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Easter FRANK…a Tale of Texas Foraging

After my seemingly endless blog about the underground restaurant FRANK that I run with my bestie Jennie Kelley from season 2 of MasterChef, I though I’d be done writing about FRANK for awhile.  However, our Easter seatings in March were so incredibly epic and special, and so many of you have requested the story behind the menu, that I guess I’ll weave that tale in with the stories of our spring foraging in Texas.

Foraging, or harvesting food from the wild, used to be a way of life for many people in this country.  It still is, for some.  In fact, my family foraged out of necessity during a particularly impoverished part of my childhood.  I grew up fairly close to the earth…raising sheep and pigs and chickens for meat, and my grandparents knew quite a lot about the wild foods that were abundant in South Texas.  The gardens of my grandfathers fed not only our families, but many in the small hamlet of Lytle and the communities of South San Antonio where I spent my early childhood.

So foraging has always been near and dear to my heart.  Nowadays, foraging has been rediscovered by “foodies” and it has become terribly trendy to eat foraged ingredients at $100-a-plate restaurants (like FRANK…ahem…)  From the earliest days of FRANK, Jennie and I knew we wanted to do many foraged menus, but it takes FAR more work to pull off a foraged dinner than to pick your ingredients from the garden or buy them from farmers.  And, while foraging can be done in ANY season in the Dallas area, spring is ideal because there’s a LOT of wild food around, and the poison ivy is just beginning to wake up.

Poison ivy and poison oak abound in the parks and green spaces across North Texas.  These plants produce an irritant called “urushiol” (pronounced “yoo-ROO-shee-awl”) that can cause a severe immune response in humans that produces wicked-crazy blisters on the skin.  (Interesting factoid: cashews are rich in urushiol and have to be steamed to break down the toxins.  So even when you buy “raw cashews” they are still cooked to remove the poison, they just haven’t been roasted yet.)  The rash typically breaks out a day or two after exposure, and can last for a month.  Contrary to folklore, poison ivy doesn’t spread on your body after exposure (unless you continue to be exposed to the urushiol oils from unwashed clothing or shoes, your dog, etc.) and you can’t pass it from person to person by contacting the rash (though if you still have the oil on your body, you CAN pass it to other people).  Humans are the only known creatures that respond to poison ivy.  And luckily, I’ve been literally WADING through poison ivy in shorts and a t-shirt my entire life, and I’ve never had an issue.

That is…until foraging for FRANK the past few weeks!  I got the rash all over my body, even on my face!  The best way to deal with poison ivy is to immediately dust any area that came in contact with the plant with baking soda or corn starch.  This helps to dry out the oils.  (There are also some commercial soaps that will bind to the oils more effectively.)  Once you’ve done this, you can shower gently, but DON’T scrub, as you may drag the oils across your skin, increasing the exposure.  The rash will develop anywhere from a day to 4 or 5 days after exposure, and at that point, you just gotta keep it as dry as possible.  Baking soda is a fabulous remedy, as is prescription-strength steroid cream, and the old standby, calamine lotion.

I’ve spent so much time discussing poison ivy because it’s the most common enemy you will face while foraging in the summer and fall in Texas, but in spring it’s just beginning to bud out.  Even the bare dormant trunk can spread urushiol in the dead of winter, but when the leaves are out, there’s greater surface area on the plant to contact you.  If you react to poison ivy, or if you’re not sure, wear long pants and long sleeves while foraging, and immediately and carefully remove clothes and shoes when you get home and wash them.

Now…all that said, spring foraging can be VERY plentiful in north Texas (and all over the country, for that matter), so we were dead set on having a foraged menu.  And Easter seemed like a perfect time, because while everyone else was hunting for eggs, we were hunting for delicious wild goodies for our guests!

I am fortunate to live on a big forested park here in Lewisville called Central Park.  It’s nowhere near the size of the famous one in Manhattan, but it’s plenty big enough to be bursting with edible goodies in the spring, and the first things to come up are the wild garlic chives.  Often referred to as wild onions and wild garlic, these alliums are exploding with sweet garlicky-onion flavor and they grow so abundantly in the park that I could pick several pounds in about 15 minutes.  Every bit of this plant is edible, from the little white root bulb, to the flat leaves, to the round hollow stem that sends up a gorgeous little green bulb that later opens into a lovely cluster of white flowers.  In this picture you see a nice bunch of whole wild garlic chives, as well as a few handfuls of the buds.  You can use the bottom white part just like scallions or green onions, though they have a bit more bite to them, so you can also use them like regular onions.  The flat leaves can be sliced and used just like chives or green scallion.  But the buds are the real gem.  Saute them in butter with a bit of sugar and salt, and they are crisp and delicious.  Perfect with scrambled eggs, in tacos, or, like we served them, with sauteed wild mushrooms.  The only poisonous look-alike for wild garlic chive is called “crow poison” and it smells musty and NOTHING like onion.  Wild garlic chives are unmistakeably oniony smelling.

The park also yielded several lovely bunches of wood sorrel, also called oxalis.  Most people refer to this plant as clover, though true clovers (while edible) don’t have nearly the flavor of wood sorrel.  They also don’t have the heart-shaped leaves like sorrel.  Sorrel is one of the most common weeds out there, and if you come across some, it’s so easy to identify and has no poisonous look-alikes.  Next time you run across some, have a taste.  It’s like a burst of lemon and tart berry in your mouth.  So delicious it will shock you!

This is also the time that wild mustard goes crazy in our open fields, and there was plenty of it in the park.  Wild mustard is the exact same plant as the mustard greens you get in the store, it’s just that those have been selectively bred to produce larger leaves and take longer before they send up the blossom stalk.  The flavor of wild mustard is explosive, and all parts of the plant above ground are edible, from the tender, tangy leaves to the peppery broccoli-like buds to the pungent yellow blossoms.  And wild mustard is EVERYWHERE.  Within a 5 minute walk of my house, I could harvest hundreds of pounds of it.  (And I live in a normal neighborhood with a greenbelt park running through it.)  Mustard, in the same family as broccoli, kale, cabbage, and turnips, is one of the healthiest greens on the planet, packed with cancer-fighting compounds, and overloaded with vitamins and minerals.  And mustard is probably the single most common weed anywhere on the globe.  It’s everywhere.  Next time you’re driving past an open space and see little yellow flowers on top of a leafy stalk, you’re looking at wild mustard.  It has no poisonous look-alikes.  If you can find a plant that grows in at least partial shade, it will have larger leaves than those growing in full sun.  The flavor is incredible, so eat up!

I have some favorite spots in the park where I regularly find wild oyster mushrooms after a good rain, and while my normal spots didn’t yield anything, a still-standing dead tree did give us a pound of wild oysters!  Foraging for wild mushrooms can be a dangerous endeavor if you’re not careful, but luckily, oyster mushrooms have NO poisonous look-alikes.  If you find an earth-colored mushroom (it can be any color from white to cream to tan to brown) growing on dead wood that has no central stalk…the oyster blooms right out of the wood from a small stalk on its side…and the gills on the underside run downward along the stalk, you’ve found an oyster mushroom and you can safely eat it.  Wild oysters smell a bit like the sea, and I find them to be incredibly delicious.  Unfortunately, so do the bugs, so unless you’ve found just-sprouted oysters, they’re likely to be riddled with beetle holes.  (That doesn’t always stop me from eating them, but I wouldn’t serve buggy oysters at a fancy place like FRANK!)  Wild oysters grow all over the US.  Look for them on dead wood in damp areas, or after an extended rain.  They are among the most common mushrooms out there.

We also discovered some stupendously-large wild mushrooms on a damp log, one of which weighed over a POUND!  At first, they looked like chanterelles, but it’s a bit too early in the season for them, and chanterelles do not EVER grow on dead wood, only in the soil.  The chanterelle has only one poisonous look-alike, which is the jack o lantern mushroom.  Which DOES grow on dead wood.  So while this mushroom isn’t quite as orange as a normal jackolantern, all its other characteristics indicate that it was.  Jackolanterns aren’t deadly, they’ll just land you in the bathroom for a few days.  I still picked it and plan to dry it out as a mushroom-hunting trophy.  It smelled like cheese and apricots and really impressed our Easter Sunday diners at FRANK.



The 40 acre park’s last gift to us was redbud blossoms.  The redbud tree is a native to Texas, and while most of us are accustomed to seeing them landscaped into yards, they grow rampantly in the wild, as well.  And virtually nobody knows that the blossoms are truly delicious.  Sweet to begin with, with a slight floral aroma, then tart on the tongue, and finishing with a very green, grassy flavor like sugar snap peas.  They are an incredible addition to salads, with an eye-popping color and a surprisingly crisp texture.  So this gives you yet another reason to be jealous of your neighbor’s tree, burdened down with pink-purple blossoms each spring!

Late March is morel mushroom season in Texas.  And yes…we have morels here.  Lots of them.  I know a guy who pulls out 30-40 pounds of them from a park near Waco each year.  They are found all across the Dallas metroplex in parks that have hardwood trees like elm and sycamore, north all the way into Oklahoma, and south to Austin.  In fact, Dallas marks the westerly boundary of common morel territory before you reach the southwestern deserts.  (Though they are found in moist mountainous regions, and are prolific in the Pacific Northwest.)  So Jennie and I were determined to find our diners some wild Dallas morels.  Unfortunately, it has been an uncommonly dry, hot spring, and morels like damp weather that slowly warms into the 80s but with cool nights.  Some years produce bumper crops of Texas morels.  Some years, experts are lucky to find a handful.  And the reports this year indicated that we’d be out of luck…only a few morel finds have been reported in Texas, most of them near Tyler, but a few north of Denton.  So Jennie and I headed to the hardwood river bottoms along the Trinity River north of Lake Lewisville to see what we could find.

No morels in sight after several hours of foraging, but Jennie made her first wild mushroom find in a hollow beneath a fallen tree.  Mica caps!  Which are very edible.  You can see the little boogers hiding toward the bottom center of the photo.  Mica caps belong to a family of wild mushrooms called “inky caps,” many of which are edible, but some of which have a bizarre habit of reacting badly in the digestive system with alcohol.  If you consume alcohol even within several days of eating some inky caps, you’ll vomit violently.  (Compounds isolated from these mushrooms have been used to produce medicines to treat alcoholism, because of this unique trait.)  Fortunately, mica caps are delicious and completely edible, but their dark gills are so small and delicate that they begin to decompose into a black slime soon after picking and need to be cooked within 4 hours.  By the time we began cooking for FRANK, most of them were goners, but we were able to include a few.  And to be sure they were safe for our diners, we ate them the day before and had more than a bit of wine and beer…just to be on the safe side!  I’m not going to to into descriptions of the inky caps because mushroom identification for this species is well beyond the scope of this blog entry.  If you’re interested in mushroom foraging, you need to have at least 2 solid field guides in your possession and make a positive identification before consuming ANY wild mushroom.  Some favorite guides are Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America by David Fischer, The Complete Mushroom Hunter by Gary Lincoff, and for fellow Texans, Texas Mushrooms by Susan and Van Metzler (currently out of print and becoming rare, so snatch it up!)

Along Clear Creek just west of its confluence with the Trinity River, we happened across another very common weed that happens to be eminently delicious…chickweed.  Chickweed grows everywhere, from landscaped planter beds to the deep woods.  It grows prolifically in the Texas winter and early spring, and is one of the most common green things to survive year round.  Chickweed is crunchy and sweet, a great base for salads.  It’s easy to identify with its sturdy stems that spread along the ground, little oblong pointy leaves, and dainty white blossoms.  It grows all over the US, except in the driest desert regions, and has no poisonous look-alikes.  We stuffed several gallon-size ziplocs in less than 5 minutes, and had a great base for our salad.  Chickweed is sturdy and holds up well in the fridge, too, whereas other wild greens like sorrel and mustard can wilt unless you pick them by the root and keep the roots moist until just before prepping and serving.

All foraged greens can be improved by shocking them in ice water for 30 minutes, then storing in the coldest part of your fridge until serving time.  Never dress wild greens until the very last instant, as the acid in dressings can begin breaking them down much faster than store-bought lettuces.

On our hike back to the car, we were viciously attacked by one of the most dangerous of predators you can face whilst foraging:

I jest.  This little critter couldn’t hurt a flea.  This is a 9-banded armadillo, and while it looks reptilian, it’s a mammal like you and me.  Armadillos are common in Texas, and they have such horrible eyesight that they usually have no clue that you’re around.  This little guy was snorting and rooting around in the dirt for bugs and tender shoots and walked right up to my foot before he smelled us and high-tailed it into the woods.  It’s always a delight to run into wildlife when foraging.  It reminds you of the balance of the natural world, and it really brings things into perspective when you realize that this little guy forages almost every waking instant of his life.

The clock is ticking and we have a FRANK to put on in a few short days, but there’s more left to forage.  This time, even closer to home.  Neighbor Sharon has a side yard absolutely bursting with dandelions, so I spent one morning picking the beautiful golden blossoms.  All parts of the dandelion plant are edible.  The roots are roasted and ground to make chicory, which tastes like mild, nutty coffee.  The young leaves are delicious with a pleasant mild bitterness, like arugula, before the plant blossoms.  The yellow petals of the flower are fragrant and floral and entirely edible, though the green sepal that holds the petals together can be bitter.  The blossoms can be added to salads and cocktails, or boiled with sugar and fermented into a very floral wine.  When I shared this photo on Facebook, a delightful fan named Katja Turk mentioned that her grandmothers in Slovenia used to make a syrup from the blossoms that would substitute for honey, which was too expensive for them to afford in the communist era.  She generously shared the recipe with me, and it sounded so intriguing that I had to make it.  It turned out to be Jennie’s favorite component of the entire menu.  Check out the very simple recipe here!  And thanks, Katja!!!

Some of the foraged items on the menu aren’t foraged by us.  Tom Spicer, a local purveyor legendary in the Dallas restaurant community, has a fantastic little shop near the popular Jimmy’s Deli, called Spiceman’s FM 1410.  He’s open to the public, and if you’re ever looking for a fascinating field trip, head to Tom’s place.  He has a massive garden out back, where his employees and friends are usually gathered around a bottle of wine or a pot of something yummy they’ve just cooked up.  And in the front are boxes filled with wild foraged ingredients flown in from the Pacific Northwest.  What he’s got varies dramatically by season, but you’re likely to find wild mushrooms year round, and sometimes fiddlehead ferns, truffles, and the like.  Tom has provided us with black trumpet mushrooms (a cool-season relative of the chanterelle, which also grows in Texas under the right conditions), as well as Oregon white truffles, and some beautiful wild mustard raab (related to the wild mustard we foraged, but with a larger, broccoli-like flowering head).

Oregon White Truffles

So now we’re in the FRANK kitchen, turning all our foraged goodies into 5 courses for our guests.  The first course, which I don’t have a photo of (sorry), is a deviled egg topped with crispy sauteed white truffles.  And these are no ordinary eggs…these are pastured eggs from farmer William Hurst at Grandma’s Farm in McKinney.  (Yes, he sells to the public!)  William’s chickens live the way chickens should…completely free-ranging wherever they please during the day.  (They instinctively return to the safety of the coop at night, when predators are out.)  The label “free range” that you see on egg cartons in the grocery store is misleading.  It just means that the chickens don’t live in a 2′ square cage.  They might live in an 8′ cage, where they can “free range” across all 64 square feet of that cage (along with the other 10 hens living in that same cage).  Or it can mean that once a day the chickens are let out of their cage into a pen for half an hour.  It doesn’t mean the chickens are fulfilling their natural lifestyle, foraging for bugs and weeds all over the pasture.  To get those kind of eggs, you have to either buy from a farmer, or fork over $10 a dozen to get labeled “pastured eggs” at a gourmet market.  The difference in quality is like night and day.  The only drawback to using such fresh, high quality eggs is that they can be nearly impossible to peel cleanly for good presentation.  It takes HOURS to peel the eggs so that they are pretty enough to present to the FRANK audience.  The yolks are deviled with lots of mustard and vinegar, and then we gently saute the chopped white truffles in butter to bring out their aroma and once they are nice and crisp, we sprinkle them on top of the deviled egg.  (We served this course with a glass of champagne accompanied by a whole kumquat that was candied in the dandelion syrup mentioned above!)  This introduces our menu as uniquely American…one of the first true American menus we’ve served at FRANK.

Course two is a wild salad of mustard greens, lemony wood sorrel, and crisp-sweet chickweed, with redbud blossoms, tossed in a wild garlic chive vinaigrette.  Accompanying this is tender rabbit loin that we’ve brined briefly, then wrapped in house-cured wild boar prosciutto.  (You may recall my blog post about my neighbor Ron bringing me a wild boar last fall, and I built a curing chamber out of an old fridge in my garage to cure it into prosciutto using a traditional Italian recipe.)  We sauteed the wrapped loins briefly to crisp up the prosciutto, leaving the tiny morsels of rabbit loin at medium.  If you’ve never tasted rabbit loin, you just don’t know what you’re missing.  It is meltingly tender, delicately flavored, and a perfect pairing with wild boar.  Our rabbits were raised by an artisan breeder in Quebec up in Canada, where they raise heirloom breeds from France.  (Rabbit remains a VERY popular meat in France and Spain.)  But we had to buy the rabbits whole, so we used the bones and leg meat in another course, to be certain not to waste anything.  At this point we also pass around the homemade garlic chive sourdough, which our guests can spread homemade white truffle butter on.

Next comes the pasta course.  Hand-rolled tagliatelle (a micro-thin pasta just a bit wider than fettucini) with a medley of wild mushrooms and wild onion buds.  While the pasta may be Italian, this is decidedly an American dish.  The mushrooms (wild oysters, wild black trumpets, wild mica caps, plus cultivated maitake/hen of the woods, beech mushrooms, and enokis) are sauteed in very small batches in butter, allowing them to brown up just like meat.  They are then tossed with gorgeous wild onion buds, the unopened flower at the top of the plant, which we sauteed with olive oil and a bit of sugar to open up the flavor.  Then we let them all sit for a few hours, so the flavors can mingle.  The texture is amazing…good crunch from the onion buds, a big variety of textures from the mushrooms (firm oysters, delicate black trumpets, crispy enokis, tender maitakes), and the fairy-like delicacy of the pasta, which was tossed in a tangy, light cream sauce infused with white truffle.  This was a favorite course for many of our diners, and some even said that the pasta surpassed the housemade pastas at Dallas’s finest Italian restaurant in the Bishop Arts District!  (Name not included so we don’t sound like we’re bragging.)

And now the main attraction…probably my favorite course we’ve EVER served at any FRANK.  This is a pink peppercorn encrusted, bone-in venison chop, cooked medium rare.  We got some extraordinary venison racks from one of our amazing purveyors, Clark at Arrowhead Specialty Meats in Lewisville.  (Clark is also happy to sell to the public, and he’s got some amazing stuff…prime Texas Wagyu beef, kangaroo, heirloom duck, local quail, etc.)  The pink peppercorns I foraged on a recent trip to Hawaii from a tree growing in my friends’ neighborhood, and they’ve appeared on the FRANK menu before.  The venison was brined to help keep it moist…venison is a VERY lean meat and it overcooks in a second (remember how I got eliminated from MasterChef?!?) so brining is crucial to ensure juiciness.  And then it’s roasted just to 125F and allowed to coast to medium rare for 20 minutes on the countertop before slicing.

The venison chop is served on a bed of braised rabbit leg meat.  I mentioned earlier that, in order to be able to serve rabbit loin, we had to buy whole rabbits from the artisan breeder.  Not wanting to waste ANY of these very special (and VERY expensive!) animals, we took the rib bones and organ meats and made a rich stock with them.  That stock was used both in the cream sauce for the pasta course, as well as to braise the leg meat.  So first we seasoned and seared the legs:

Then they went into the pot with the rabbit stock, along with wild onions, garlic, and fennel.  (Rabbit and fennel is one of my favorite combinations.)  We braised it low and slow…250F for a few hours, until the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender.  One of the challenges of cooking rabbit meat is that the legs muscles are used so frequently to hop that the fibers can be very tough.  And even a long, slow braise won’t break down the long chains of muscle fibers, though it WILL separate them.  So no matter how you cook it, rabbit legs will always have chewy meat.  But the slower and moister your cooking method, the more the fibers will separate, allowing the braising liquid to bathe and surround them, which means it will be moist when you eat it…and if you get it “just right” then the meat will have a very pleasant body to it, with a bit more “chew” than chicken.

On the plate with our venison and rabbit (2 game meats that our country grew up on) is some seared broccolini and some roasted fingerling potatoes, along with a compound butter made from wild garlic chives.  And the sauce was VERY special, made from a reduction of a “foraged” Tawny Port-style wine I made 5 years ago with wild blackberries I picked near Mt. Rainier in Washington, and wild grapes I picked in the park behind my house.  It was a perfect compliment to the venison.  The final plate:

Of course, that’s not all, folks.  Dessert follows, and is always a favorite at FRANK.  This dessert was a bit more simple than previous desserts, because we really wanted to feature foraged flavors.  3 components only to dessert, and each component’s primary flavor was foraged.  First we’ve got a waffle made with acorn and buckwheat.  The acorns we foraged from a live oak tree and Michael Chen shelled each one of them individually.  Some species of oak produce better acorns than others…live oak acorns tend to be lower in tannins and higher in sugars than most, so they work much better.  But, they are smaller, which means LOTS of shelling!  Once you’ve got the acorns shelled, you put them in a blender with water and puree them into a slurry.  Then you strain the acorn mush in a dish towel and squeeze out the liquid.  Then you return the mush to a bowl with extra water for a series of 15-minute soaks to help extract tannins, which add a bitter taste and “fuzzy” feeling on your tongue (like when you drink a young Bordeaux or Cabernet).  You keep doing these flushes until the water coming off the acorn mush is clear and doesn’t taste bitter.  Ours took only 3 flushes.  Then you squeeze out all the water you can, spread the mush in a baking sheet, and bake at 170F for an hour or so, stirring every few minutes, until the mixture is a dry meal, almost crispy.  Then whizz that in your blender or food processor and you’ve got acorn flour!  It adds a nutty, sweet crunch to baked goods and pastas…but it’s a LOT of work.  We also whizzed up some buckwheat groats in the blender to make buckwheat flour, and I modified my go-to waffle recipe with these wild ingredients.  We were concerned that the waffle would end up dense and thick, but it was light, airy, and crisp.  And drizzled with the dandelion syrup, it was downright divine.  I’d venture a guess that more than half the guests at each FRANK told us it was the best waffle they had ever eaten.

We served the waffle with my infamous Butter Pecan ice cream…a recipe I’ve been perfecting for almost a decade, like my famous pumpkin carrot cake.  Friends demand it each year for 4th of July fireworks.  The pecans were foraged from a local yard and shelled by hand by my neighbor Sharon.

And thus ended what is easily the most epic and involved menu FRANK has served to date.  While it’s cheaper, in terms of cash outlay, to serve a foraged meal, the hours involved in foraging ingredients and transforming them into masterpieces EXPONENTIALLY exceeds that of a regular dinner.  However, our diners all agreed it was very much worth it.

I hope this blog entry encourages you to do a bit of foraging around your home and seeing what you come up with.  Some very edible plants are easily recognized.  If you’re interested in foraging, some books I highly recommend (in addition to the ones mentioned earlier) include The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, both by Samuel Thayer, and ANY of the classics written by Euell Gibbons, the father of modern foraging.

Please feel free to post comments below, especially if you have your own stories about foraging!


How to Convert a Refrigerator for Curing Meat or Aging Cheese

WARNING: Working with electricity is dangerous. This article will teach you several ways to convert a refrigerator into a chamber for curing meat or for aging cheese.  (The same principles can be used to convert a refrigerator into a lagering chamber for making homebrew lager beer, or converting a chest freezer into a kegerator.)  If you choose the route that requires wiring, I cannot be held responsible for any damage to life or property should your wiring fail.  If in doubt, consult an electrician, and always obey local, state, and federal electrical codes when modifying the electrical connection for appliances.

Folks with a basement or cellar anywhere in the US (or most temperate climates) generally have the proper temperature and humidity range to cure meat simply by hanging properly salted meat in that basement or cellar.  (Though insects, mice, and wild molds can be a problem.)  The finest meats in the world are cured in centuries-old basements in Europe.  But for those of us without basements or cellars, curing our own meat requires a curing chamber that provides the ideal temperature and humidity range.

It’s fairly simple to convert an old refrigerator into such a chamber.  I got an old fridge on Craigslist for $50, but you can often find them in the free section if you’ll be patient and quick to respond once they are listed.  (If you transport a fridge on its side, rather than upright, you need to leave the fridge sitting upright, unplugged, for a couple of days, to let the coolant settle properly.)

The first object is to rig a rack system near the top of the fridge chamber, on which the meat will hang.  If you ever plan on curing whole hams, this rack may need to support fairly heavy weights (25-30 pounds per ham for a large one.)  If you’re just curing sausages, it may not need to be as strong.  If the fridge has wire racks, you may be able to just move the racks to the top of the fridge and hang the meat directly from the racks.  My fridge came with glass shelves, so I removed all the shelves.  I made my rack system out of aluminum from Home Depot.  I bought square tubes which anchor the racks on each end, and used an angle grinder to cut slots in the square tube so I can customize the distance between the racks:

I used a fast-setting epoxy to glue the square tubes to the walls of the fridge.  (Make sure they are level and even with each other!)  Then I just slid the bars into the slots, and placed some S-hooks over the bars to hang the meat.  This type of rack is sturdy enough to cure full-sized hams.

Wood may be easier to work with, but the conditions inside the curing chamber will be damp (around 65% humidity) which provides a perfect place for mold to grow, so I encourage you to avoid wood, if possible.  Get creative!

Once you have your fridge and rack system set up, you need 5 electronic components to convert the fridge into a curing chamber:

  • An external temperature controller/thermostat
  • An external humidity controller
  • A cool-mist/ultrasonic humidifier
  • A thermo-hygrometer (weather station)
  • A fan

The first two items are available on the internet in a wide range of prices, depending on how convenient you want the conversion to be.  The simplest units are plug-and-play.  You plug the controllers into any outlet.  You plug the fridge into the temperature controller and you plug the humidifier into the humidity controller.  You set the proper temperature and humidity ranges, you place the sensor probes into the fridge chamber, and you’re good to go.  Unfortunately, these units are the most expensive.  The plug-and-play temperature controllers range between $50 and $80, like this one on Amazon.  The humidity controllers range between  $50 and $100, like this one or this one.  If you’re not accustomed to electrical work, I strongly encourage you to spend the extra money and get one of these.

For those of you who are handy, there are some cheaper units now available that were designed for controlling temp and humidity in computer server racks, but they are bare-bones units and you’ll have to provide power (via a cord, or wiring them to an outlet), and make your own connections to the fridge and humidifier (either by direct wiring or hard-wire, or by wiring the controllers to outlets.)  The STC-1000 unit for controlling temperature costs about $25.  (Be cautious if you find it cheaper.  Cheaper units may ship from China and take weeks, and be certain you order the proper voltage for your country…in the US this is 110 volts.)  The WH8040 unit for controlling humidity costs around $35.  (Similar warnings for this unit, too.)

I’m going to explain how to hard-wire your fridge and humidifier directly to these units, because there are other articles out there on how to wire outlets to the units, and then plug in your fridge and humidifier.  That’s extra cost, to me, and requires that I construct a housing to hold the units and the outlets.  And I’m looking for the quickest route to efficiency.  Please note that local electrical codes may not like you to have exposed wiring connections.

Let’s start with the STC-1000 to control the temperature of the fridge:

The unit comes with wiring instructions translated from Chinese, and they’re completely useless.  So I’ve made a wiring diagram:

Hard wire the STC-1000 to a fridge

You will need to buy or re-purpose a power cord to power the unit.  The cord needs to be able to handle enough current to power the fridge, so don’t use a lamp cord!  If you use a grounded power cord, you can connect the fridge’s green grounding wire to the green wire of the power cord.  (If you use a 2-wire power cord, you will need to connect the green wire inside the fridge’s cord to the grounding screw on an outlet, or follow the alternate grounding procedure later in this post.)  Using a grounded power cord is preferable.  You will need to cut the plug off the refrigerator’s power cord and strip off the insulation from the hot, neutral, and ground wires.

Some basic electrical knowledge here for those of you who are unfamiliar.  A typical power cord contains a hot wire that carries the current to the device…a neutral wire that returns the current to the outlet, thus completing the circuit…and a ground wire that carries away dangerous electricity if there is a wiring failure inside the device, so that you don’t get shocked when you touch it.

The hot wire is always black.  The neutral wire is usually white…but if there’s no white wire, the neutral wire will be indicated by writing, markings, or ribbing along the cord’s insulation, so look or feel closely to determine which wire is the neutral wire.  The ground wire is either bare copper or green.

So the hot wire from your power cord needs to be spliced to two other short bits of black wire (called “pigtails”) that run to slots 1 and 7 on the STC-1000 unit.  Tape these wires together with electrical tape, and connect them securely with a properly-sized wire nut.  The neutral wire from your power cord needs to be spliced to a pigtail that runs to slot 2, and to the neutral wire on the fridge’s power cord.  The hot wire on the fridge power cord needs to run to slot 8 on the unit.  (The neutral wire on the fridge power cord has already been connected to the neutral wire from the main power cord, along with a pigtail to slot 2.)

When you get done, it’ll look kinda like this:

(You shouldn’t need a heater unit unless your curing fridge sits outside in a very cold climate, but if you do, a heating pad will generally work nicely.  To add a heater to the system, run a pigtail from the black power cord bundle to slot 5.  Run the heater’s hot wire to slot 6.  Connect the heater’s neutral wire to the neutral bundle.) 

The fridge MUST be grounded, or you risk electrocuting yourself when you touch the fridge if the wiring inside the fridge fails.  The grounding wire from the fridge can connect directly to the green or bare copper wire inside the power cord, if it’s a 3-prong cord.  If you’ve used a 2 prong power cord, like I did, you need to connect the fridge’s ground wire to the grounding screw inside a nearby electrical outlet, or you can take a regular 3-prong plug, remove the hot and neutral prongs, leaving just the grounding prong, and connect the ground wire to that prong:

Here I've removed the first prong from the plug.

After removing the other prong, I attach the ground wire from the fridge to the grounding screw.

I replaced the back of the plug and now I have a ground wire that plugs into an outlet, but draws no power, it simply grounds the fridge.

Now you need to plug in the power cord to an outlet.  (I bought a special extension cord that has 4 outlets on the end that will sit next to the fridge.  4 items will need to be plugged into the outlet.  You can also use a regular extension cord and a power strip.)  The STC-1000 unit will power up, and now you need to set it.

The following paragraph details instructions for setting the STC-1000, you can skip this unless you are actively setting the device right now:  Press and hold the S key for 3 seconds to enter the setting mode.  The first item that displays is F1, which is the temperature setting.  The unit is in Celsius, so you’ll have to do a quick conversion.  I keep my curing chamber in the low 60s Fahrenheit, so 18C is the corresponding setting.  To set the temp, press and hold the S key while pressing the up or down arrow until you reach the temperature that you want your curing chamber to remain.  Then press the power button once quickly to save the setting.  (The setting will remain even if your power goes out…it only resets to the default setting if you manually reset the device.)  The other settings don’t need to be modified unless you have problems later.  (F2 is the “Difference value” which tells the fridge when to turn on after the temperature rises a specific number of degrees above your setting.  The default setting is half a degree Celsius, which is fine as it is.  F3 is the “Compressor delay time” which gives the fridge’s compressor a result, because you don’t want it cycling on and off every 30 seconds.  The default setting is 3 minutes, which is fine.  F4 is the “Temperature calibration value” which is used if you discover your device isn’t accurate and you need to adjust it.  To switch between these values in the setting mode, press the S key multiple times until you arrive at the feature you need to change.  If, at any time during the setting process, you don’t press a key for 10 seconds, the device forgets what you’ve done and returns to its operation mode.  Don’t forget to press the power button once quickly to save your settings.)

Make sure to attach the temperature probe to slots 3 and 4 on the unit.  Then run the sensor probe into your fridge and make sure it’s not touching the walls, the racks, or the meat.  Now the STC-1000 unit will keep your fridge in the low 60s…the perfect temp for curing meat.

Now we need to address humidity.  Normal refrigerators run very dry, so you’ll need to add moisture to the chamber to keep it in the low 60% range.  We do this with a cool-mist humidifier, also called an ultrasonic humidifier.  (DON’T use a conventional vaporizer, which uses warm heat to evaporate the water.  This will raise the temp inside the chamber each time the unit comes on.)  Get yourself the largest-capacity humidifier you can afford, so you don’t have to refill the unit every few days.  The unit I’m using holds about 1 gallon of water.  It cost me $30 on Amazon and was fairly well reviewed.  (There is also a pig-shaped humidifier on Amazon, which is supremely appropriate, but the reviews aren’t as good.)

Place the humidifier in the bottom of the fridge and run the wire out the side of the door.  Cut the plug off the end of your humidifier and strip the insulation off the cords.  (Humidifiers don’t usually have a ground wire, just a hot and a neutral.)

Now we get out our WH8040 humidity controller:

We wire the humidifier to the unit using the following diagram:

The hot wire from the power cord connects to two pigtails, which are connected to slots 2 and 3 on the WH8040.  The neutral wire from the power cord connects to a pigtail to slot 4, as well as the neutral wire from the humidifier’s power cord.  And the hot wire from the humidifier connects to slot 1.  The WH8040 has 2 probes that it uses to calculate humidity…a temp probe which connects to slots 8 and 9, and a vapor probe that connects to slots 5, 6, and 7.  Run the probes into the refrigerator’s chamber, and like the temp probe, they should hang freely in the area where the meat does.

When you get done wiring it, the unit will look sorta like this:

The following paragraph details instructions for setting the WH8040, you can skip this unless you are actively setting the device right now:  Press and hold the SET key for 3 seconds to enter the setting mode.  The first value is HC, which tells the unit whether to dehumidify, or humidify.  Press the SET key again, and use the up or down arrows to set this value to H (humidify).  Then press the SET key again to save the value and return to SET mode.  Press the UP key to move to the next value, D, which is “Hysteresis.”  Leave this at its default setting.  Press the UP key again to move to the next value, LS, which is the lowest humidity range you want to keep.  Press the SET button and adjust this setting to 55%, or whatever the lowest humidity is acceptable for you.  Then press the SET button again.  Use the UP arrow to move to the next value, HS, which is the maximum humidity.  Click SET and use the arrows to set this limit to 65%. The remaining settings can be left at their defaults unless you need to modify them later.  CA is humidity calibration…if your unit isn’t measuring the humidity correctly, you can override the settings by plus or minus 5%.  PT is the delay time between turning your humidifier on and off, and the default is set at 1 minute.  Press the RST key to leave the set mode.

Now you can mount your WH8040 to the side of your fridge with double sided tape or velcro.

Again, if all that wiring sounds too complex for you, you can simply buy a plug-and-play temp controller and humidity controller, you’re just gonna spend an extra $75-$100.  Do that, and your system will be set up in 15 minutes.

Now it’s time to place the fan in the bottom of the fridge next to your humidifier.  I got a small metal desk fan on Amazon for $13 that was well reviewed.  The air inside the curing chamber needs to circulate constantly to help dry the meat, so just run this cord out the back of the door and plug it into your power supply.

The final step is to install your thermo-hygrometer, which keeps track of the temp and humidity inside the chamber, so you know if your controllers are working properly.  I got mine on Amazon for $18.  It has a wireless remote unit that I velcroed to the inside of the fridge.  It is battery powered, and sends the information to the main unit, which I velcroed to the fridge door.

Now the curing chamber is complete!  Give it a few hours to operate before you start tweaking.  Remember that your fridge will probably have its own settings for temperature, which can affect the whole system.  (I have mine set for the warmest temp.)  Here’s what the final setup looks like on the inside (completely with wild boar already curing):

Note the sensors all hanging on the center and upper left side of the pic.

The freezer above is now empty space.  And in MY converted fridge, the freezer maintains a temp of about 50 degrees, when the main chamber is 65.  50F is the PERFECT temp for aging cheese!  So I can age cheese AND cure meat in the same unit.  Don’t ever try to age cheese in the SAME chamber as curing your meat.  The bacteria that you inoculate cheese with (especially bleu cheeses) isn’t what you want growing on your meat.  So they need to be separated.

All-in-all, this setup cost me about $200.  Not cheap by any means.  But if you’re serious about making your own charcuterie and salumi at home, this is money well invested.  (A single Iberico ham or Prosciutto di Parma can set you back up to $1000!)  Some people have luck using a small college dormitory fridge, moved to the warmest setting, with a dish of water in the bottom to boost humidity.  This is way cheaper and easier to set up…but you lose control over your environment, which will yield unexpected results.  And if you’re going to great lengths to source quality meat, you don’t want it rotting away in your garage.

Now you’re ready to make prosciutto, coppa, spalla, guanciale, salami, and age your own hams.  Of course, that’s an entirely separate blog entry.  Check this out for starters!

A video will be posted soon, which may help those who are more auditory and visual.

Please feel free to comment below, especially if you already cure your own meat at home, if you have a different setup, or if you make this setup and try it.  And subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of this page below the header image so you don’t miss out on other great posts!

Curing Wild Boar

My wonderful neighbor Ron surprised me a few days ago with some cuts from a few wild boar he shot on a recent hunting trip.  I took that as my excuse to get set up for home-curing…something I’ve been researching for a VERY long time.

Curing meat through the application of salt, occasionally smoke, and subsequent hanging to dry, is the oldest form of cooking.  It’s been practiced by our ancestors for thousands of years.  And cured meats are among the most sought-after and expensive artisan food products on the planet.  Ever heard of Prosciutto di Parma or Prosciutto di San Daniele?  How about Jamon Iberico or Speck?  These are all dry cured hams from artisans in Europe, and they can run upwards of $1,000 PER HAM…or around $75 per pound.  And the techniques used to cure these meats have been passed down through families for generations.

There was a time in our own country’s history where virtually everyone on the farm cured their own hams and bacon, so they could be hung in the cellar for months at a time, without requiring refrigeration.  (When was the last time you saw a ham for sale that was hanging from the ceiling of the store, unrefrigerated, rather than in a cooler?)  Properly cured hams can last 2 years without being refrigerated.

The process of curing concentrates the flavor of the meat into an explosive, pungent burst of taste in every thinly-sliced morsel.  Virtually any meat can be cured.  (There’s even such a thing as duck and ostrich prosciutto!)  Wild meats are well-suited to curing, and in places where cured meats are eaten regularly, like Italy, wild boar meat is especially sought-after.  So it made perfect sense when Ron gifted me 2 shoulders, 2 legs, and 2 loins that I cured them all.  I selected traditional Italian recipes for the curing…and by “recipe” I really mean “method.”  Salumi (the Italian word for meat curing) is the art of taking what nature has given us, and doing as little as humanly possible to make it the best it can possibly be.  The recipes for the classic hams of Europe call for nothing more than meat and salt…and perhaps a bit of black pepper or wine.  That’s all.

The starting point for curing meat is the salting procedure.  Most recipes call for a salt addition equal to 8.5% of the weight of the meat.  Which means you have to weigh your meat.

Here you see the shoulder, which will be cured into “spalla,” already rubbed with salt and black pepper.  You can see the weight and salt requirement written on the parchment near the cut.  It’s very critical when curing meats to minimize the amount of bacteria that come in contact with the meat.  So always wash and sterilize your hands (or wear sterile rubber gloves), and work on surfaces that are immaculately clean.  The salt helps prevent bad bacteria from growing on the meat, but the less bacteria the salt has to deal with, the better.

Above, you see the back legs (or hams) of the boar, which will be turned into prosciutto.  Making the correct cuts for each type of salumi is WELL beyond the scope of this blog.  (Book recommendations will follow.)  For beginners, it’s best to leave the bone in the cuts while curing, because the more you slice into meat, the more crevices you leave for bacteria to take hold!  Once the meat is prepared, you add 8.5% of the weight of the meat in salt.  (I used Morton’s kosher salt.)  Rub the salt all over the meat, and make sure to get into all the nooks and crannies of the meat, where the bacteria may be hiding, as you see in the photo to the left.

For some meat cuts, like the shoulder for making spalla, or the loin for making lonza, you can add some toasted, cracked black pepper to the salt:

Once the meat is salted, it’s time for pressing.  For smaller cuts, like the loin, you can put them in a plastic ziploc bag with a bit of additional salt:

For the larger cuts, use a large pan, or if you don’t have one big enough, a black plastic garbage bag.  For full sized hams, you want to lay them on a bed of salt, and pack additional salt around it, so that all surfaces are in contact with the salt:

Then you place it in the fridge and weigh it down.  The amount of weight depends on the original weight of the meat.  For prosciutto, you want to use a weight equal to the meat’s weight.  So if it’s a 10 pound ham, you need to place 10 pounds of weight on top of it.  It’s best to place a small baking pan on top of the meat, and then your weight.  I used cast iron skillets and cast iron lids.  You can use bricks, big cans of tomatoes…whatever you have.  For smaller cuts like loin or shoulder, 8 pounds of weight is a good all-purpose weight.

Refrigerate the meat for 1 day per 2 pounds of weight.  Every day or so, flip the meat in the salt and rub it with salt again.  You’ll notice juices leaching out of the meat.  If there’s enough juice to gather in the pan, pour off the juice.  If there’s just a bit of juice, mix it with the salt and rub it back onto the meat when you flip it.

When the required salting time is finished, remove the meat from the salt and rinse it with cold water…then pat it dry with paper towels.  Now it’s time for a wine bath!  This optional step just involves bathing the meat in a dry white wine:

For pepper-rubbed cuts like lonza and spalla, you can now sprinkle finely-ground black pepper onto the meat, and it’s time to lay it on top of the twice that it will be hung with:

There are number of traditional ways of tying meat for hanging, but you can also improvise.  Use all-natural string, like cotton twine.  Don’t tie it too tight, just firm enough so that it can hang securely:

Once the meat is tied, it’s time to hang.  Up to this point, no “special equipment” has been necessary to cure meat.  But now, you need a temperature and humidity controlled environment that the meat can dry in.  If you have a cellar or unfinished basement pretty much ANYWHERE in the country, the conditions there are probably ideal for meat curing.  You want a temperature between 55 and 70 degrees, and a humidity level between 60 and 70 percent.  If you don’t have a cellar or unfinished basement, you have to build yourself a curing “room.”  I did it in an old refrigerator (which cost me $50 on Craigslist) plus about $150 worth of equipment to precisely control temperature and humidity.  (Check out the blog post on how to convert a fridge into a curing chamber.)  Some people cure in a mini-fridge turned to its warmest setting with a bowl of water added to contribute humidity, and have excellent results.  So if you want to try home-curing on the cheap, that’s a great place to start.  But unless you can accurately know and control your humidity and temp, don’t expect exceptional results.

The meat needs to hang until it has lost 30% of its post-salting weight.  (So make sure to weigh your meat after the salting and pressing!)  For small cuts like young wild boar, this can happen in a few months.  For a large 25 pound ham, it can take a year.  These 14 ounce lonzas at left will probably be cured in a month or two.  The 4 pound hams will probably be cured in 4-6 months.  The longer you cure meat, the drier it gets, but at some point it will become so dry that it’s nearly impossible to slice and eat.  So it’s not a Bordeaux, which you can keep for decades and it keeps getting better.

Aging (hanging) meat is an art.  I’m no expert, and neither are you.  Salumi artisans in Italy, who’ve been doing it since childhood using family techniques perfected across centuries, will stick a long thin bone into the prosciutto and remove it, and they can tell by the smell when the ham is ready to eat.  And there are a HOST of things that can go wrong during the hanging phase…if you start getting any color of mold other than white growing on your meat, you need to wash it off with salted vinegar, and say an earnest prayer that the mold isn’t growing on the inside of the meat, as well.  If you are curing in a cellar or basement, you have to be careful of pests, as well…mice and insects.  (That’s less of a problem in a retrofitted fridge.)  However, the best cured meats in the world come from damp, dingy, century-old, dirt-floored basements in Europe, and just like the French attitude toward wine, the Italians say that only Mother Nature can make salumi.  If you start with a good pig, and have the right environment, excellent salumi will result.

Note the operative words there…”good pig.”  You can’t go to the grocery store and buy a ham, and make superb prosciutto.  Commercial pork is raised with a careful diet that makes it leaner than chicken.  Such meat will NEVER produce even decent salumi.  The Italians have heirloom breeds of pig that are renowned for having a high fat content, and they feed these pigs acorns…fruit…milk…and a variety of natural foods that produce meltingly-tender, fatty meat that is perfect for curing.  So don’t bother going to the time and expense of home-curing unless you have a source for excellent meat.  Luckily, there’s probably a pig farmer within a hundred miles of you who is raising heirloom pig breeds.  Red wattle hogs are becoming the popular breed for American farmers to raise…they are much-loved in Italy.  Craigslist is an excellent place to start, as is a visit to your local Agriculture Extension office.  If you can find a source for hand-raised, heirloom-breed pork, then you’ve got the perfect starting point for making world-class salumi at home.

For an excellent primer on curing meats at home, check out Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn and Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting Smoking and Curing, by the same authors.

Subscribe to my blog in the window near the upper right corner of your screen, so you don’t miss my post on how to build a home curing room using an old fridge!  And feel free to comment below…I’d love to hear any stories you have about home curing, or about great memories eating excellent cured meats!