Pancetta curing Chamber

How To Build a Curing Chamber for Dry Cured Meat

I researched a fair bit before starting my dry-cured charcuterie meat project many years ago, it isn’t that complicated and nowadays there are plug & play options too.

I want to share with you the discovery of this fascinating world of dry-cured meats.

Salumi, the classic Italian category is really only one (BIG) area. Cured meats have been necessary to keep civilizations going across many parts of this glorious globe, they can release a whole new level of taste, texture and flavor.

This article tries to cover all (some) of the principles and some mistakes I have made – and of course learn’t from.

Hopefully, you too can create your own charcuterie and start curing meat for yourself, I also have come up with a method for curing meat in my kitchen regular fridge.

How To Build a Curing Chamber

  1. Plan the Design
  2. Acquire the Components
  3. Assemble & Build the Curing Chamber
  4. Test the Conditions

You may already have some of the tools you need, most of the time you can do this project for under $300. Having an old second-hand fridge or wine fridge forms the base to build the chamber around.

The fridge insulation is suited to holding a temperature that solves one part of it.

Method for Curing Meat with Salt
Homemade Dry-Cured “Braesola” style wild game

If you aren’t keen on building a curing chamber but still want to try dry-curing meat at home, I had some trial and error, but eventually got a technique to get some consistent results, check out the full post on dry curing meat in my regular kitchen fridge here.

 

One of the biggest challenges about learning to cure meat I found early on was a lack of quality resources following a logical concise step by step process. Whilst explaining what was happening as well!

So that was one big reason I started this website. After studying and learning from butchers/meat curers/norcini and having an interest in the meat science aspects over a few decades. It's been a long journey, and it still fascinating and exciting.

Meat curing is a lot more than just following a recipe, it's obviously a process but there is also so much knowledge that makes everything click together. Some still refer to it as a craft and I partially agree with this.

Cold smoking is also an extension but it's own discipline I've had great success with.

To bring all this together into one resource I create a comprehensive whole muscle charcuterie course. Including videos and a plethora of supplementary material.

In a big way, dry curing meat has taken my repertoire of cookery or food to a whole new level.

You can find more info on my course online course here.

 

 

 

 

For a DIY chamber, the main idea is to use controllers to switch on and off the humidity and temperature systems.

It can take some playing around but it’s not about an exact temperature, you just need to have it working in a certain range to produce delicious dry-cured meats, it’s definitely worth it.

Now I have a very useful ‘booklet’ – I put together to learn about building your own curing chamber and an online charcuterie course it’s on the course page here.

The whole point is to avoid the outside going hard before the center has dried out enough – by keeping the moisture/humidity high (around 70%).

I went a bit crazy and used a double door 250 gal bar fridge (it was $ 400 second hand), but I did have a plan to do large batches of dry curing since I harvest wild meat.

Because many components are now just plugged, set & go, this can be a straightforward setup.

You end up just plugging in electronics you need to control the environment for charcuterie! (You may need to put some holes in for airflow, possibly a fan, some guys do some don’t- opening the door, every now and then can work).

I ended up hardwiring the electrics since an Electrical Engineering friend helped put it together many years ago – thanks Andy!

Here is another one I am using, the larger unit now is with a fan of the blog for hanging chunks of harvested deer!

5 Flavors, Armenian Pastirma, Spanish Lombucho, mini prosciutto (boneless), and a slow and low BBQ spice-inspired porky pig (it’s in my course this recipe…a crowd fav)

Full Details Building A Curing Chamber

1. Plan the Design

Having experimented myself and read through piles of forums, posts, and groups. The easiest options I have found are:

  • Using a Used Fridge
  • Using a Wine Fridge

The difference between these two mainly comes down to size and temperature, you can get big wine fridges, but they seem harder to find second hand. Some wine fridges can have different settings the ‘red wine‘ setting can be just about perfect for curing meat, ie. 55-65°F/12-16°C.

Wine Coolers/Fridges also come with compressors or thermoelectric (too be avoided ideally)

For both these options, it’s mainly the humidity you have to get under control to keep the fridge within a ‘moist’ environment.

