10 Things We Learned About Charcuterie From The Man Who Literally Wrote the Book
Food Republic charcuterie class with Brian Polcyn
There's an old Otto von Bismarck saying: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." For at least 24 chefs, butchers, farmers and charcuterie enthusiasts who assembled last week in the kitchen of the massive new Music City Center convention facility in Nashville, they would definitely not agree about the sausage part.
Brian Polcyn, the chef/proprietor of Forest Grill in Birmingham, MI, opened up the arcane world of grinding and curing sausages to the masses when he wrote Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing in 2005 with Michael Ruhlman, along with a follow-up Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing in 2012. These are basically the bibles on the topic. Polcyn now conducts charcuterie seminars around the country, and his second visit to Nashville in six months sold out almost instantaneously, with students traveling from Louisiana, North Carolina, Illinois and Chicago to learn from the master.
A self-proclaimed “American/Mexican Polack from Michigan,” Polcyn was a very entertaining instructor and the chefs stood rapt around the butcher block as he broke down a pig and taught them how to utilize just about everything but the squeal. Here are 10 (pork) nuggets of wisdom we came away with:
1. Charcuterie isn’t just cool, it’s cost-effective
In a restaurant setting, a typical 250-pound pig can yield enough Porterhouse cuts for Polcyn to pay for the entire hog. So while he considers pork chops to be "boring," they are the cash cow (err…pig) that allows him to experiment with all the other parts of the pig with little additional cost — other than his time.
2. Factory pigs are like "eating soft serve"
Polcyn prefers to use heritage breeds like Berkshires or the Ossabaw Island Hog. The particular pig that was utilized for the class came from Autumn Olive Farms in Virginia, the same producer that provided hogs for the Cochon 555 event in Washington D.C. and the Grand Cochon Final in Aspen. Factory hogs are anathema to Polcyn. “Trying to breed the fat out of pigs is like making a yolkless egg. Why eat flavorless soft serve when you can have Ben and Jerry’s?”
3. European butchers get more from a pig than Americans...
The traditional USDA cuts of picnic ham, shoulder, belly, loin and ribs are very familiar to American consumers — but would be foreign to most Europeans. Polcyn butchered half the hog harvesting these American primal cuts and then demonstrated “seam butchery,” which allows for much better utilization of the entire animal, and to procure the “Big 8” European cuts: Guanciale, Coppa, Spala, Lonza, Pancetta, Lardo, Prosciutto and trim for sausages.
His knowledge of porcine anatomy was encyclopedic as he effortlessly located the seams between bone and ligaments with the tip of his knife and identified and removed almost invisible glands throughout the carcass that would have contributed a bitter flavor to any dish that accidentally included them.
4. ...but we’re catching up
“The public has really embraced charcuterie," he says "In the next 10-15 years I’d like to see us start to develop our own unique sausages and terroirs.” But Europe still has a big head start. “There are trees in Europe older than our country. They’ve had 2,000 years to make all the mistakes.”
5. Whole hog utilization is a noble act
In a day and a half, Polcyn and the class produced 21 different saleable items from one pig. In addition to the salt-cured primals, students went home with dry-aged sausages like saucisson sec and Soppressata to hang in their own drying rooms, and cold and hot items which were sampled as part of lunch the second day of class. Mortadella, zampone, chicarrones and a graphically identifiable porchetta di testa that stared back at Polcyn as he carved it up were highlights of the menu.
6. Fat is flavor. Fat is your friend.
Polcyn saves everything but the glands of pigs that he butchers, and with good reason. In addition to the obvious deliciousness of the belly (“If we didn’t have bacon in the world, we’d all kill ourselves”), he can do wonderful things with the different types of fat that he harvests during the process. Hard fats contribute the counterpart to lean to create amazing sausages for grinding and curing. Softer fats are used in the production of Lardo or to make incredibly rich pig butter.
7. Pastry chefs are evil
Polcyn has an ongoing battle with pâtissiers. “They say they can do what I do, but I can’t do what they do. If you want to shut one up, just make them some pig butter.”
8. Polcyn isn’t a big fan of the new breed of chef scientists either
Although he has recently finally embraced sous vide as a part of his ground sausage technique, Polcyn still has a lot to say about the new crop of gastronomists. “They show up at my classes with their baseball cap turned around backwards and a copy of Art Culinaire and a spray bottle and call themselves a chef. I just want to stab an ice pick in their eye.”
9. Meat has many enemies
When experimenting with the arcane curing arts, it’s important to recognize that just about everything is conspiring to ruin your meat. “The smokehouse is the perfect environment for botulism spores to turn into toxins, with relatively high humidity, temperatures between 180 and 200 and an anaerobic environment.” Blood is the enemy of whole cuts and can cause the entire enterprise to spoil from the inside out. Polycyn expertly extracted the blood from every vein and artery of the pig as he went along during the butchering process.
Air is the enemy of ground meat, so Polcyn slammed five-pound handfuls of pork on the counter to eliminate any air pockets before they went in the stuffer. Finally, Botulism is the most dangerous predator of any cured meat, so it’s vital to remember this last lesson:
10. Safety first
Polcyn admonished the class early on, “If you do something wrong while practicing these techniques, you could kill somebody, and that’s really bad for business.” The goal of the entire curing process is to lower the pH of the meat to an acidic level (around 4.9, for you food scientists out there), so the students learned all about salt, nitrates, nitrites and other curing agents to kill Mr. Botulism. “We call him Mister because we respect the hell out of him…”
Polcyn has classes planned all over the country including Asheville, New Orleans, Portland (Oregon), Edison (New Jersey) and San Francisco. You can find out more and check his schedule here. If he’s anywhere in your vicinity and you want to benefit from his 37 years of experience, sign up early!
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