Dry Cured Meat in a Fridge

How to Cure Meat at Home – Complete Illustrated Guide

Dry Curing meat at home is just a process, the result can be fantastic and you don’t need fancy equipment. It is a craft and in a way, I think it’s more than just following a recipe – it’s a kind of magic!

I wanted to create a resource that was useful for someone new to the glorious world of meat curing and give a decent overview of the process.

I’ve been learning about dry curing for nearly a couple of decades now and it’s still super exciting!

Dry Cured Meat made in a Normal Fridge
My Dry Cured Meat made in a Normal Fridge

The main topic is dry-cured meats which I have experimented with and can be done in your normal kitchen fridge, professional drying chamber, or DIY curing chamber. – I will go over each method I have tried below.

You can also just hang it around the house, in a cellar or somewhere with a slightly moist and coolish location (more on this later).

Defining cured meat for me falls into 3 categories mainly,

  • cold smoking,
  • hot smoking (which is also low and slow bbq or direct heat smoking)
  • dry curing

Specifically, I am talking about dry curing meat known in Italy as Salumi & in modern terms sometimes referred to as charcuterie nowadays (charcuterie is a French term for rillettes, pates, salami, whole, muscle dry-cured meats, and porky bits – many other French smallgoods strictly speaking).

Charcuterie nowadays means modern meat & cheese platter it seems in most of the Western world.

(Salt) Dry Curing is a method of bringing out some incredible flavor and intensifying everything that’s good in the quality of the meat. Reducing moisture in the meat to a point where the meat flavor is amplified and also preserved, since bacteria that spoil meat, doesn’t have moisture to thrive on.

Dry Curing is like those classics – prosciutto, braesola or pancetta.

Also, proper dry-cured salami falls into this category if you’re Italian, but there are emulsified & cooked salamis as well!

(like mortadella – encrusted with truffles & pistachios if your lucky or in Sicily)

Many cultures have been curing meat for thousands of years, and the dry curing style is the definition of the slowest food around which I love.

So the quick answer to the process, then a full breakdown. Lastly, will cover concepts and equipment breakdown.

How to Cure Meat at Home

  1. Use the salt box method or equilibrium curing
  2. Accurately calculate the required pink curing salt
  3. Mix salt, spices & cure, and apply to meat
  4. Cure in a fridge or cool area
  5. Once fully cured, remove from fridge & rinse thoroughly
  6. Weigh and calculate 65% weight, the finished weight
  7. May need to be muslin wrapped/case and tied to reduce air pockets
  8. Hang the meat in a suitable environment
Dry Curing in my regular kitchen fridge

People ask when they try my dry-cured meats, “is it smoked?”. Very often people seem to think that smoking meat, especially cold smoked meat, is the same as dry-cured meat (it is and isn’t).

There is some cross-over, but generally, it’s different.

There isn’t any smoking involved in dry-curing meat (most of the time). But in essence, cold smoking is ‘drying’ the meat to a point where it is preserved just like dry curing. The smoke has beneficial functionality like anti-bacterial/fungal, so I have read. But sometimes I’ll wet brine fish for instance and then cold smoke.

35% weight loss is the dry curing weight loss goal when you know it has been stabilized and lost enough moisture (sometimes it goes way beyond this).

But for cold smoking, I find it’s 20-30% dependent on the meat (like fish loses weight/moisture as soon as it has been removed from the water, weigh your fish straight after catching it, it will always be heavier!).

Also, it’s good to note most meats are around 70% water, 20% protein, and some other stuff.

When it comes to animal fat, like pork fat. It’s lower in water content. Therefore, for the home charcuterie purveyor, I noticed less weight loss before it was ready. 99% of the time, I stick to 35% minimum weight loss. Unless it’s something like Lardo, which is basically pure fat, dry salt-cured.

So this guide is wholly focused on dry-cured meat, many of these types of dry-cured meats take months to dry out enough until they are ready to eat, and that’s the beauty of it for me.

I want to show you how to make cured meats that take days and weeks not months and years – using your unmodified kitchen fridge at home also.

Since this has been a great way for people to get into the craft.

When I got started curing meats, especially dry-cured meats. I started reading books and also learned a lot from some Italian friends and online forums. Spending way too much time hanging around with Artisan butchers as well. Doing laps driving around Italy for months and months was inspiring too!