Now some guys just hang their meat in a cellar, basement, or another area around the home. If it’s in the temperature and humidity range – it can definitely work – however one must expect some variation in results.

For @ home, you just need some testing with a hygrometer and thermometer (but you need these conditions for 2-3 months).

Simple device that can measure both for your potential environment – check one out here.

Or if you want something that has the capacity to log the results over time, something like this.

There always seems to be a steady supply of used fridges either locally or through some online classified ads. You really want to think about the size when planning this out.

I went a little crazy with a double door fridge, it can handle a lot, and I have also used it for growing mushrooms, hanging meat to age, drying fruit/spices/vegetables to make powders, fermenting beer/wine, and making jerky/biltong. (Needed heating for some of this though)

You may need to have a few components (gear pages here) installed into the fridge so you want enough space to hang your glorious cured meat. Another option is to use piping for keeping the humidifier outside the fridge area.

Used Fridge Design

Temperature & Humidity Basics

Most modern fridges are frost-free if you acquire an older fridge make sure it is frost-free. Frost free means you have a dry environment, so you will need the minimum of a humidifier & a humidity controller (hydrostat control) to get the humidity in the target dry-cured meat range (60-75% generally).

I’ve used non frost free, and they are doable too, you have more moisture from the cooling panels, and therefore need de-humidification as well.

The air that comes into an unmodified frost-free fridge seems to run at 20-30% humidity when I have done tests.

You want a much higher and stable-ish humidity for dry cured meats. I will get onto this topic below.

My kitchen fridge when operates around 36°F/3°C, you want more like around 52°F/11°C for most dry-cured meat projects.

So the design will need to take into account turning the compressor on the fridge on and off (with the temperature controller). Most fridges won’t get above 45°F/7°C when in normal operation, even on the highest setting.

Most fridges have an adjustable thermostat built-in, my old double door fridge did. However, it couldn’t get to the desired meat curing chamber setting, so I needed to modify it.

Some basic DIY skills will be required for this job.

If you don’t feel confident, you may want to enlist an electrically minded friend to help out but you can get away with the plug and play method quite easily (I’ll email you plans too).

If the whole area is a fridge (no freezer area), you don’t have to pull out the reciprocating saw or another cutting device to join the areas.

You don’t need a freezer area for this project, though many fridges will have one. I have worked on a few, just cutting a hole between the 2 chambers will mean you can control the environment in both areas (it’s messy, insulation, wiring, coolant pipes all can create issues).

If you want you can leave the freezer area and just use the fridge part for curing the meat. Cutting through the fridge/insulation area – you need to be careful of any wires/pipes.

If you can get hold of the schematic plans and wiring of the fridge, you will get more information to work with. Once you have identified the wiring/coolant pipes, it makes the modification a lot easier.

Hanging Rack Design

My old fridge was huge, so I don’t have a space issue, what I’ve seen with smaller units using a metal L bracket on both sides of the fridge at the top is possible.

You then can slide in and out a bar/wooden stick.

Or in one instance I used the rack and chopstick method below!

I used chopsticks for hanging, S hooks on a metal bracket is another common way

Your hooks will then just go onto this bar or wooden stick.

I had too much salami after processing 80lb/40kg of wild beef (cattlebeast), venison and pork. I drilled holes in the ‘condiment holders’ on the door. Which allow me to thread more salamis up through the holes and sercure with…chopsticks of course.

I needed 75 hooks also for this batch!

Or an expandable shower curtain bar like this can work, I have a page on hooks/racks here! Thicker ones definitely can hold more!

Controller Designs

There are 2 ways I have found to do this, the hard (wired) way and the easy plug-in way.

Plug In Controllers – Easy Way

Toys? No, not at all.

Temperature

When I first saw this option, it was quite the wow moment. I wished the first time I designed my chamber, that I had seen these! It takes a lot of the ‘hard’ electrical know how out of the project.

Think about where you want this component mounted on the outside of the fridge. Then, you will have a wire for the temperature probe/sensor running in the fridge. You will want the sensor located around the middle of the fridge to give an accurate reading.

