Safely Drying Meat and Sausage

With more and more people air-drying meat having seen programmes like those by Hugh Fernley Whittingstall (HFW) there seems to be a very blasé attitude sneaking in on many forums regarding the production of air dried sausage and meats.

The, "well they've been doing it for centuries in Italy/Spain etc without sophisticated equipment" brigade, and the, "well they have them hanging in bars in Italy/Spain, so they must be safe" camp.

What they say may be true, but we do not have the same conditions as those people, nor do we have the accumulated knowledge of generations of forebears on our side, so we need to be cautious in what we do for reasons that I hope will become clear.

By the way, the meat above the bar abroad will be perfectly safe - once meat has dried sufficiently bacteria won't live in it - but only after it's dried, not during it's production.

Anyone wanting to read in detail about the safeguards needed when air drying meat or sausage will find some of the best information available here.

In this summary of the website we can see that we need to protect against the growth of bacteria by:

  • Using meats with a low bacteria count. We can't assess this at home but can:
    • Buy the freshest meat and keep it cold.
    • keep our tools and work environment clean.
    • keep the meat as cold as possible when making the product.
  • Cure the meat properly
    • Adding the correct amount of salt.
    • Using sodium nitrite and nitrate which protect against Clostridium botulinum, the most toxic poison known.
  • Increase the acidity of the meat to discourage bacterial growth - lower the PH
    • Using a starter, or other methods, to increase acidity and produce beneficial bacteria.
  • Reduce the amount of water available for bacteria to breed - lower water activity (Aw)
    • By careful drying at the correct temperature and humidity

Smoking the meat, which also dries it and provides a surface protection against bacteria may also be used.

The first of these hurdles I hope is self explanatory, if you don't feel that it's necessary maybe you should take up skydiving instead of sausage-making!

The second has caused much debate recently with scares about the use of nitrite and nitrate, but we also know that salt alone will not protect against Clostridium botulinum unless used at unpalatable levels. The scares have mainly been related to meat cooked at high temperatures, and given that the amounts of nitrite/nitrate used in modern recipes are lower than those naturally occurring in many vegetables, my opinion is that they should be used. The advantages far out-weigh the disadvantages.

Increasing the acidity - lowering the PH of the meat is generally done by producing lactic bacteria in the meat. In sausage the addition of a small amount of glucose will assist this process as will the use of a commercially produced lactic bacteria starter. HFW achieves the same effect using acidophilus (from health food shops) which contains similar bacteria. This is usually combined with an incubation/fermentation period at a higher temperature and humidity. Ingredients such as wine and vinegar, in some sausages, will assist.

Drying the meat sounds easy, but should be done in a specific environment. Many people dry it outside during the cooler parts of the year and this is fine, but given the fluctuations in temperature we have been getting in recent years, it's not always as safe as it once was. What is needed is a temperature of around 12°C - 15°C. We also want a Relative Humidity (RH) of between 60% and 85% (depending on type of product), and some air flow. We need to achieve an environment where the meat dries steadily, not too fast, not too slow. Drying too fast or dry, can lead to a problem with 'case hardening' where the outside dries before moisture can escape from the middle leading to a spoiled, or at least an inferior product

Having searched high and low for a suitable environment I came to the conclusion that my only option would be to create a purpose built drying chamber. Discussions on the forum and other research have led me to Convert a Fridge into a Curing Chamber.

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The Half Pig - Cured

No, not 'cured' as in running around again! But, what I've done with the half-pig I got a couple of weeks ago.

Well sad to say, the 4kg of Everyday Sausage I made from the shoulder is in the dustbin following a freezer failure. As are a variety of other items.

What I'm left with is 2kg of pork and herb (haslet style) slicing sausage and potted ham that I wrote about previously.

Along with this the 4kg of dry cured back bacon and smoked back bacon have survived, these were both made using the bacon cure previously posted. For a tutorial, and down-loadable cure calculator for a similar cure, see my tutorial on the forum. I was really pleased with the smoked bacon, given that it's the first thing I've smoked in my, much altered, smoker.

Bacon Smoker
Smoked Bacon

Most of the 3.2kg of Everyday Ham's also survived. That reminds me I must take some decent pictures of these things next time.

The 1kg of polony I made tastes just about OK, but the recipe needs a lot more work. Will I bother to make it again? I don't know yet.


That leaves a couple of pieces of pancetta, that are still drying in my curing fridge, another new, and somewhat costly addition that has separate temperature control, and within the next month or so will have full humidity control as well. The flat piece (stesa) is the same recipe as the previously posted pancetta, but the rolled (arrotolata) pancetta is to a completely different recipe from my American curing chum 'Larbo', it's flavoured with orange so should be interesting. I'll write about this one later.

Pancetta curing

I still have some pork and liver frozen to make pâté and faggots when I get around to them. All in all not to bad, If it wasn't for that flamin' 'frost free' freezer.

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Asparagus - Now Picking

British Asparagus is now coming into season. It's my favourite vegetable. Buy it fresh from these local growers:

Farndon Fields Farm Shop

Cattows Farm Shop

Manor Farm Shop, Catthorpe

The Malt Kiln Farm Shop, Stretton-Under-Fosse

Scaddows Farm Shop

Abbey Farm near Wolvey (On the B4109) also sell from the farm gate and at farmers' markets, and Rutland PYO, near Edith Weston, are listed on another site as selling it, but I have yet to get their details.

If you know of other local producers please let me know.

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Potted Ham

There comes a time of year when it gets a bit too hot for pea and ham soup, so short of just pigging out on them, I had to find a use for the ham hock and knuckle from my latest half-pig.

Mrs Beeton came to the rescue with a recipe for Potted Ham.

To update it, I used butter instead of the lard in the original recipe. I used 400gms of ham off two hocks, which I cooked at 140°C for about 4 hours, covered, and with just a little water in the roasting tin. I mixed this in the food processor with 150gms of clarified butter, 3 pinches of mace and a large pinch of Cayenne pepper.

I was going to put it into small pots, top with a sage leaf, and seal it with more clarified butter. However, decided that it wasn't going to last long enough to bother!

To serve, soften it by microwaving on 'defrost' until soft enough to spread, then spread on bread, toast, crackers or melba toast.

Potted Ham

Next time I'll probably not bother clarifying the butter, and will add some of the cooking liquid; hopefully then it will spread from the fridge.

An alternative to this would be just to shred the meat with two forks, add the other ingredients, call it 'rillettes of ham', and charge £4.95 for it as a starter!

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