The Nasty Bits: Salt Pork in a Jiffy

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Chichi Wang

Sometimes I open my freezer and try to make sense of the chaos in there. Cooks wiser and more responsible have all kinds of logical ways to organize their larders and freezers, with label makers and permanent pens, with airtight plastic bags and containers.

My system, if can even be called that, is all in my head. For instance, I know that the unmarked red plastic bag with a large hunk of what appears to be pork is in fact the boston butt of a shoulder I broke down a few months ago, and it is sitting next to a half-eaten apple pie with a lard crust, a small plastic water bottle I filled with turkey stock, and a quarter of a block of firm tofu.

It is not, in other words, an inviting freezer filled with ready-to-use items. So once every few months I take out most of what's in there and try to cope with the mess.

My counter overflowed with organs and bones. Even after I finished taking the grit from gizzards, trimming fat from sheets of skin, and breaking down racks of ribs, there were still shoulders and legs to break down and tails and claws to dispense. I threw most of the goods into a large pot of fat for confit, which is always what I do when I don't know want to think or plan ahead.

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Along the way I had been trimming off odds and ends to even out bellies, shoulders, and ribs. By the end of my organizing frenzy I accumulated a few handfuls of nicely marbled, albeit irregularly shaped hunks of meat. At a butcher shop these would be scraps for sausage and ground meat. But a much simpler way to deal with those bits and pieces, especially if you do not possess a meat grinder, is to turn everything into salt pork.

Most culinary traditions that use a lot of pork have some version of salt pork. There are few ways easier to preserve pork than to toss some salt into a container with meaty hunks and wait until the pork is salty and appreciably hardened.

Back in the day, salt pork was so salty and rigid that, like hard tack, it required no refrigeration at all and could be taken on long journeys without risk of spoilage. Salt pork is something I'd pack with me if I were embarking on the Oregon Trail.

Today we use salt pork as a flavor enhancer rather than a sustaining life force, so there's no need to go overboard with the salt. Cured for just ten days or so, the hunks of pork can be frozen and taken out at a moment's notice for all your winter stewing needs. Just one little chunk can go a long way towards flavoring your entire dish with meaty depth. I toss a chunk or two into bean and kale stews, into Boston baked beans, into impromptu cassoulets. Beans and salt pork, in other words, are companionable items to have in your soup pot.

Though salt pork is usually made with trimmings of shoulder or belly, it is in keeping with the spirit of salt pork to use whatever scraps and cuts of meat you have on hand. There's meat in the legs and hocks that you may want to square off, there's meat in the head that you may not need for headcheese, there's flesh around the neck that can be trimmed down, and so forth. Once you've collected enough scraps, simply dredge them in salt and let time do its deed.

As always, in working with cured or fermented products, follow your nose when it comes to concerns of spoilage. Check on your chunks of pork once every two days to be safe: the meat should have a sweet aroma after curing.