Having played around with it, I wanted to provide a resource for other people to learn about this old-school way of ‘leveling up’ flavor in meat but utilizing the proven modern techniques to get consistent results. (also a big fan of pickling – Scandanavia is very good at this).

Details – How to Cure Meat at Home

Before breaking down the method in more detail, I just wanted to go over each component and the equipment.

Dry Curing meat is about following a method, but as many say it is a craft and it involves some alchemy and accuracy I think (although there is a traditional way which isn’t about accuracy too, it’s a bit hit and miss – saturation or saltbox method).

So I thought it’s best to go over the important aspects next, and the technique (equilibrium curing) that leads to decent/consistent outcomes – that you can crank out and tastes amazing!

Important Aspects

*Fridges & Curing Chambers to Control Temperature & Humidity*

A curing chamber is not essential and I have written about what you need to build your own with an old fridge or wine fridge. If you want to read more about this, you can get the guide in my charcuterie course too.

But there are some tricks I’ve learned along the way.

You want a slightly moist environment and coolish – with a bit of air exchange or airflow (technically 1 m/s)

So the meat dries out inside, and if the humidity is too high, the outside goes hard (for short term like normal fridge curing, this doesn’t matter – case hardening it’s called often)

Or you can try some dry-curing in your existing normal fridge, it’s probably the best thing to start with and if you become interested, then you can explore the dedicated curing chamber.

If you have a protected area that has a temperature of around 11-15°C/50-60°F most of the time, this can also be used for some short-term projects. It really just depends on the humidity.

You can just buy a hygrometer gauge if you want to find out accurately what level you have around home.

Process of Dry Curing at Home

1. Using the Salt Box Method or Equilibrium Cure

You’ll want to use the “Saltbox” method if you don’t have the accurate digital scales mentioned above. You can get away with level teaspoons if you trust their 2.5 grams approximation because it will depend on the salt!

My preference is always to use equilibrium curing if I can.

Especially if you are starting off with projects in your normal kitchen fridge. You get more precision and therefore you’ll get better outcomes. The salt box method can always be a bit hit and miss. Due to the variations in the meat cuts and how much you roll around the meat in the salt.

Salt Box Method

So all you’re doing is having a pan or tray with salt, curing salt, and spices.

Then you are coating the meat and roll it around in the mixture. Then place it in a ‘box’ Ziploc bag to be cured in the fridge or a place with a fridge-like temperature.

The salt box method is covering the whole meat with salt and leaving it for a certain amount of days based on the weight.

Sometimes pressure is applied to help squeeze in the cure (technically diffusion and water-binding = curing).

Traditional whole cured prosciutto hams of Italy, you can see the shape from the pressure applied during the curing process.

I apply pressure also with regular fridge equilibrium curing to speed up the curing.

A little white penicillin and some tasty flavors

Easy Cured Meats Projects

Equilibrium Curing Method

I have no idea when the equilibrium curing process came out. I first read about it on the cured meat blog site mentioned. I would probably guess it’s already used widely in commercial curing.

The way it works is a percentage of salt to the total weight of the meat.

Most recipes will tend to be between 2% to 3% dependent on salt taste preferences. Although I do tend to use less when curing pork belly for pancetta – 2.25%. This percentage of salt does not include (pink)curing salt, if I am going to cook the ‘finished’ cured meat over 350°F, I will not include pink curing salt due to the potential development of carcinogens.

Normal Fridge Project

From what I have found you want to use under 200g of weight for fridge curing projects with an unmodified regular fridge. Also, you don’t really want too much fat on the piece of meat, because that takes much longer to dry out.

Getting the right size for curing in my regular kitchen fridge

I experienced this when I tried to have a nice pork loin with a decent fat streak, I tried to cure it in my normal kitchen fridge with some other cured recipes I was doing, including a Hungarian smoked paprika pork loin, Spanish Chorizo style and Beef, Juniper. Garlic & Thyme as I had done before.

I ended up having to start up the big curing chamber and it took an extra three weeks to my surprise. The other beef and pork cuts were ready in 4-6 days in the normal kitchen fridge.

