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Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (Revised and Updated) Kindle Edition
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I've cured and smoked bacon twice in the past couple of months. The first time, I followed a recipe that I found by Googling and it came out great. Everywhere I looked, though, I saw references to this book, and how great it is, and I figured I should probably break down and spend the money to get "real" instructions for bacon -- along with everything else contained herein.
Ruhlman makes a point of providing weights (in grams) for everything, which is great. Hey, precision! So, I got out my scale and mixed up his basic dry cure. I read the instructions that say how much dry cure per how much pork belly, then weighed my two pieces of belly and measured out, to the gram, exactly how much cure I needed for each piece. I applied the cure, put the meat into bags, and put it in the refrigerator to let the salts, kosher and pink, do their thing.
The first time I cured bacon, the belly produced a lot of liquid. This time, not so much -- even after a few days. Even though I was aware that every piece of meat is different, and what was happening could be totally normal, I started to worry that I had messed something up. I went back to the recipe, read it carefully, and realized the extent to which Michael Ruhlman is all over the place.
It's almost as if he's engaging in providing inconsistent curing instructions as performance art, and fancies himself Marina Abramovic. The first thing that I noticed is that he gives two recipes for dry cure. Both use 450 grams (equivalent to one pound, he says) of kosher salt and 56 grams of pink salt. The difference is that one uses 225 grams (equivalent to 8 ounces, he says) of sugar and the other 425 grams (equivalent to 13 ounces, he says) of dextrose.
Let's first take a look at those conversions. It turns out that 450 grams is 15.87 ounces; that's close enough to a pound that I can't imagine that it'll make any difference. So far, so good. The 225 grams / 8 ounces is just this conversion cut in half, so that's fine too. But 425 grams is 14.99 ounces -- which isn't even close to the 13 ounces that he claims. Maybe it's a typo? Maybe it's unbelievably sloppy. The recipe finishes with an estimate of yield: about 725 grams if using sugar (731 using math, so that's okay) and 950 grams if using dextrose (931 using math, which is less okay). The difference between the two recipes is 200 extra grams of dextrose. Why the 225 gram difference in yield?
More egregious is that he says to use 56 grams "of this mixture" per 2.25 kilograms of pork. Well, which mixture? If the most important thing is the nitrite/meat ratio, you have to use different weights of the sugar cure and the dextrose cure to achieve the same ratio for a given piece of meat. Does Ruhlman say which mixture? Nope.
It actually gets worse from there. In the bacon recipe, he writes that "[i]f your belly weighs between 3 and 5 pounds...it's fine to simplify the method by placing the belly in the Ziploc bag, adding 1/4 cup/30 grams of dry cure [Ed: which one??] along with [spices]" and then in literally the NEXT PARAGRAPH writes: "[o]ne 3- to 5-pound...slab pork belly, skin on, Basic Dry Cure...as necessary for dredging (about 1/4 cup/50 grams)." In the space of one paragraph, a quarter cup transforms from 30 grams to 50 grams. Moreover, it says to use this amount for a belly between 3 and 5 pounds; 5 pounds is 67% heavier than 3 pounds, which is, you know, a pretty significant difference. So on one end of the instructions (30 grams / 5 pounds) he's telling us to use 6 grams per pound, and on the other end (50 grams / 3 pounds) it's about 17 grams per pound. Factor in the lack of reference to which version of the dry cure to use, and you could have someone "following the recipe" who uses 3x more nitrites on a slab of bacon than another person, also "following the recipe."
Hey, maybe bacon is really forgiving and it doesn't really matter. But he doesn't actually SAY that anywhere. Instead he gives faux-precise instructions that function as a choose your own bacon adventure. And it does matter, at least according to the FDA. (Why? Because sodium nitrite inhibits botulism, which flourishes in the anaerobic environment found in, say, the smoker you're putting your bacon into.) The recommended level of pink salt is 1 ounce (28.35 grams) per 25 pounds of meat, or 1.134 grams per pound. (Google "how much sodium nitrite per pound of meat".) Ruhlman's sugar cure is 7.66% pink salt by weight and his dextrose cure is 6.02% pink salt by weight. If you use his suggestion of 56 grams of cure (let's go with the sugar cure to be generous) per five pounds of meat, that works out to 0.857 grams of pink salt per pound of meat -- below the FDA's recommendation. With all the other combinations ... forget it, you can figure it out, but trust that they're all messed up.
Wanna have your head explode? A small amount of Googling will lead you to a blog post Ruhlman made on his website in 2011, about a slab of bacon he cured, where he says to use cure equal to 5% of the weight of the meat. So, that's 23 grams per pound of meat -- a ratio way greater than any interpretation of what he wrote in his book. And he's explicit about using the sugar cure in the blog post, which means using 1.76 grams of pink salt per pound of meat -- well above the FDA's recommendation. It's absolutely maddening.
So, my bacon. After a week in the cure it wasn't looking great. Not much liquid had collected, still, and it hadn't firmed up the way it was supposed to. I threw in some more salt -- not cure -- and left it in the refrigerator for three more days. It was looking better by the time I put it on the smoker, and when I ate some I didn't die of food poisoning. So, that's the best thing I can say about this book: it didn't get me killed. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I have to say that this book has been a massive disappointment. I plan on continuing to go through it and maybe look into making some of the other recipes, but only with a whole lot of verification. And, like I said, it's written in an engaging style -- but if you actually want to learn reliable information and have solid recipes to follow, I can in no way recommend it.
I checked out the library copy and will use it next year for fermenting veggies and for sauerkraut.\
We both like the explanations for why you should use certain products and do certain techniques.
Lots of info with clear instructions and recipes. Also provides tips on the best equipment to use.