Last week, Bi-Rite Market butcher Morgan Maki showed a group of 25 people how to break down a hog. He taught them to make prosciutto, pancetta and tasso this week, in the class’ second session at 18 Reasons, a Mission nonprofit that looks to build community through food.
In the days before refrigeration, curing and preserving meat was a matter not of taste but necessity. Since then, our palates have evolved to love the flavor, said Maki.
“It went from ‘This is the cheapest protein I can grow,’ to ‘This tastes good to me because my family’s been eating it for generations,'” he said.
First up was prosciutto. The students, many of whom looked fresh from work, watched as Maki, a wiry guy with gray hair and a few days growth of beard, made quick work of removing the bone from a Devil’s Gulch Farm hog leg.
Salt is fundamental to the curing process. It draws moisture out of the meat and imparts flavor. More importantly, it prevents rancidity and botulism. Maki uses three kinds of salt — sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite and Kosher salt — in varying proportions depending on what he’s preparing.
Traditionally, prosciutto would age in a cave at about 50-60 degrees. Lack a cavern? Maki says San Francisco’s cool basements are perfect for aging meat year-round.
But Maki ages his pork under refrigeration. He can’t afford curing catastrophes. “I need to be able to sell this. I can’t just waste a hog leg,” he said.
Next up was tasso, a spicy, smoked shoulder popular in Cajun cuisine that seasons Bi-Rite’s collard greens.
Maki worked fast, removing bones and cutting the muscle into long chunks.
Once the shoulder was in pieces, Maki rubbed it with with file powder (sassafrass root), paprika, allspice, cayenne, salts and chili flakes. Tasso was traditionally made with meat that was on its way out, and the potent spice mix was likely a way to cover the rancid taste, Maki said.
The meat will sit for a couple of days, then be smoked at around 200 degrees for two-and-a-half hours.
Finally, Maki moved onto preparing pork belly and jowl, some of which will become pancetta and bacon. As the soft, wobbly belly hit the cutting board, someone in the crowd sighed, “Yes!”
But removing the jowl wasn’t pretty. Maki laid half the hog’s head on the table. It looked to be faintly smiling. A few winced as Maki sliced into the face and excised the cheek. He lay it skin-side down on the table and started to remove the the lymph nodes — organ-like orbs that studded the flesh.
He set the rest of the head aside for head cheese.
Preparing the belly and jowl requires more precision than prosciutto and tasso, Maki said. Curing meats always means striking a balance — add too much salt, and the meat will be unpalatable. But, if you don’t add enough, it will spoil. Finding the sweet spot is particularly important for pancetta and bacon which aren’t served in thin shavings like prosciutto.
Maki salted the meat and tossed in crushed juniper berries, bay leaves, a sprinkling of brown sugar, and enough black pepper to make bystanders start rubbing their noses.
He’ll leave the meat in the salt mixture for 10 days, then use the belly for pancetta or smoke it to make bacon. The jowl will hang for 30-45 days.
As the class wound down, someone asked, “Now, who’s going to do this?” A few hands went up.
One belonged to Esperanza Pallana, who has a small farm in downtown Oakland that she blogs about at pluckandfeather.com. In addition to growing food and keeping bees, she’s raised chickens, turkeys, and geese in her small back yard that abuts a gas station and is close to Interstate 880.
Her turkeys escaped once, walked down the block and crossed a highway on-ramp. She found them in front of a movie theater.
A slight, sweet-faced woman, Pallana’s looking into raising pigs some day. For now, she says she’ll use her new knowledge of butchery on an upcoming boar hunting trip. She thinks she can do it after watching Maki. “Though not with nearly the confidence or deftness he has,” she said.
Celeste LeCompte didn’t have immediate plans to put what she’d learned into action. But she said seeing the pig broken down was an important way of connecting to her food, “As someone who eats meat, it’s important not to be squeamish about the fact that it’s an animal,” she said.