BBQ Treats – home-made thyme and tomato beef burgers

A really good, home-made burger is such a treat, hot from the BBQ, under the grill or even pan-fried, when the ingredients are great you can’t go far wrong!  Making your BBQ burgers from scratch means you know exactly what’s gone into them, too, which is no bad thing.

Burgers cooking over charcoal

To make four generous sized burgers, you will require –

  • Ingredients ready for mixing1lb of good quality lean beef mince – don’t skimp and buy rubbish here, butcher’s is best!
  • Half an onion, finely chopped
  • Four or five sun-dried tomatoes, sliced up as fine as you can
  • Two garlic cloves, minced
  • One and a half teaspoons of dried thyme
  • Half a teaspoon of chilli flakes, and
  • A generous pinch of black pepper

Ready to cookMix all the ingredients in a bowl, mushing them together with your fingers until they combine.  Then divide into four and shape by hand into thick burger patties.  If you have the time to return the burgers to the fridge for an hour or so, this will just firm them up a bit and reduce the risk of them falling apart on the grill.  If you’ve made more burgers than you want to eat today, interleave them with greaseproof paper before putting them in a bag, and they’ll keep in the fridge for a couple of days, or can be frozen.

When you’re ready to start cooking, place your burgers gently on the BBQ grill, and cook through nice and slowly – resist the temptation to move them or turn them until the bottom is cooking well.  Interfering with them too soon is the best way of losing your hard-earned burger into the charcoal!

Then, enjoy in a nice fresh crispy burger bun with a good dollop of sun-dried tomato ketchup, and a generous handful of salad leaves.  The thyme adds a lovely aromatic note, and the tomato a delicate sweetness to the meat that I think you’ll find rather pleasing!  I love to eat these burgers outdoors, with a cold beer or a nice crisp glass of dry white wine.

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Jerk Seasoning – perfect for BBQ season, when weather permits?

Summer is here – so it’s got to be time to break out the BBQ!  Never mind the weather – here in the Midlands we’re in the middle of one of the wettest droughts anyone can remember, it’s rained continuously for several weeks now.  What better to give you a taste of the Caribbean sun – even if the local one isn’t co-operating! –  than home-made jerk pork or chicken kebabs cooked over a charcoal grill, served with a cold beer or a rum cocktail?

Jerk pork kebabs with pineapple, onion and pepper

[Please excuse the mix of weights & measures in this recipe – I created it more or less by eye trying to match a store-bought one.  Mine’s better.]

Making this dry jerk seasoning is really easy if you have a spice grinder.  If you don’t, you could either try using a pestle and mortar (though this may take you a very long time!), or you may be able to make something comparable using all pre-ground spices, though you’ll have to experiment a bit with the quantities and the texture won’t be so nice.  I don’t think you can buy ground bay leaves though, so I’ll leave that as an initiative test!

To make the dry jerk seasoning, take:

  • Whole spices for jerk seasoning15g whole allspice berries
  • 6g whole black peppercorns
  • 6g sea salt – I used salt that I’d smoked over alder and maple wood, for that bit of extra smokey BBQ flavour.  Plain salt is just fine though!
  • 2 tsp chilli flakes – or a couple of whole dried chillies – obviously the heat of the recipe will be affected by your choices here!
  • 2 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 2 bay leaves

Put all of these together in your spice mill and grind to a coarse powder.

Then add:

  • Ground spices for jerk seasoning1 tsp chilli powder (strength to taste)
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tsp onion powder
  • 2 tsp soft dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp paprika (smoked, if you have it, and hot or mild to taste)
  • 1 tsp turmeric

Dry jerk seasoningAnd mix well, working out all the little clumps that may have formed around the soft sugar or minced garlic, which are a bit more moist than the rest of the ingredients. Store in a small airtight container – a jam jar is ideal. It will keep well for several months at room temperature.

To use, mix as a marinade with whatever meat you want to jerk at a ratio of 2 tsp dried spice mix, with aprox 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice and 2 tbsp olive oil. Rub in well with your hands and leave to infuse for a couple of hours in the fridge if possible.

The turmeric is mostly for colour and will dye your fingernails a really attractive shade of nicotine yellow. You might like to consider wearing gloves when rubbing in the marinade, or just leaving the turmeric out of the recipe, if you prefer.