You want a quality controller, after the time invested into making proper salumi or salumi – having a fault is not what you want. Heard a few stories about going cheap that didn’t work out very well.

Most of the time I am keeping a pretty close eye on the curing chamber. There are even some wifi options for remote monitoring.

A temperature controller does the same job as the inbuilt fridge thermostat. Except you are in control and can cycle on the fridge less to reach the target dry curing temperature.

Getting to the 50-60°F/10-15°C range you need for longer-term cured meats is as simple as switching the compressor on and off through the controller.

Humidity

You will find it’s a similar process for designing the humidity control. You want to mount a humidity controller on the outside of the fridge. Then have the probe/sensor positioned inside the fridge around the middle for the most accurate readings.

Temperature & Humidity Sensors

When drilling any holes, think very carefully about the internal wiring/pipes through the insulation. Hopefully, you are able to get the schematic plans that show you where all the wires and pipes are.

I’ll just put the link to the ‘category’ page, for controllers, humidifiers etc.. here.

Hardwired Controllers

I had to enlist the help of an electrical friend to do this part on some curing chambers.

Setting up the hardwired controller system

When it comes to making holes in a fridge, the less the better. Having an enclosure to keep the controllers makes my setup a lot tidier for a hardwired option.

Humidifier Inside or Outside Fridge

Some guys I know decided to put the humidifier on the outside of the chamber. You then use some sort of hosing/pipe into the curing chamber. This can create more space for hanging cured meat!

For smaller curing chambers you can get heat generated from the humidifier, so having it on the outside can help keep it cooler.

The Used Wine Fridge Option

Wine fridges seem to keep in the right temperature area often. My friends have a setting for champagne, white wine and red wine. It even maintains about 55-75°F. It doesn’t seem to quite get the airflow even though there is a fan built into it.

The designs I have seen have just been a hydrometer hooked up to a humidity controller. This worked great for him, the only thing was he had to open the door now and then.

2. Acquire the Components

So the equipment necessary for a fridge conversion (links to some pages on recommended gear I’ve written about):

Optional

Also a wine fridge can be compressor vs thermoelectric – but also compressor wine coolers can recirculate the moisture, I’ve not tested this.

Thermoelectric ideally avoided.

For the Wine Fridge if it can hit the temperature/humidity you are after, much simpler, but you probably will need to add this stuff:

Optional

Tools

  • Drill and Drill bits
  • Food grade sealant (for holes)
  • Screwdrivers

It’s all go from here, you should have a decent plan, but just make sure you are aware of modifying a fridge safely if you cutting/drilling into it.

Many guys just run the cords through the fridge door so they don’t have to drill into the insulated walls (schematic of the fridge is really helpful for seeing the wiring).

Things I have learned are:

Testing the Temperature & Humidity

To have a secondary portable testing apparatus for temperature and humidity can help a lot. You will find there are different readings in different areas of the chamber. Apart from positioning sensors around the middle of the chamber.

You will want to maybe think about the placement of equipment prior to starting alterations of course. The plans I can email you show example diagrams & pics).

Humidity & Temperature

Humidifier – Ultrasonic Type

Make sure the humidifier is ultrasonic since they have a much finer mist output.

The tank size of 2-quart minimum, you don’t want to be filling up the humidifier every day. If you get cycling and design right, maybe only every week. But it will also depend on how much space you have inside the fridge.

There are only a few on the market that really suit this purpose, I wrote about some of these humidifiers here if you want to read more.

Dehumidifier (Dependent on Design)

Getting the right size in proportion to the chamber is important. You also want to take into consideration the tank.

Some humidifiers have external drainage outlets, this can be used also in the design. I didn’t worry about this, and most people will find you don’t need to empty the tank that often, maybe once every week or two if the environment is reasonably stable.

Most people end up getting one, I have written the reasons and some links to a few that people have used, check out the dehumidifiers here.

Cooling Function – the Right Temperature

Because I went a bit crazy with the size, my issue is the compressor pumping much drier air into the chamber, this hasn’t been an issue with frost-free second-hand fridges. I find the cooling cycling takes quite some time to keep the temperature around the 52°F/11°C, covering the area where the cool air gets pumped in has improved the results for me.

