Monday, 14 May 2012

My curing chamber

Update: My curing chamber is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet it's maker etc. I'm in the process of assembling a new one from a fridge, rather than a wine cooler. You can read about the various problems I've had on the blog. The original post and update are still below.

When I first announced that I wanted to try my hand at Charcuterie - and that I thought the spare room would make the perfect location for curing meat - I was met with stony silence by my girlfriend. In my mind I thought it would lend a pleasant, rustic feel to the place. My girlfriend thought it would lend a "meaty, slightly corpsey feel to the place" and pointed out that visitors might not really want to go to sleep with hams hanging above the bed or from the wardrobe. I did briefly toy with the response of "Well... I would quite like that.", but decided better of it.

Of course, this discussion took place before I'd properly read up on the conditions actually needed to safely cure meats; namely, somewhere reasonably dark (light turns fats rancid), with a temperature of 10-13 degrees Celsius, relative humidity of 60-70% and a good flow of air. The final product you end up with is apparently highly dependent on these conditions. If the temperature or humidity are too high for extended periods your meat may spoil. If the humidity is too low you run the risk of case hardening, where the outside of the meat dries too fast, preventing the centre of the meat from losing moisture, and again your meat will spoil. Your cured meats also need to be protected from any pests or animals that might also want to chow down on the fruits of your labours. So not the spare room then.

Now, traditionally folks across Europe that were curing meat had dark, damp cellars which provided perfect conditions. If you're lucky enough to have a cellar with the appropriate conditions, great, you're all set. The rest of us however need a curing chamber to provide the correct conditions. I found numerous guides on the intertubes giving instructions on how to build a curing chamber. Good guides can be found here and here. I take no responsibility for the consequences if you do decide to pimp/convert an entire fridge-freezer unit.

My curing chamber is an old wine fridge. I bought it on eBay for half the price of a new one. It maintains a constant temperature of 12 degrees Celcius. Here you can see a lone lonzino hanging in the chamber, along with my digital thermometer/hygrometer, and humidity control beads in trays at the bottom.
     As luck would have it the humidity under the stairs in my flat (where the chamber is located) varies between 55 and 60%, so the humidity only needs to be raised a little to be in the 'butter zone' (as the Mythbusters would say). As you'd expect, once meat is hanging in there the humidity increases, coupled with the beads this gives pretty good humidity of 65-70%. The beads are meant for use in cigar humidors; I bought mine here.
     I should add that the fridge is connected to a timer and is turned off three times a day for 15 min. The fridge has no defrost cycle (not being designed to store meat), so the heat exchanger and fan are prone to icing up; the timer stops this happening by letting them warm slightly.

So far I've hung lonzino, pancetta, and duck prosciutto in here to cure, with reasonable success. I tend to check on the contents every day to make sure everything is ok (mould spots or the like).

Update: I've had some problems with case hardening using this setup; see the post here for details.

I have changed things somewhat, and it's still in a state of flux really. I've looped two length of muslin over the rack at the back and use them like curtains, pulling them across to shield everything from the direct flow of the fan (basically they act as air diffusers). In addition, I initially had the 'curtains' with their ends in a container of saturated salt solution. They acted as wicks, sucking moisture up, which was then evaporated by the fan.

This had mixed success. I found the interior was too moist (if it's not one thing it's another...). Also, the salt crystallises out on the muslin, forming a stiff, salty sheet (no jokes please). I have reverted to just having the muslin hanging in the back, but keeping the saturated salt solution in the bottom. I check the chamber in the morning and when I get back from work. It seems to be hovering between 70-75% at the moment. If the RH falls I wet the muslin a bit.

It's far from ideal but I'll persevere with it for the moment.


  1. Great blog Max. I can't think of anything better than staying in a room with meat hanging from the ceiling, personally!

    Out of interest, how do you ensure good airflow in your drying chamber?

  2. Thanks! The fan at the back of the fridge keeps everything circulating inside. When I'm checking the stuff inside I tend to leave the door open to allow some fresh air to get into the chamber, which seems to work pretty well