The Curing Habit

When Sonja Boon first asked me to be a part of this project, I don’t think either of us knew what this would bring out of me. She knew about my ties to visual arts and photography, but I had not advertised my connection to food.

Like many students, I have worked in cafes and kitchens to help fund my education. The work is not related to my career choices, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Working in a kitchen means being on my feet for eight hours, and being so busy that the time whips by before I am even aware that it’s passing. It also means indulging in my artistic side in a gratifying way.

Cooking, baking, and preserving are forms of art in and of themselves, and I find them to be richer experiences in sensations than the other ways I create art. Most art makes use of visual or audio sensations, and sometimes the sense of touch. Food involves all senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound. One can hear the sizzle or crunch of food, smell the spices of the seasoning, see the colours of a plate of food with good visual representation, feel the heat and texture with the first bite, and taste the final result.

At the heart of every dish is a pinch of salt, because salt is what brings out the rest of the flavours. It can enhance, strengthen, and bind all the tastes involved in a dish. Never leave out that teaspoon of salt when following a recipe, it makes a world of difference.

While I knew a lot about cooking and baking at the start of this project, I knew very little about preserving food. I rarely had the need to pickle, brine, or cure food… especially when it is more convenient to buy it already processed from the grocery store. I had heard about a business in St. John’s (Cod Sounds) that taught classes on making food from scratch, including curing meat. This was the perfect opportunity to learn about the process and have a better understanding about the ‘salt fish’ aspect of this research project.

It was a four hour class that demonstrated different kinds of curing that are easily done at home. We were shown how to cure salmon, brine Canadian bacon, and how to make sausage. The class was a short, intensive study on what kinds of cuts we would want to use, how to cut them, and what we can do with them. In the end we were given the ingredients for the curing, and the side of pork to make our own Canadian bacon.

While I did make the bacon, I also bought a salmon fillet so I could keep to the nature of this blog and talk about curing fish. The recipe that we were given involved using gin and fennel, but I used chipotle powder, lime, beet, and rum in my salt mixture for the fish. I sprinkled the mixture on both sides of the fillet, put the fish in a container with the rest of the seasoning, covered it in plastic wrap (clinging to the fillet) and weighed it down. It stayed in my refrigerator for a couple of days with me checking on it. Occasionally I flipped it over to make sure it was evenly coated, and when it felt a little hard, I knew I had salt cured my first fish!

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Curing mixture used for salmon.

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Finished Fillet!

It was salty with a hint of lime and smoke. I had unintentionally nodded towards my history of smoked fish by using chipotle chili powder (that’s what gave it a smoky flavour). The process of curing was so simple, yet I was so happy when it turned out well.

My happiness made me reflect on why I had never done this before. It is easier to just buy bacon, salt fish, or other cured meats from the grocery store, but it is also instant gratification. I waited two days for the fish to be ready, and I waited almost five for the bacon. The prep time was quick and easy, but the time spent waiting is probably the main reason why I hadn’t tried this before now.

Most people feel the stress of needing things like meals to be ready quickly and efficiently. However, the history of curing revolves around a time when everything was done at a much slower pace. Using salt as a curing method has been around since the times of the ancient Egyptians (Ruhlman & Polcyn: 2005). They used salt to preserve fish so that they were able to keep it for longer periods of time, and to trade. The Celts and the Basques also used salt for curing meats, but this was done for transportation of food, and migrations. People needed to preserve food for long voyages by ship or by land so that they had enough food to survive the trip (Ruhlman & Polcyn: 2005).

Without being able to dry, salt, or smoke food, people would not have been able to travel and explore the way that they did. When people talk about salt and life, it is mostly about how too much salt is detrimental to health, but salt has been a key factor to our survival for thousands of years.

Salt cod was a huge part of Newfoundland’s survival because poor refrigeration and a strong fishing industry required preservation of the fish. It was a major food source and was something that they used to trade for Jamaica rum which would lead to Screech rum, currently one of the top rated rums of North America.

This was the first cooking class I have ever taken. Everything that I have learned about cooking has been self taught, pouring through cookbooks, and occasionally having someone show me how to do something. Everything that I have learned through experimentation, reading, and other people always comes back to the same two rules regardless of dietary preferences: try to use local ingredients, and remember the salt.

Ruhlman, Michael and Brian Polcyn. Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca),  2016

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