The delay functions on controllers are important, you want to ‘rest’ the compressor between cycles for longevity.

With smaller units like bar fridges, the small area should be easier to control as well, with less cycling of temperature or humidity.

Heating – for Fermentation, Humidity Control & Drying

Several designs including my own, have included some for of heating.

A normal light bulb can be used, through experience I have learned this isn’t a good idea.

Light in the curing chamber affects the bacteria and the fat on the meat.

If you think about those giant Parma Ham & Prosciutto hanging in Italy, they tend to be in darkened areas.

Using a non-light emitting bulb (ceramic -it does sound crazy) will work very well when you put this on a variable controller or hooked up to your temperature controller, you can produce some heat to cycle on and off. Which in turn, will lower the humidity a bit.

These types of adjustable ceramic bulbs are used in reptile enclosures, not the easiest to find, but here is a page on them I wrote about factors to get the right one.

Air Flow

Fans are a great way of bringing the air in and taking the air out of the curing chamber. If you choose a plug and play design control system, you can have the plug sharing one of the controllers or hardwire to one of the inputs.

What I mean by this is, you will have the fan on when the cooling is happening to exchange some of the air in the chamber. Here is a page I wrote on fans that suit this application.

Some people get away with just leaving the door open every day or two so exchange the air. It works of course, but does mean higher management, and possibly a little bit more funkiness growing.

Filtering Air – HEPA

After a few years, I decided to dissect a new HEPA filter for a vacuum cleaner. I used this to filter the incoming air. For obvious reasons, having filtered air helps protect that precious white penicillin culture that will eventually be thriving in your curing chamber.

Here is a link to Amazon, to show you what I used for a filter.

Hanging & Rack Design

I got lucky with my large fridge since I can set up hooks easily since it had adjustable shelving.

What most people do is with a metal bracket system along the top of the fridge. Since you will be hanging most of the meat, you want to get the maximum amount of hanging space.

Just be really careful about mounting the bracket, if you have a diagram of the wiring. Repeated I know but important, it will really help avoid making holes and damaging any electrics that are running through the insulation of the fridge.

S hooks are a great way of hanging meat. Because you will be checking the weight loss often, you want something that can easily be taken off and hung back up. I have gone through a phase of tying and untying which isn’t very efficient.

For no penetrations, I also came up with a expandable rod idea, check it out on the curing chamber rack system page here.

Controllers Plug & Play / Hardwired

Having controllers that can handle all the various plugs is really important. Some friends have opted for the simpler controllers, then have needed to add more components.

Plug & Play Humidity Controllers

For certain applications, there are some excellent plugin controllers that have now been proven and do a great job for DIY meat curing chambers.

I wrote about why these are decent curing chamber controllers here.

An issue you may have is not being able to bring down humidity, you may be relying on the cooling compressor in the fridge to help decrease the humidity (or a heat source if you go down that track).

You could look at the variable control ceramic bulb heat option to help control this, but to be honest, a dehumidifier is a good way to go.

1/16 DIN Humidity Controller (Hardwired)

This is the hardwired option, would really only be suggesting this if you are electrically qualified or have an electrician friend.

I have used this device for temperature control (but they do temp or humidity versions), it has worked well for many years. The programming is not user-friendly, so we have to seriously read the instructions, I know it’s a pain, but I think its because of the commercial application of this humidifier controller.

I’ve seen this controller in butchers and deli controlling walk-in chiller rooms for instance.

You need to get your head around how the buttons and options work, setting the higher and lower humidity thresholds and the variations when it turns the circuits on.

For a hardwired option, I would still be recommending these. If I ever wanted to go even bigger, I know this controller would be a reliable option.

On the dependable gear – controller page, I have put some more information, check it out here.

You also need an enclosure for the controller like this, sorry is a bad photo. Here are the boxes on Amazon to give you a better idea of what it looks like, I would say 12 inches across at least if you are putting a temperature and humidifier controller in – Amazon link here.