Yesterday, I prepared jerk chicken drumsticks, legs, and wings for the BBQ, and jerk pork kebabs with pineapple, pepper & onion.

Chicken pieces in jerk marinadeThe jerk chicken portions couldn’t be more straightforward.  Either buy a pack of leg pieces from the butcher, or if you’re in the habit of portioning chicken at home, dig a couple of packs of legs & wings out of the freezer. Slash through the skin and into the meat several times on each portion – this helps the cure penetrate and also helps the thicker portions of the chicken cook evenly over the charcoal grill. Then squeeze over the juice of a whole lime, a good glug of olive oil, and several teaspoons of the jerk seasoning – I ended up using about 6 spoonfuls to get a good degree of coating on all the pieces.

Cover the bowl with cling film and leave in the fridge for several hours if possible before cooking, though you can cook immediately and the flavour will still be pretty good!  Cook over a charcoal grill, slowly, so that it cooks through without burning (a little bit of blackening on the outside is traditional, though!).  If you’re in any doubt whether the chicken is completely cooked, take it off the bbq, and place in an oven dish in a 200C oven for 10 – 15 minutes to finish cooking all the way through.  Of course, you can cook these entirely in the oven, if the weather’s not co-operating!

Prepared jerk pork kebabs with pineappleAny pork will do for the kebabs, really – I used half a pork tenderloin I had in the freezer. Cut into strips, and marinade like the chicken, with lime juice, oil and the dry seasoning mix.  Allow these to marinade for several hours if possible.  Prepare fresh pineapple by slicing thickly, removing the skin and cutting into square pieces.  Also slice a couple of onions and sweet peppers into similar sized pieces.  Then, just before cooking,  thread the marinaded pork onto skewers with the chunks of pineapple, onion and sweet pepper.

Kebabs cooking over charcoal

Get some good friends together, and marinade gently in some good drink and good company, while your jerk kebabs cook gently over a charcoal grill, then serve with salad & warmed pitta bread, and your choice of sauce (I quite like sweet chilli with this!).  Yum!  Dig in, and enjoy an early taste of summer!

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What’s Your Beef? Beth’s wonderful home-cured salt beef

Salt beef is quite a rarity these days.  I’m aware our American cousins (to whom it’s corned beef) think of it as an Irish thing and eat it with cabbage at St Patrick’s the way we eat haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night.  Despite having Irish heritage, I’ve never eaten salt beef, in this context or any other (honestly, Irish-American folks, that’s one tradition you’ve made up all for yourselves!).  But I was very excited to experiment with the idea when I saw a lovely rolled brisket of beef at our local farm butcher’s shop.

Cold sliced home-cured salt beef

A bit of asking around family brought me the information that my sister-in-law, Beth, and her family, were keen salt beef curers and consumers.  She kindly shared her recipe & process with me, which I’ve adapted slightly to suit my purposes.

Raw rolled beef brisket

You will require the following to salt your beef –

  • Piece of rolled beef brisket, mine was about 1kg, which was about right for a meal for two plus cold cuts, or would have served four for dinner.  You may need to find a real butcher’s shop, since brisket, despite being great value, is rather unfashionable and rarely available in the supermarket.
  • Curing salt (I used supracure, which is the pre-mixed salt-and-saltpetre mix I use for making bacon).  Alternately you can use plain salt with (or without) added saltpetre.  You won’t get quite the same flavour without the saltpetre, and the beef will be grey rather than the characteristic dark pink colour of salt beef.
  • Dark sugar, whatever sort you prefer
  • Whole peppercorns, juniper berries, cloves, bay leaves (dry or fresh), and a few sprigs of fresh thyme.  Or experiment with any other herbs / spices you think might work well!
  • A non-metallic bowl big enough to completely submerge your beef in
  • Large saucepan, kitchen scales & measuring jug

Herbs & spices for the brineOnce you’ve gathered all your tools and ingredients together, you need to make your brine.  First, work out how much brine you need.  Put your beef in the bowl and cover it completely with water.  Then take the beef out, and measure the water. That’s your target volume.

Now, for each litre of brine you require, weigh out the following into the saucepan –

  • 300g of supracure
  • 100g of dark sugar
  • Approximately 10 peppercorns, 6 juniper berries
  • A bay leaf, a clove, and a sprig of thyme (or whatever herbs and spices you fancy!)

Add the required volume of water (the more observant among you will notice that you’re going to end up with slightly more brine than you actually wanted, due to adding the dry ingredients – this is fine, don’t worry!) and heat to dissolve all the dry ingredients.  Boil the brine briskly for a few minutes, and then allow to cool (refrigerate once it’s at room temperature to get it down to about 5 degrees centigrade).

Beef in the brineOnce the brine is cold, add your beef.  Weigh it down with a small plate or saucer if required to keep it fully submerged.  This is quite a ‘hard’ (concentrated) brine and the beef will tend to want to float up in it.  Now put the bowl of brine & beef in the fridge, and apart from turning the beef over in the cure once a day, if you remember to, leave it alone. My 1kg piece of beef was in the brine for 5 days.  You’ll want a longer curing time for larger pieces of beef, perhaps up to 10 days or so.

After your curing time has elapsed, take your beef out of the brine.  It will have become considerably denser and firmer in texture (surprisingly so, in fact), as well as darker in colour.

After curing, soaking in fresh water

The alchemy that is salt-curing has happened now, so you’re going to want to soak the salt beef for 24 hours to reduce the saltiness of the finished product a bit.  Wash off the beef and submerge it in clean tap water (it will sink, so you don’t need to weigh it down this time) and return it to the fridge.  Change the water at least once during the 24 hours.

Salt beef after 24 hours soaking in fresh waterNow, either cook it straight away, or remove from the soaking water, and return, covered, to the fridge for a day or two until you plan to prepare it.

Salt beef with stock vegetablesI prepared my salt beef in the simplest way, by poaching it gently.  Add a quartered onion, a handful of roughly chopped carrots, a bay leaf and some peppercorns to the saucepan, and cover the beef with water.  You could also add some celery, but I don’t particularly like it.

Poaching liquid, after cookingBring to the boil and then simmer, covered, very gently for two and a half hours (longer for larger pieces), until it yields easily to a fork. Then remove it from the poaching water and rest for half an hour, covered with foil. The water you’ve poached the beef in will now look like a rich beef broth.

Sliced poached salt beefAfter resting, slice your beef thickly (it’ll fall apart if you try to slice it too thinly) and serve with your choice of side dishes.  Potatoes and cabbage appeared to be traditional (at least in some circles!) so I opted for boiled new potatoes and wilted spring greens, served with a white sauce made from a roux, some of the poaching liquor, a glug of cream and a big spoon of hot horseradish.

Salt beef with potatoes and spring greens

It was beautiful, though I say so myself.  The beef, served hot, is incredibly tender and succulent.  Cooled and sliced, the rest of the salt beef is also beautiful and will make cracking sandwiches.  It’s firm and dense, slices nicely, and has a lovely gentle aromatic flavour.  Home-cured salt beef is sure to become a regular culinary feature in our household.  If any of you have favourite ways of preparing or serving salt beef, I’d love to hear them.  Finally, thank you so much to Beth for her recipe and guidance, and I hope you all consider giving salt beef a try some time!

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Bacon Basics – bacon-in-a-bag method for ‘dry’ curing at home

Readers (& participants) in the Big Bacon Challenge will have noticed how little effort is involved in making dry cured bacon at home.  While I was teaching myself to make bacon by this process (which involves daily application of dry cure to the piece of meat), I came across several references to bag methods of ‘dry’ curing.

In this ‘bacon in a bag’ method, you apply the cure to your meat, put the whole thing in a plastic bag, seal it up, and leave it in the fridge for several days, turning occasionally, and adding fresh cure once in mid-process.  It removes the trivial once-daily intervention in the curing process, and the need to find space for a dish in the fridge for the length of the curing process, so might be even easier for busy busy folk… *if*, that is, the results stack up in terms of flavour and quality.

I used my normal black pepper cure for this experiment.  My total cure weight was 10% of the weight of the meat and made up of 4 parts of supracure to 1 part of dark soft brown sugar with about a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper added (see here for more advice on mixing your dry cure).

Dry cure applied, in bagIn addition to your piece of belly or loin pork and cure, you need a nice large freezer bag which is reasonably robust, and some sort of clip or bag tie to seal it.  Sprinkle a bit of your cure into the bottom of the bag, place the washed and dried piece of pork in the bag skin-side down, and then continue to rub cure on the meat until you’ve used about half of your total dry curing mix.  Seal the bag excluding as much air as possible, and put it in the fridge.

After 3 days, pickle in bagTurn the bag over from time to time (I turned it every time I went into the fridge for something else, but once a day is fine).  You will notice quite a lot of pickle accumulating in the bag.  After two days for belly, or three days for loin, take the bag out of the fridge.

Drain the pickle, and apply the rest of the cure, before returning the bag to the fridge for another three days.  Effectively we’re curing in a very concentrated brine made from the applied salt and the meat’s own water.  By this stage, at around the half-way mark, it’s already showing the changes I’d expect from successfully-curing bacon, which is a good sign!

Bacon out to restAfter these three days have passed (making a total curing time of five or six days depending on your bacon cut), take the bacon out of the fridge.  Remove it from the bag, rinse it off under the tap, pat dry carefully with kitchen paper, and return it to the fridge un-covered on a plate for 24 hours to finish drying and form a pellicle (that glossy, slightly tacky surface layer).  After that, wrap it loosely in a piece of baking paper and keep it in the fridge until you want to slice it and eat it.

I rested mine for three days before slicing – I was planning to put it through the smoker but the weather on my day off wasn’t particularly suitable.

Sliced for breakfast this morning, the texture and appearance on slicing was exactly as I have come to expect from my home dry-cured back bacon.

Sliced bacon

I sliced away but retained the outside piece for lardons before carefully preparing four slices for frying.  The piece of loin pork I used was very lean, and needed a little olive oil to the frying pan to really get things going.  The bacon re-arranged itself in the pan as the rind buckled, but didn’t noticeably shrink, and there certainly wasn’t any of that nasty white watery muck we’re so used to seeing in commercial bacon!

Bacon for breakfastBreakfast this morning was my bacon with some butcher’s black pudding and a fresh home-reared egg, served on a toasted English muffin.  What could be nicer on a lazy Saturday?

And tasting wise?  I would say I couldn’t detect a difference between bacon prepared this way, and my usual technique – but with one caveat.  One of my slices was the second-slice from the edge after the one I’d held over for lardons.  This slice, quite unlike the others, was unpalatably salty, with almost a salt ‘sting’ on the tongue.  I think this can probably be ascribed to the concentration of cure applied at once in this method, despite a good long resting period, the outside surfaces of this bacon are quite aggressively salted.  I would cut off a thicker end-slice in future when using this method – probably somewhere between 5mm and 10mm of the end grain at both ends.  Used in a stew or sauce, it would be fine, but it’s less than ideal to eat as sliced bacon.

So, if you want an *even* easier method for home-cured bacon, do give this one a whirl!  For me, though, it’s likely to be a technique I fall back on when I know I’m going to have a really busy week and still want some bacon for the following weekend.

See more Smoking & Curing posts >>

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Hamming It Up – home-cured ham, boiled and glazed

A great ham sandwich is one of life’s special pleasures, isn’t it?  A few weeks ago I spotted a big chunk of pork leg on special offer at our local co-op.  It was too much to resist – after all the experimenting with bacon, it was time to add another pork product to the collection.  Time to make a home-cured ham!

I decided to base my cure on a Wiltshire cure, which is a traditional British cure with treacle, juniper and coriander.  The process is a bit more involved and time-consuming than dry cured bacon, but your end result is well worth it!

You will require –

  • Pork legA nice big piece of pork (ideally leg), untied from any net or string it might be wearing when you buy it.  My piece was about 1.5kg in weight.
  • A non-metallic container big enough to hold your piece of pork with some space to spare.  I used a big tupperware box I had hanging around.
  • Kitchen scales, measuring jug, pestle and mortar, and a dinner plate.
  • Curing salt – pre-mixed type such as supracure (see the Suppliers List for more details)
  • Black treacle
  • Juniper berries
  • Black peppercorns
  • Coriander leaf (preferably fresh, or dried if not)

Large tupperware box

The weight of the pork isn’t terribly important, as the amount of brine you need is as much dictated by the size of your container, and the curing time is more to do with thickness than total size.  Estimate the amount of curing brine you will require by putting the pork in the box, bucket or bowl and just covering it with water, then take the pork out and measure the water.  I needed just over 3 litres.  This is also washes any liquid or debris from the surface of the pork.

