The process of creating a dry cured salami from raw meat is magical. The salami maker is like an alchemist mysteriously harnessing forces of nature to produce a product unique and quite different from its raw material, the raw meat. Here I will outline the basic process of dry cured sausages.
First we start with Pork meat. Pork lends itself to dry curing more than any other meat. A blend of lean meat and fat, usually around 75% lean, are ground separately. Everything must be kept very cold to ensure a proper distinction between the lean and the fat. One can think of a good slice of salami with its reddish pink meat and white flecks of fat. As always meat from a local small farm is your first choice from a flavor and sustainability standpoint. This pork is pasture raised by my friend Curt at Lover's Leap Farm in Kinderhook, NY. This meat comes from the shoulder or butt, a cut that will usually give you the perfect ratio of lean to fat, and is the preferred cut for sausage. The meat is trimmed and cut into small pieces then ground.
The meat is then ground, seasoned and mixed well. Salt is the most important ingredient to preserving the salami. Usually regular table salt, or sodium chloride is blended with a tiny portion of curing salt, or sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. The curing salts are particularly good at killing certain pathogens, like those that cause botulism, that may grow in the salami as it ages. The proper salinity is the first step in the curing process, creating an environment within the salami that is inhospitable to bacteria. In Italy salami is usually lightly seasoned with spices like black pepper, hot pepper, fennel seeds, or coriander to name a few. Sometimes wine is also added which adds flavor as well as helping the meat to bind during mixing. Some sort of sugar is also added to the curing salt-spice blend. The purpose of the sugar is not as a sweetener. The sugar is added to allow for fermentation of the salami which is the next step in the curing process.
During mixing of the seasoned ground meat mixture a Lactic acid starter culture is added. After mixing the meat is tightly stuffed into sausage casings and hung to ferment. During fermentation the Lactic acid starter culture eats the sugar in the salami, producing lactic acid and lowering the pH of the meat (increasing the acidity) to a level sufficiently acidic to kill most dangerous bacteria that may have been present in the raw meat. This fermentation is important in curing the meat and also gives the meat its reddish hue, and pleasantly tangy flavor. After fermentation this the meat is put in a drying chamber to slowly dry until it has lost 30-40% of its original weight. This is the final step in the curing process, producing a finished dry cured, fermented salami. The entire process takes between 4 weeks and a couple of months depending on the size of the casing, with most of the time spent in the drying chamber.
We are increasingly lucky to have many options for good quality cured meats produced locally as well a nationally. For anybody interested in learning more about the whole process I would recommend a few books. Charcuterie and Salumi, two separate books by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn; and Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertoli.