My first attempts at making bacon, like those of most, resulted some pretty salty pieces of meat. They were the product of a great deal of enthusiasm, naivety and a strong desire not to kill my self or any one else with insufficiently cured bacon. Over the years, I started to be more controlled in the dosing of salt and later began to make pancetta, coppa and other cured whole muscle cuts. The key distinction between bacon and the likes of pancetta is that pancetta under goes a fermentation phase that lowers the pH slightly which helps improve flavour, colour and texture. As my charcuterie began to improve I began to use the continental cured meats as a yard stick to measure my own endeavors against. The first thing that was apparent was that the level of salinity in the charcuterie I was making was still way too high. I started to incrementally ease off, first the time the meat spent in the cure and then the dosing until I achieved a level that was sufficient to do the curing, but was not overpowering. During this process I began to notice that a greater complexity and 'continental' flavour was developing in what I was making, and I began to suspect that somehow by reducing the salt level you were providing 'space' for that elusive 'mediteranian' element to develop. After a little digging and further reading I discovered that, whilst it is Lactobacillus and Pediococcus bacteria that are largely responsible for the acidification during fermentation, it is particular strains of Staphylococci that are not only responsible for reducing nitrate to nitrite, turning the meat that distinctive pink hue, but are also key in producing those elusive continental flavours I had been searching for.
Staphylococcus Xylosus and Staphylococcus Carnosus, especially S.xylosis, produce enzymes that are lipolytic and proteolytic, breaking down fats and proteins turning peptides and fatty acids into aldehydes, acids, esters alcohols, and ketones, greatly adding to the complexity and depth of flavour within the cured meat. However all these salt tolerent bacteria have a threshold at which they will no longer function and as the salt level approaches these upper limits there activity is significantly reduced, so my earlier suspicions had found some validation.
Reducing the amount of water available to bacteria through the application of salt is our primary line of defense against pathogenic and spoilage bacteria. Using enough salt to sufficiently cure the meat is paramount, but by giving some room to the beneficial bacteria combined with fermentation, we can lower the pH, providing a second spoilage hurdle and add a whole other level of piquancy and umami that no amount spices or aromats can achieve.
Image: Paul Burton Words: Paul Burton