2. Accurately Calculate the Required Pink Curing Salt

I think this is a step in itself because using sodium nitrates and nitrites you should be careful with.

Now I’m not going to get into the details of nitrates, the empirical scientific evidence I have done has shown it’s nothing to be concerned about, as has been confirmed around the web, there is plenty of nitrates in our bodies and heaps in spinach and many greens, much more than consuming moderate amounts of cured meats.

3. Mix Together Cure and Apply all the Cure to Meat

When it comes to doing equilibrium curing, it’s really important to make sure all the cure is put onto the meat I do this in a little mixing bowl or the Ziploc bag.

When you’re doing the salt box method you would just need to make sure the pink curing salt is evenly mixed through the salt box before you use it.

Vacuum Packed Bags for Curing

I don’t think this is necessary if you are doing a normal fridge equilibrium curing.

Some guys I found on social media like to use a vacuum pack for the curing process, if you are leaving it in the fridge for longer periods of time then this can mean it doesn’t matter if you forget about it for a week or two longer.

4. Put in Bag & Cure the Meat

A simple step, I like to put some weight on my regular fridge projects to help shape and get the salt to penetrate through the meat.

Zip Lock Bags

When you use a Ziploc bag, I find the best technique is to really squeeze all the air out and leave one part of the Ziploc open so that pretty much all that air gets squeezed out before zipping shut.

Salt Curing Meat in a Fridge large
Getting squashed with some cans, at the bottom of the fridge.

How Long to Cure For?

Salt box Method

In Ruhlman’s book Salumi, he said the general guide is one day per 2 pounds /1 kg of meat weight. This is the basic method that has been used for a very long time. For larger meat projects in a curing chamber.

Normal Fridge Project

If you were using the salt box method for regular fridge curing, you can leave the meat in a salt cure for say 24 hours, but you may find the final product to be too salty in my experience. Duck prosciutto is used for 24-hour salt-curing for instance.

For equilibrium curing, I have found that less than 200 g of weight will work best in a normal fridge, it should only take about 4 to 7 days. The meat will be fully cured.

5. Remove from Bag & Rinse Meat

Once the curing process is complete, whether it’s a saltbox method for equilibrium curing. Then you rinse off the cure and you can rinse off most of the spices too.

If you want to get a bit fancy, some recipes from Ruhlman’s Salumi suggest rinsing off with wine. I have yet to try this, I prefer my wine consumed orally.

Adding Aromatic Spices before Dry Curing

Now would be the time if you want to add another layer of flavor on the outside, you can do this by making a spice blend.

Black pepper crushed at this point also can help the antibacterial side of it because it has antibacterial properties.

6. Weigh and Calculate 65% Target Weight

Normal Fridge Project

Once you get the current weight just multiply this by 0.65 to get the target weight. You won’t want to eat it until this target weight has been hit and it’s dry enough to eat (preserved per se, and dried enough for wafer thin-slicing!

So for a 200 gram piece, 65% = 130 gram – once this is reached that it’s ready!

Now I just use a little cut piece of cardboard, but you can use a label printer or anything that you put a hole through. Then record what it is and the finished weight (date is also optional). You just tie this on over the muslin if you are wrapping it.

7. (Optional) Muslin Wrapped & Tied

Normal Fridge Project

So I put this in as an optional step because it does depend on the project. Most of the time I do a normal fridge dry-cure project, I will use muslin.

I have found the pork and beef come out a lot better if I wrap the meat. It seems to just help hold in the moisture and not dry out as much.

I do like to use the butchers’ twine to squeeze the cured piece of meat, which can help the drying process a bit more. It also is quite aesthetically pleasing to look at if you tie it uniformly.

There are also many types of casings and bungs, which are intestines or stomachs of animals that work really well as well.

8. Hang Meat in a Suitable Environment

Normal Fridge Project

You can’t really adjust the humidity at all in your regular fridge. But the temperature is cool enough to prevent any bad bacteria so short-term dry-cured meat creation can be done.

Now here is a trick for a hanging system at the back of the fridge.

It’s a piece of measured wood to fit into the shelf holders & some hooks. I then can hang the meat at the back of the fridge so that it doesn’t touch anything.

