Photo by Donna T. Ruhlman
Cure: 1) To cure means to preserve. Almost always, it’s salt that cures food, often followed by a secondary treatment, such as cooking (bacon, usually hot smoked) or drying (salt cod, prosciutto). 2): The salt mixture* used to cure meats, which can contain sodium nitrite, sugar, and other seasonings. Cures can be dry (salt and seasonings) or wet (also called a brine). A “dry cure” should not be confused with dry curing, which indicates that a food has been cured with salt and then hung to dry in order to preserve it.
— From The Elements of Cooking
Curing your own meats (which is no more difficult than marinating a steak) is one of the cook’s greatest tools, capable of elevating inexpensive cuts to new levels of flavor and texture. We don’t need curing know-how in order to stay alive as we once did, but we still use these techniques for the extraordinary flavors and textures they create. When Heath Putnam generously sent me a sample of mangalista hog belly (above), I immediately wanted to cure it to give it great flavor and to take advantage of it’s extraordinary fat. Notice the gorgeous layering of fat and meat . This belly was liberally coated in a basic dry cure (2 parts salt, one part sugar, and some pink salt*), put in a plastic bag with some thyme, smashed garlic, crushed bay leaf, brown sugar, nutmeg, cracked black peppercorns, and refrigerated for a week. I then cooked it in a 200 degree oven to 150 degrees internal temperature. The nitrite in curing salt is responsible for keeping the meat pink, gives it its distinctly piquant, bacony flavor (and also prevents botulism, should I have chosen to smoke it, an excellent option; I could also have let it dry cure for a week or two, hanging it from a pot-hook in my food snob kitchen to intensify and enhance the flavor, but I was too hungry and eager to taste it).
The fat is exquisite, really picks up the flavors of the cure, and is the true pleasure of this amazing cut of the mangalista. The knees go a bit wobbly from pleasure.
*Pink salt, or curing salt, is a salt containing a small amount of nitrite; it’s generically called pink salt because it’s dyed pink to prevent accidental consumption, and is sold under various brand names. Potassium nitrate, saltpeter, was used for dry-cured sausages but has been replaced by sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate (the latter is for dry-cured sausages) because of their consistency and reliability. I buy mine from butcher-packer.com for a buck-fifty, which will last me more than a year. (See my book Charcuterie for the basic dry-cure and other curing recipes.)