My brine was made in the following proportions – given per litre of cure for simplicity:

  • Curing salts130g of supracure
  • 90g of black treacle
  • 5g of juniper berries
  • 2g of black peppercorns
  • a big spoonful of dried coriander (be generous, and if you have fresh available so much the better)

Black treacleRemember you’re aiming for these ingredients to be included *in* a litre of brine, not added to a litre of water, so add the dry ingredients to a measuring jug and then add the water so that you can keep track of the total volumes.  You’ll need to add boiling water to the cure ingredients to help dissolve them, once they’re dissolved top up to your total volume with cold water.

Crushing juniper berries and peppercornsGently crush the juniper and peppercorns in a pestle and mortar, just enough to crack them open and release the aromas.   Add these and the coriander to the brine and refrigerate until cold.

Once the brine has cooled, add the pork, and weigh it down with the dinner plate so that it doesn’t bob up out of the brine solution.  Loosely cover the box with cling film, and place in the fridge.

Ham in brine

Plate placed over curing hamNow, once a day, turn the meat over in the brine.  This will help the cure penetrate equally.  Very soon you’ll start to notice the meat and rind darkening as they absorb the treacle, and taking on a firmer texture.

Ham in brine after 5 daysAdvice on the subject of curing time appears hugely variable and for my piece of pork I found advice ranging from 5 to 15 days – I’ll come back to this later, but as I wanted the ham for a specific date I took a punt and went for the shortest advised curing time of five days – based on a rule of thumb of 1 day of curing per inch thickness of meat.

Cured ham, resting on plateAfter your curing time is up, remove the ham from the brine, rinse it carefully under the tap, dry with kitchen towel and place on an open plate in the fridge.  I rested my ham for just one day, because I was in a hurry to eat it – but I suggest it would be better to rest it for 2 – 3 days before cooking.

It will have completely changed appearance from the pork leg that went into the cure – the meat is a dark mahogany colour and the rind a warm brown.

You can now cook your ham however you like – I prefer to boil mine first, until it reaches an internal temperature of 70 celsius.   I changed the water after the first 20 minutes, this helps reduce the saltiness in the final cooked ham.

Putting the ham on to boil    The ham after boiling, rind side showing    WIth rind removed, and fat scored

Then, I remove the rind, score the fat, glaze with treacle and finish in a hot oven for 20 minutes.  Once the ham has cooled (if you can wait that long!), slice and sample.

Treacle-glazed Wiltshire cured ham, fresh from the oven

The fist thing you’ll notice is that it’s undeniably ham – it has that characteristic pink colour, and gently salty-sweet ham flavour – but what flavour, nothing but the very best traditional ham, this, no added water, none of the strange gristly bits we’re all so used to in commercial re-formed ham.  The treacle flavour is very much to the fore, a bitter-sweet deep note, and the aromatic flavours from the juniper are just about detectable.

First slice!What would I do differently next time?  I would have used more juniper, but I didn’t have enough in the cupboard.  I would definitely use fresh coriander if I had some, as this flavour was pretty much lost using the dry herb.  I would also cure for a few more days – maybe seven or eight for this size of pork leg.  Right in the centre of the ham, I found a small patch of meat that hadn’t cured through, and was the grey colour of cooked pork rather than the pink of cooked ham.  A longer curing period would hopefully have avoided this.

I might also have rested the ham for longer, and increasing the resting time might have delt with the evenness-of-cure issue by allowing more time for the cure to balance through the meat without increased curing time, but I wanted to use it to make a ham sandwiches to feed some very good friends the next weekend.  Plain, or with mustard, or pickle, the giant pile of sandwiches went down extremely well!

Sliced finished cured and glazed ham

On a slightly different note – the Country Skills Blog is six months, and 50 posts old today!  Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting so kindly, and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog for many more months, years, and posts to come!