Of course, there are many ways of creating this hanging system

Cellar

If you have a cold enough winter and around 11-15°C all 50-60°F, then you can use this environment to try dry-curing some meat. I would recommend that you check out the humidity, so you know roughly what it does.

Don’t expect every project to go perfect in an open area or cellar, there are so many more factors can be at play if you are hanging in an exposed area. Wrapping with muslin cloth is really important if you are going to roll the dice with this method.

Bought or DIY curing chamber

For this environment generally, you’ll be working around 70% humidity and 11°C/50°F. This is usually the accepted whole muscle Salumi or dry-cured setting temperature setting. But sometimes this needs to be varied depending on the project.

DIY Curing Chamber

Most of the time, once dry-cured meats projects have been done, the curing chamber starts growing culture of good penicillin white powdery bacteria. It’s invisible and you don’t see it but it’s there and it helps with all the projects.

I guess the same in the giant Parma ham manufacturing facilities they must have a huge amount of good penicillin bacteria growing. Because they have thousands of hams hanging at any given time.

The key to successfully dry curing meat and getting extraordinary flavors from quality meat is following a process accurately. So it’s a super long article, but I feel it needs to be since this is more advanced than frying an egg!

The world of cured meats is massive, not just in the Italian classic Salumi but all across the world. I did a post on 50 different types of cured meats. This wasn’t strictly dry-cured meats, but it just gives you some idea of what’s out there. If you want to have a read of these examples of cured meats there are some interesting discoveries when I research this (goal is to try all of them at least once!), check them out here.

Ok, let me go into detail about the main bits below:

Bear with me I wish I knew or this when I started 🙂

  1. Salt -Size & Type
  2. Pink Curing Salt No. 1- under 30 days, No. 2 for over 30 days
  3. Quality Meat (recipes below)
  4. Accurate Scales (Important for Equilibrium Curing)
  5. Muslin Cloth
  6. Butchers Twine / Jute String
  7. Mortar & Pestle or Spice Grinder
  8. Natural Pennilicin
  9. Butcher Twine or Jute (not essential)

1. Salt – Size & Type

Salt is the cornerstone of all food curing pretty much (apart from pure air drying I think).

When I learned about Parma Ham, which is probably seen as the king of any dry-cured meats for many. I found out that they only use two ingredients, a specific bred of quality pork and sea salt (other ingredients = time, patience, craftsmanship & a minimum of 12 months humidity & temperature that has a favorable environment.

They have some kind of special approval based on strict guidelines and do not use any nitrates. Possibly there are natural nitrates and other minerals already in the sea salt that use – for hundreds and hundreds of years help too.

The key for dry-cured meat is to use sea salt that does not have additives, anti-caking agents, or iodine.

So that means sea salt or kosher salt works really well. Trapani salt is very popular in dry-curing communities as a go-to salt.

There are so many different brands and shapes of salt. Because different salt shapes & brands have different volumes.

So a tablespoon of one brand of kosher salt may weigh differently, from a tablespoon of another brand of kosher salt.

It can create significant variations when following a recipe.

With my preferred method the equilibrium curing style, you need accuracy.

Using accurate kitchen scales that go to 1 or 2 decimal places to measure exact quantities is essential compared to using measuring spoons, or the salt box method – which I shall talk about below.

Accurate scales that can measure (0.X) 1 decimal place (ideally 2 decimal places (0.XX)

If you do the equilibrium curing method, accurate scales are probably the most important equipment because you are going to be dealing with very small amounts of salt, spices & nitrates.

2. Pink Curing Salt No. 1

Pink curing salts, Prague powder, instant cure – it’s all the same

(Tenderquick is different – it has sugar/salt/nitrates/nitrites – from what I heard, not used it)

The difference is with No. 1 & No. 2 Curing Salt

No. 1 is for cured meat that will be fully cooked, a ‘short term’ under 30 days project like dry-cured bacon or pastrami,

No. 1 is:

  • 93.75% salt
  • 6.25% sodium nitrite

Pink Curing Salt No. 2 for long-term cured meats, prosciutto, Lonza, dry-cured salami, etc.

The nitrates slowly break down over time into nitrites, so by the time (weeks or months) the transition has occurred, there aren’t any nitrates left in the meat. Simple!