Drilling the right size holes and putting some conduit connector fittings on will hold it all in place.

Temperature / Humidity – 2 Inputs / Wifi

If you want to control via phone or computer from anywhere, this is the option for you. Actually, when I next upgrade the curing chamber, this is what I will be getting. How cool is it if you can see what the curing chamber stats are from anywhere in the world!

I would use 2 of these, one for temperature using a ceramic bulb and the fridge compressor (heating & cooling). A second one for humidifier & dehumidifier – complete control over the curing chamber.

Same page I wrote on controllers has more info on the wifi option, check it out here.

I can’t remember which site I saw this on, but someone has programmed there own Raspberry Pi system for a curing chamber.

3. Assemble & Build the Curing Chamber

Here are some things you will probably need:

  • Drill
  • Drill bits
  • Screwdrivers
  • Metal Saw
  • Ruler
  • Kitchen grade sealant
  • Hooks & Rack fixtures

Sterilize Once Fridge is Empty

Wiping the inside well with bleach prior to using will get the chamber off to the best start.

Remember, you are trying to control nature, so the outcomes can vary, but once the penicillin starts to find an invisible home in the curing chamber, you will have ongoing success for sure!

Using plain vinegar (white, malt or red wine – anything works) to wipe off the not so good bacteria may be more necessary at the start when good mold is still developing a home.

Please make sure all the power is off to the fridge before commencing any modification for safety sake.

Other Important Tools for Meat Curing

  • Accurate Digital Scales
  • Zip-lock bags
  • Butchers Twine

When you are cutting into the structure of a fridge, it is usually filled with a form of foam insulation. This can get rather messy, it can be difficult to find the wiring that goes through this insulation also.

Simple Wine Fridge Design

If you have the right environment, you can get away with a minimal amount of modification. Airflow, hanging system and humidity control will be most important.

Some people find it a bit restrictive in space. But, I guess it just depends on how much cured meat you want to hang!

4. Testing the Chamber

I aim for about 5-10% variation in target humidity (70% mostly) and a 36-40°F/ 3-4°C variation in temperature.

It will depend on what your making, but lets generalize.

Temperature

Lower temps means slower drying.

LowIdealHigh
46°F52°F60°F
8°C11°C15°C

Target 11°C plus or minus 3°C

Humidity

The more challenging variable.

Target 70% plus/minus 5-10%

(70-80% is where I like it generally)

It can take some fine tuning to get this consistent and through the chamber it will change as well.

The key is not having big variation, I have found the salumi just doesn’t like it, but once it has lost most of the weight, it is more resilient.

Getting to know the cycling of the compressor will take a bit of time.

Double checking the results with analog humidity and temperature gauges, can be really helpful. Some guys I know have had to calibrate the thermostats. I haven’t had these issues at all.

Easier Solution for Drying Out on the Outside

If the cured meat is hard on the outside but hasn’t lost the 35% weight. You can just vacuum seal the meat and leave it in the kitchen fridge for 2-4 weeks. It will help equalize evenly (done quite often for salumi and salami produced at home).

Some guys do this for months or years!

Final Curing Thought

A little charcuterie board I was very proud of, pork loin (chorizo spices) and wild venison braesola

It’s not quite a science, dry curing meat – many call it an art and a craft.

The balancing of varying factors is what I enjoy the most. And results aren’t guaranteed, kind of like all aspects of life!

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Related Questions

Can you Eat Dry Cured Ham Raw?

Dry curing is art & craft of salt curing then drying meat for extreme flavor and preservation. You can eat dry-cured meat without cooking, it is not raw anymore it is dried. The salt and the drying remove the meat’s ability to spoil.

Comments

  1. Hi

    I am a beginner on this, converting a fridge to a drying chamber for our son. I found your article the most helpful so far, easy to read, not too much tech. Stuff and a clear step be step guide

    The one thing I need now is to put the fridge to a test on drying a piece of meat, but where can I get some practical advise on that

    Thank you a million for your article

    Bob

    1. Author

      Hey Bob, glad you found the post useful!

      If you want to see if it works, it’s generally trial and error. If it was me, I would start with a small piece of meat definitely so see how it goes.
      Sometimes it just takes time for ‘natural’ white powdery penicillin to grow inside the curing chamber. But if you get a little bit of non-‘flour’ looking mold, you just wipe off whatever else with some vinegar.

      If the curing chamber can operate around 70% humidity (variation of 5-10% doesn’t matter too much) and you can keep the temperature around 52F / 11C (some variation doesn’t matter either – 2-4 C deg or + or – 35 deg F. You will be on to the right track. Whenever you put in new cured meat, obviously the humidity will be higher due to moisture on the meat.

      This post may help if you haven’t seen it – How to Cure Meat at Home
      Hope this helps,
      Tom

  2. Thanks for the article. I am following your suggestions and have ordered the relevant bits and pieces. This will be my first attempt at Salamy etc. Your directions are simple and easy to understand. Thanks again. Lockie

    1. Author

      Hi Lockie,
      Hey thanks, heaps, appreciate your comment and glad its be helpful.:-)

      If you need any help, just fire through the questions.

      All the best,
      Tom

  3. Hi, this is a great article and website, thanks for making it!

    i’ve just set my curing chamber up but having problems with the humidity controller (WH8040, i think the same as linked), it just displays the HHH error but i can’t for the life of me find anything in the instructions or online on how to fix that. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Cheers

    1. Author

      Hey Patrick, I dug this up for you -….” PU:Delay to start,When relay stop output and start timing,the interval of time must greater than delay start time to avoid start frequently.HP:temperature upper limit alarm:when temperature exceed upper limit alarm,digital tube display”HHH”,temperature lower than alarm setting it will return back from alarm automatically.”

  4. Hi Tom,

    in the section of the testing of the fridge, you give the temperature range, for Celsius i think it is okay but for Fahrenheit don’t you mean to say 52F + or – 5.4F? Because while it is true that 3 Celsius is 34F as a temperature, 1 degree Celsius change is 1.8F so 52F + or – 34F would mean that a temperature between 18F and 86F is okay. That would translate in to -7.8 Celsius to 30 Celsius. While you mean to say somewhere between 8 and 15 Celsius (which is what you do on the Celsius part of that section but not on the Fahrenheit part).

    For the rest this is a wealth of information! Thank you and keep up the good work!

  5. I’m just starting out with a new curing set up but I’m finding it difficult to control the humidity during the compressor cycling. I have it set to 11C (+2/-1) and 70% (+10/-2). It takes it approx. 45-60 min for it to climb from 11 to 13C which is the upper limit that I set. during this time the humidity is fine. But once the compressor and fan kick on the humidity drops to ~58%. It jumps back up to ~75% relatively quick (few mins). I;m running it empty at the moment to get the timing down before trying bresaola. My humidifier is on the bottom. would it help to move it up in the chamber?
    Any other thoughts or suggestions?

    1. Author

      depends on the fridge/compressors. I had a commerical type that did dry out things a little fast too. Can try diffusing the fan if the compressor has one, so its not so direct. This is the variation one gets with fridges and part of the challenge!

  6. Hello, I have a small refrigerator that I’m looking into converting I did my research and downloaded the instruction Manuel for it. The only thing concerning me is it says in the notes that if the refrigerator is turned off or unplugged at all you have to wait 3 minutes to turn it back on or it will not work. Will this be affected by the plug and play controllers that were suggested for this build?
    Thanks
    Brian

    1. Author

      not sure! lots of variables in this craft my friend. From what I’ve seen compressors on ‘most’ fridges are fine. And usually due to the insulations it shouldn’t cycle on for 10 mins + anyhow! Cheers Tom

  7. Why would you avoid a Thermoelectric fridge?

    I live in a very small apartment so I am looking to make a curing chamber out of a wine cooler fridge.
    This fridge will be in the living area so noise will be a factor I consider. I have seen most wine fridges seem to be about 42 decibel range for the small size I am considering.

    1. Author

      Haven’t tried one, but supposedly with no drying effect from the compressor, it may take a lot of controller work with a dehumidifier and humidifier to keep in a good range.

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