting the right balance needed. Again these bulbs can be found in reptile stores for vivariums. Connected to a plug-in dimmer on 40% power and placed safely inside the fridge, a 150w bulb dimmed will raise the temperature inside the chamber just enough to keep triggering the fridge condenser to come on. This, in turn, will evaporate the moisture from the air and ensure that your chamber doesn’t run too moist and thus help keep the dreaded green mould at bay. I recommend a ceramic heat bulb over a normal lightbulb as exposure to light will lead to rancidification of the fats in the meat over time.
A computer fan. I run a computer fan on the same circuit as the humidifier to help circulate the airflow when it comes on. The inner fridge fan is linked to the same circuit as the fridge condenser. I also open the door once a day when checking on my charcuterie to help with the airflow.
That’s it! That is everything you need to get going. Traditionally, of course, all this was done in a basement with steady levels of airflow, humidity and temperature, but let’s be honest, if you can find a space in your house that is constantly 11 degrees Celcius and 70% humidity (and your wife is happy for you to hang salami from the ceiling) I would be very surprised. And more than a little jealous.
Nitrates and curing salts – A word on the use of nitrates for curing- (listed as either cure #1 or cure #2). My advice would always be to use them. Always and without exception.
Not using them increases the risk of Clostridium botulinum, the deadly bacterium growing in your meat, and if you want to play botulism roulette with your charcuterie, go ahead but don’t invite me round for dinner. Cure #2 is sometimes listed is instacure#2 or Prague powder#2. It is used for longer cures and drying times like below. It is normally composed of 89.75% salt, 6.25% sodium nitrite and 4% nitrate. The sodium nitrite gives a quick defence, and the slower releasing sodium nitrate allows for longer defence.
Sometimes it is dyed pink to avoid confusing it with normal salt, but that does not mean that it is the same a Himalayan Pink Salt. As nitrates are a naturally occurring product (celery and spinach are nitrate-rich) there have been some trendies discussing the use of ‘organic’ nitrates like celery juice to prevent botulism. This is a very, very silly idea. You have as much knowledge of the number of nitrates in that juice as a bucket of unicorn pee.
Curing salts can be a toxic chemical in the wrong hands and you must be very careful when handling. I use a very precise small digital scale similar to the kind that crack dealers use in the movies. Please make sure that they are then stored safely and away from children. I put mine in a clearly labelled and sealed jar on the very top shelf & not near anything else and where they can’t be mistaken for salt/sugar or any other harmless white substance.
Good Mould/Bad Mould- If in doubt, toss it out.
Our environment contains millions of mould spores, both good and bad, which will latch onto our salami to grow. Bad mould is potentially toxic. Unless you want a visit from the undertakers, or at least spend the night glued to the loo, I would strongly advise throwing way anything that looks or smells iffy. Thankfully we can protect our salami from bad mould by spraying it with a penicillin solution to form a protective casing. This is what Bactoferm 600 does and can be bought online from Weschenfelders. It must be stored in the freezer as soon as it arrives. Bactoferm 600 will give your meat a nice bloom of Penicillium Nalgiovense (a common form of beneficial mould which is found in France) producing a nice ‘funky’ mushroom smell and form a protective layer which will inhibit the growth of any spores of nasty green or black toxic mould that may be lurking around the atmosphere. It also helps prevent excess surface drying and loss of lactic acid during maturation that can increase pH and result in less acidity/tangy flavours.
As I’m no expert I can only advise on the basics here. In general, there seem to be 3 colours of mould; White, Green, and Black. If you get any other colour, I would treat is as suspicious and therefore to be canned. I have never eaten anything with bad mould on it, so I can’t testify to its effects. I am also unwilling to be a human guinea pig here, so I guess you have to take my word that it’s not good.
DRY WHITE: dry, powdery white mould is good. This is a form of Penicillin. It will have a smell of ammonia or mushrooms.
FURRY OR HAIRY WHITE MOULD. Not good, and needs sorting. See below
GREENY BLUE MOULD. Again, not good. This normally grows when the humidity is too high (over 80%) and/or there is a lack of airflow and a stale environment. Needs sorting, see below
BLACK. Potentially toxic. Normally caused by very high humidity and stale air. Avoid at all costs.
Hairy white mould and green stuff can be wiped away with vinegar. Lower the humidity in the chamber, increase the airflow and keep a watchful eye. Remember- If it doubts, toss it out. Wipe down the inside of the chamber with vinegar to stop it coming back.
When you have finished curing, it’s probably best to disinfect the whole chamber with antibacterial spray or a bleach solution.