No.2 is:

Click here if you want to read more about pink curing salt. I’ve often decided to leave pink curing salt out, if I am going to cook at high temperatures, like dry cured bacon. Do your own research! 🙂

In Summary,

over 30 days of drying = Pink Curing Salt No. 2

under 30 days of drying = Pink Curing Salt No. 1

Pink curing salt is always added at a ratio of 0.25% to the total weight of the meat when doing equilibrium curing. Some instructions/directions go down to 0.2%.

This is a very small amount, so this is why accurate scales pay dividends.

For example, if the meat weighs 1000 g, I would add 2.5 g of curing salt. If this was pancetta then I would also be using, for example, 2.5% sea salt for equilibrium curing to suit my taste preference (2% salt min for fully curing is my rule).

To make sure there is no chance of bad bacteria like botulism growing, pink curing salt 2. is the one to be used.

3. Quality Fresh Meat

Fresh well looked-after animals lead to superior flavor outcomes I think. Ideally, the meat you can source or trace back the origin should be used for meat curing in my opinion. You just get a better flavor out of something that’s been looked after with some passion.

The quality and freshness of the meat are very important to start off with. Aged beef is not advisable for dry-curing meat, since they’re already may be a level of undesirable bacteria present.

It’s also about an ethical choice in my perspective.

4. Accurate Digital Scales (Important For Eq Curing)

As mentioned accurate scales are important, to get the correct amount of curing salt, and if you are using the equilibrium method, it can work out the salt content to cure effectively and also to get the right match of saltiness to your taste buds. But the saltbox method is also fine.

So this is where the accurate kitchen scales that go to 0.X or 0.XX really becomes handy.

If you want a few suggestions on kitchen scales, I suggested a few on this page that is decent, check them out here.

5. Muslin Cloth

After the curing, ready to be dried – 5 flavors I did in my regular kitchen fridge.

For dry-cured meat projects that I put in my regular kitchen fridge, I have found that wrapping these can help to slow the drying out on the outside of the meat before hitting the target final weight.

Most normal fridges run at about 30-50% humidity level. Compared to a DIY curing chamber which will be set at 60-70% humidity level most of the time.

Muslin helps when you wrap it around the meat to hold some of the moisture and stop the outside from going hard. The term used is case hardening, and when this starts to happen, you may have meat that is dried on the outside but still moist on the inside.

Many dry-curing enthusiasts have this ‘case hardening’ issue. The easiest way to fix it is to vacuum pack the meat after it has hit the target weight. The moisture in the meat will equalize inside the vacuum-packed environment; you just put it in the fridge for a week or two.

For regular fridge dry curing, you generally won’t get to the stage of case hardening, it will have to reach the target weight and hopefully be consumed way before it happens!

Unbleached and natural is my preference. Muslin cloth is super useful in the kitchen for straining and wrapping, here is a link to the stuff I use on Amazon.

6. Mortar & Pestle / Spice Grinder

To get a proper even coating and make the curing process as easy as possible, I use a simple spice grinder (the same thing as a small coffee grinder).

The salt and spices become a kind of powder, which works really well with equilibrium curing.

Or if you want to use a bit of arm work, a mortar and pestle work, but you have to really grind it up.

For a few grinding tools, I wrote a page (near the bottom) about the ones I like here.

7. Happy Good Mold = Penicillin

So here is a picture of good white penicillin mold which will prosper when you get the right conditions, you’ve probably seen it on the outside of certain dry-cured salamis. (DIY Curing Chamber).

Trust Your Nose

Like any type of cooking when it comes to dry-cured meats and curing meats, you have to use your senses and some common sense to work out what’s going on.

There is a certain type of pleasant smell you get from the penicillin or powdery white mold that is on cured meats. This is a good sign, it protects the meat from foreign bodies.

Although this won’t be something you come across with short-term curing in a normal fridge, it takes a few weeks normally.

But it basically comes down to trusting your nose because it was designed to tell you when things are edible or not edible I think.

8. Butcher Twine or Jute (not essential)

You are mainly hanging dry-cured meat so that they don’t get in contact with anything. This minimizes bad bacteria contact on the meat.

You always want to avoid any air pockets inside the meat, but when starting off with dry-cured meat, you just stick with whole pieces of muscle which means you don’t have these challenges.

