Salami is the apex. Making salami has cost me years of botched experiments and thousands of dollars. But when I finally sliced into the first success, it was a revelation. Wow, I had never had anything like it — homemade salami somehow blows away even the good stuff you can buy in artisanal stores. Silky, salty, porky, laced with fennel and whatever other herbs or garnishes you want. And the great thing about salami is that it is the ultimate party food. Guests come over, and you just pull a link out of the curing chamber, slice it and pop open some red wine. Life is good.
The gateway drug to salami is sausage. We had a KitchenAid stand mixer, and my two-year old son decided to buy his mother the grinder attachment as a birthday present. Not quite what she was expecting, but I thought it was a fantastic and highly thoughtful gift. I got Bruce Aidell’s book on sausage making, and soon enough was cranking out loukanika and linguica and boudin. But the problem with sausage is that it is actually quite difficult to properly cook. It goes from underdone to bone-dry in a flash, and needs constant tending on a grill. So it is hard to deal with in a party setting.
I got a copy of Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. It is the best book in my collection, and it laid out the path to salami. I had to do it.
The trick to making salami is to get the right equipment. I could have shaved years of frustration and about a thousand dollars in misspent funds if I had just gone for the good equipment from the start. But every day is a winding road, and my failures were a big part of my learning.
There’s basically three steps to salami: grind, stuff, and hang. Each steps requires dedicated equipment, and don’t skimp on any of it.
The “grind” step requires a dedicated grinder. The KitchenAid grinder attachment is a toy. Don’t bother. I used it for years, and only later realized that it was making a complete mess out of the meat and fat. I briefly had a Viking stand mixer with the somewhat-fancier grinder attachment, but that was plain old dangerous, with the sping-loaded arm flipping up with a mind of its own, flinging meat chunks around the kitchen. Then I tried a heavy-gauge hand crank version, but the thing just didn’t fit together right, and I never got it to work. So I finally got a heavy-duty $500 dedicated grinder from the SausageMaker.com site. It is a beautiful thing.
You will never get anything close to that grind out of a KitchenAid. And having a clean grind of the fat is the #1 secret to success for salami.
Once you mix the fat, the meat, the salt (including pink salt!), and herbs — there are plenty of recipes for that — the next step is to stuff it. Again, equipment is everything. You need a dedicated stuffer. Do not use a grinder with the stuffing tube on the end, like the KitchenAid setup. The problem with that is that by feeding your sausage meat through the motorized screw of the grinder, and through the stuffer plate, you will wreak havoc on the fat, causing a breakdown of the marbled meaty matrix. In a flash, your salami is ruined. Instead, get one of those vertical stuffers that press the meat down through a tube.
Having a dedicated stuffer transforms the most frustrating step of salami-making (the stuffing step) into the most fun. It is like the PlayDoh Mop Top Hair Shop. The meat just presses out into the casings, and voila, you have stuffed coils of goodness. A few pinches and twists and turns, and you have linked proto-salami. Now all you need is to cure it.
The curing step in salami making is what transforms raw, sticky meat into what we know and love. It involves bacterial management, and water loss. Ultimately, it is food safety issue. Proper attention to detail is vital to your health and well-being.
The ingredients lay the groundwork for success. First of all, use pink salt. That means nitrates. It is what you need to do to avoid botulism. Don’t flirt with disaster. Go ahead and buy pink salt from the sausagemaker.com, and use it, per the instructions in Charcuterie or any other reliable recipe book.
Another key ingredient is Bactoferm. This is a bacterial culture that you mix into the salami meat. And usually you will add some dextrose or other sugar to the salami, which is a food source for the bacteria. The first night after you grind and stuff the salami, you leave the links out at room temperature. This allows the bacteria to flourish, releasing lactic acid. This makes the salami more acidic, dropping the pH, and giving the meat a delightful tang. The lower pH is one of the preservatives that allow for safe eating of uncooked meat.
The aging process
After a day sitting out at room temperature, the color will darken remarkably. The links go from a pasty brown to a rich red.
At this point, I cut the links into individual units and weigh them. The way to tell is your salami is done is by weight loss. You want the salami to lose 30% of its weight. So weigh each link, tie a string to it, and use a piece of masking tape folded over onto itself, and write the starting weight. Also bust out your calculator and multiply by 0.7 to determine your target weight — write that on the tape, too. Over the course of the next several weeks you will periodically pop a link out of the curing chamber, weigh it, and patiently wait for the weight to creep downwards to the target.
The biggest trick to making salami is the curing chamber. You need to control temperature and humidity. The basics are 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 80% humidity. There are variations on that, and some ramping down of the humidity as the sausage dries, but that’s the basic environment you want.
Beverage fridges are good for this. One big compartment, without a separate freezer section, is ideal. I like a clear glass door so that I can watch what’s going on inside — it is simply fun to look at a fridge full of salami. The houseguests are always in awe.
There’s a few things going on here that need explanation. You need a sensor/controller for regulating temperature and humidity. Luckily we have the reptile community. Owners of iguanas and such creatures have a life-and-death interest in maintaining reliable temperature and humidity. And the reptile community has come up with a product called the zoo-med hygrotherm. It is about $65 on Amazon. It has a single male plug end for plugging into the wall. And it has two female plug ends, one for the temperature control (here, the fridge, or a heater if you are a reptile owner), and the second one for a humidifier. In this set-up, when the temperature drifts upwards above the set-point (typically 55 degrees), the compressor is triggered, cooling the fridge below 55 degrees. And when the humidity drifts down below the target (around 80 percent humidity), the regulator turns on, triggering the humidifier, sending the humidity up above 80 percent. It becomes a neat feedback loop that works pretty well. I added a small desk fan to blow around the mist when the humidifier turns on.
I came to question the humidity readings on the hygrotherm. So I ended up using that for temperature control, and separately buying a humidity sensor from Zoro. I found this to be more reliable, but you could probably get away with just the hygrotherm.
So with this setup, you are ready to cure salami. It is a neat process, and fun to watch. You have a choice of letting white chalky mold take over.
The mold can get out of hand. I ended up wiping these down with a vinegar and salt solution to beat back the mold. But the purists may want to let it proliferate, and get that white chalky layer built up that is probably the hallmark of true salami. The white chalky mold is totally fine, and has preservative properties of its own.
I found this to be better than even the fancy artisinal stuff they sell around here, even in the SF Ferry Building. I think the reason is moisture content. Mine was moister than I’m accustomed to. And I think the reason is that salami keeps drying out, and overshoots the 30% weight loss that we target. At 30% weight loss, it is still lively, flavorful, moist, herby, just delightful. But entropy persists, and the water molecules will continue their flight. So over time the salami continues to dry out, and you lose some of the magic. By making this yourself, you can have salami at is peak.
Phase deux — scaling up
My setup worked, but the problem was that the salami was so good that I knew I did not have enough capacity to make enough. So I upscaled.
Sweet, huh? I ended up storing a fair amount of wine in here, too, which was good for the wine and also for thermal ballast, to help keep the temperature steady. It was a win/win.
The one problem I had with this setup was that it was in my home office. And the compressor was loud. Like, really loud. And it ran a lot. So sitting at my desk trying to write, or have a phone conversation, was frequently impossible when the compressor cranked on. We are currently doing a remodel, and I took the occasion to return the Coke Fridge to the world of Craigslist. I’ll get another quieter one when we take back our house.