The seasoning of cured meat: the secrets of an ancient art

Seasoned cured meats are one of the most renowned gastronomic excellences of Italian cuisine. Twenty-one hams, bacon, lard and salami have obtained the prestigious qualification of DOP product (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, i.e. Protected Geographical Indication) while twenty-two the IGP certification (Indicazione Geografica Protetta, i.e. Protected Geographical Indication). Together with these culinary delights there are hundreds of typical cured meats that represent the pride of Italian regional cuisines: from the Milanese salami to Abruzzi liver sausage, from bacon lard of Parma to Nebrodi rolled bacon.

Europrodotti contributes to the tradition of the seasoning cured meats with natural starters, selected microbial cultures that guarantee the full success of the fermentation process and enhance the taste and aroma of the meat.

The origins of the seasoning of cured meat

The seasoning process, similarly to those of smoking and marinating (Discovering marinated meat: aromas and spices for a specialty that tickles the palate), was born as a method of preserving food. They were the ancient Greeks and Romans who discovered that meats and cheeses left to ferment and dehydrate in a controlled environment such as a cellar kept longer. To this practical advantage was added the organoleptic one. The food acquired a richer, more pleasant and even distinct taste and flavor based on the environmental conditions in which it had rested.

Over time, the production of seasoned cured meats has spread widely in Europe and the Americas and to a lesser extent in Asia and Africa. But thousands of years later the seasoning method used today has not changed and is still based on three fundamental phases: stewing, drying and ageing.

The three stages of seasoning: stewing, drying and ageing

The seasoning of cured meats is not just a matter of time. Transforming raw meat into delicatessen products that have unique characteristics of taste and aroma such as Parma ham, Colonnata lard or Felino salami requires three distinct steps: stewing, drying and the proper seasoning.

Patience has an important but not exclusive role in each of these phases. It must be accompanied by the maintenance of precise levels of temperature and humidity and by the action of "useful" microorganisms, called starters, which favor the preservation of the meat and improve its organoleptic characteristics.

So let's get to know the particularities of each of these phases of cured meats processing.

The stewing

The name stewing derives from the fact that this procedure was once performed in a room heated by the fire of stoves or of fireplaces. The meat must lose the water it contains but without cooking and for this reason it must not be exposed directly to heat sources. The ambient temperature cannot exceed twenty-three degrees and the humidity is kept around 70-80%. Today refrigerators and air conditioners ensure the exact maintenance of these conditions but in the past the craftsmen needed a simple glance to obtain perfect results!

Over a period of time that usually does not exceed four days hams and sausages lose excess liquids by oozing, just like in a sauna. The result is an increase in their hardness and a decrease in their volume.

The drying

Drying is the most delicate moment in the processing of cured meats. The elimination of excess water must be completed without surpassing the threshold that would lead to excessive dehydration. At the same time the meat completes the absorption of the aromas and spices. The cured meats are kept for up to ten days in a room where the temperature is lowered to twelve degrees while the humidity rate is brought down to 80-90%.

In this period the meat is treated with starters which lead to a lowering of the pH, the unit of measurement which in chemistry indicates the level of acidity of a substance. The reduction of the pH modifies the composition of the bacterial flora of the product, increasing its stability and its conservation too. Bacteria harmful to health are killed and inhibited while useful or "virtuous" ones which contribute to the formation of taste are favoured.

The ageing

Ageing is the longest phase. Waiting times can be limited to a few weeks for sausages, soppressata or stretched bacon or even up to three years for raw ham. Here are some examples of ageing times for some of the most common cured meats:

  • salamis: they can take from a few weeks up to several months. The greater the size of the product and the need to obtain a pronounced taste, the longer the seasoning period;
  • raw hams: they can be aged for several months up to a maximum of three years, depending on the size and intensity of desired flavor;
  • coppa: it requires several months of maturation, usually from three to six months;
  • bacons: from a few weeks up to six months or more, depending on the thickness and production process;
  • spicy salami: this type of salami requires a longer seasoning than sweet salami which can vary from a few weeks to several months;
  • mortadella: from the few days of mortadella di Camaiore to the two months of that of Val d'Ossola;
  • bresaola: this sliced ​​beef meat requires several months of maturation, often from two to three.

The ventilation of the rooms where the cured meats are stored is crucial to arrive at the right bouquet, the desired consistency and the particular organoleptic characteristics that distinguish the final product. At an industrial level economic reasons lead to the use of artificial ventilation in cold rooms. The Seasoning Masters who still work by hand rely instead on natural ventilation in cellars where the air of countryside, hills and woods are factors capable of making the difference and enhancing the taste and aroma of every type of cold cut, from capocollo to bresaola.

All this time the cold cuts are subjected to continuous checks to ensure the perfect maturation of the product. One of these exams is the sounding that allows to evaluate the level of hardness and scent. An expert penetrates the meat with a metal or preferably a horse bone needle and thanks to his sense of smell he recognizes the good progress of maturation.

The role of starters in seasoning

We have explained how an important bacterial modification takes place during the stewing phase which improves the preservation of the cured meat and perfects its gastronomic quality too. In the past artisans reinforced this process with the use of natural substances such as salt, brines, sugar, garlic, spices, aromatic herbs, raw milk and honey. Our ancestors ignored it but each of these ingredients contained lactic acid or acetic acid bacteria which perform an anti-microbial action and impart flavor.

Today, food safety and the fermentation of cured meats is guaranteed by starter cultures, a technical term behind which there are still the natural ingredients of the past. The action of these bacterial cultures produces a phenomenon called the Perigo effect thanks to which the shelf life increases and the taste and sensory qualities of the cured salami are improved.

Europrodotti offers starter cultures made up of selected microbial strains which ensure the perfect seasoning of cured meats and hams. Our goal is to guarantee always the consumer a product that meets all the requirements of food safety, high quality and respect for the traditions of Italian gastronomy.

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