For rolled pancetta, you need a bit more technique to get the meat really tight.

Rolled pancetta is awesome, on a facebook group, I saw someone using zip-ties to really get a rolled pancetta tight. Then they tied it with twine & cut the zip-ties, smart thinking, or there is a sneaky tying technique that works with butchers twine (I prefer to not use single-use plastic ties, at least twine is a natural product)

You can get pretty fancy with tying for presentation, and it does add a lot to visual appeal. Tying is really useful if you’re using muslin to protect the meat.

Here is a link to the butchers’ twine I buy – 500 ft last a long time!

Duck / Pork / Beef Prosciutto Style Normal Fridge Project

Duck prosciutto is probably the easiest type of dry-cured product you can do. Although, I think simple pancetta which is also easily done in a normal fridge is super straightforward.

I have used different types of wild duck which haven’t been as successful as farmed varieties but I guess it just depends on your tastes. Wild venison has worked great.

The weight of the duck prosciutto or small pieces of pork belly definitely suits a normal fridge curing process. Although, I’ve used beef steak or under 200 g pork loins. All of these came out really amazing and have become a regular in my repertoire.

Here is a breakdown of the recipe:

  • 200g / 7 oz of meat
  • 2-3% sea salt for equilibrium curing
  • 0.25% pink curing salt no. 1
  • Optional Spices for Duck- 1 clove, 1/3 cinnamon stick, orange zest, 0.5% pepper
  • Option Spices for Beef 1% garlic, 1% sweet bay leaf, 0.5% juniper berry
  • Optional Spices for Pork 0.5% pepper, 0.5% juniper, 0.5% nutmeg

Pork Pancetta Flavor for Regular Fridge

With an extended spice mix, it can be good to really make the spices fine, that’s where a spice grinder can be super useful.

  • 2.5% sea salt
  • 2% black pepper
  • 1 medium-size garlic clove
  • 0.2% nutmeg
  • 0.2% dry thyme
  • 1% brown sugar
  • 0.5% juniper berries

Beef or Game Meat Braesola Style Regular Fridge

The classic bresaola has many spices, the main flavor from cinnamon and nutmeg. I use this spice mix with great success using my harvested wild game or any other type of red meat.

Here’s a breakdown of the percentage of spices that I use for this bresaola-style dry-cured meat. Don’t get too hung up on the spices, if you are missing a few, it will still taste awesome!

Recipe Breakdown

  • 2.5% sea salt
  • 0.2% juniper
  • 0.4% pepper
  • 0.2% dry thyme
  • 2 dry bay leaf leaves
  • 0.1% clove
  • 0.1% cinnanmon

How Long Does the Cured Meat Last?

In regards to dry-cured meat, as long as the outside has not hardened, it will last weeks. If the meat is fully dry-cured, as long as you keep it in the condition it prefers ie. 70-80% humidity or 11°C/50°F, it has the potential for many months of storage.

It will dry out more, however. More fat in the meat will slow this process since it contained a lot less moisture.

Vacpac and putting in your fridge, it can last years and get better with flavor! Just take it out and slice up whenever you are craving it

In Italy, it’s just incredible to see all the dry-cured meat just hanging in the deli or store. And regularly in home fridges whole chunks, ready to be sliced up for antipasti (in US of A that’s a charcuterie board and in the 1980’s I believe it was called a meat and cheese board!) before dinners, I miss living in Italy!

Thinly Slicing Dry Cured Meat

I wrote a post on slicing, it can make a huge difference. Tried quite a few knives, and this guide goes over a lot about wafer thin-slicing! Please find that post here.

How do you Dry Cure Meat at Home?

Fully salt curing the meat with salt is the first step with either the saltbox or equilibrium method. Depending on the size, dry curing can be done in a normal fridge. Other options generally used are a curing chamber or a protected cellar area.

How Long Does it Take to Cure Meat?

30 minutes to 30 days, it largely depends on the cured meat project. For salt curing meat such as fish and seafood. This can be done in 30 minutes in a salt cure brine. For saltbox curing a prosciutto leg, it can take 30 days.

The drying stage can take months or years! Good things take time!

If you consumed all of that, thanks I hope it’s been hopeful.