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Bloggers – Your Country (Skills Blog) Needs You!

I’m still looking for a handful of volunteers for Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge!

If you want to try something new and very cool – making your own bacon at home – and have a UK postal address, get in touch, and I’ll provide the curing salt.  Then, just brag about your bacon wherever you blog and to whoever will listen!

Thank you everyone, I now have a full set of volunteers!  Instructions, and hopefully feedback, coming soon!

Finally – Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge is here!

I love home-cured bacon, and I think you will too!  The experience of making streaky bacon for the first time was one of the main motivations behind setting up this blog, and more recently I’ve had great success with home-cured back bacon, too.  And yet despite how simple it is, and how wonderful the final product, the most common reaction I get is ‘Oh but that sounds very complicated, you’re braver than me!’.

Home-cured back bacon

In order encourage as many people as possible to try this simplest of all foody experiences, I’ve come up with the following, very simple plan.  I’m calling it ‘Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge’.

I will post an 80g pack of ‘Supracure’ curing salt (enough to cure up to 1kg of bacon) to the first 10 people to send me their UK postal address.

Then, I’ll post day-by-day instructions to follow.

Thank you everyone, I now have a full set of volunteers!  Instructions, and hopefully feedback, coming soon!

That’s it, simple as that!  All I want from you in return is to make your bacon, and to write about it, take photos of it, tweet about it, post to facebook about it and generally brag to anyone who’ll listen about how awesome, easy and worthwhile it is!  With any luck, for some of you it may even become a habit of a lifetime.

In order to make your very own bacon, you will need to provide a piece of fresh pork belly or pork loin up to 1kg in weight (ideally with the skin on), a non-metallic dish big enough to hold the meat, ~20g of sugar (soft dark sugar is best), some cling film, a refrigerator, and a couple of minutes a day for five consecutive days.

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Back To Basics – home cured back bacon from start to delicious end

Home cured streaky bacon has been a constant fixture in my house since I first made it back in October – in fact I’ve not bought any ‘commercial’ bacon since.  Back bacon used to be our house favourite though, before I started curing.  A couple of weeks ago I saw a tied pork loin ‘roasting’ joint for sale half-price in the local co-op, and it seemed to good to refuse.

Home-cured back bacon

For home-cured back bacon, you will require –

  • Ingredients for home-cured back baconA piece of pork loin.  The roasting joint was a bit big so I cut it in half to give me a piece about 650g in weight.
  • Curing salt such as Supracure (see the Suppliers List for details), 8% of the total weight of the meat, and
  • Sugar (soft brown sugar is ideal) 2% of the total weight of the meat, to make a total cure weight of 10%
  • A non-metallic dish big enough to contain the meat, and some cling film to cover.
That’s it – I wanted to keep the first effort as simple as possible!

First day - dry-cure rubbed in

Weigh out the cure ingredients and mix them together well.  Now rub about a quarter of the cure mix all over the pork, including on the skin.  You can see it start to draw out moisture from the meat straight away.  Cover the dish loosely with some cling film, and put it in the fridge until tomorrow.

Second day - with 'pickle' in dishThe next day, there will be some liquid in the bottom of the dish.  This is the ‘pickle’ and is made up of some of the curing mix dissolved in the liquid that’s been drawn out of the meat.  It’s completely normal, so don’t worry.  Pour it away, or your dry-cure will pretty quickly turn into a brine cure.  Now take about a quarter of the remaining cure and rub it all over the meat again.  Put it back in the dish the other way up to last time (so skin side up, if you started skin-side down).

Third day - the bacon should be changing texture by this timeRepeat this process for another three days (so that you’ve rubbed cure into the bacon five days running).  By day 3 you should notice a distinct difference in the texture of the meat, it will be firmer in consistency and a bit darker pink in colour.

Finished back bacon, ready to sliceOn the sixth day (so one day longer than the streaky bacon process – this is because the meat is thicker than belly pork), remove the bacon from the dish, rinse it under the tap, dry it carefully with kitchen towel, wrap it loosely with greaseproof paper and put it back in the fridge.  Ideally, wait a couple of days before you start eating it, do let it rest at least overnight.

Home-cured bacon, fryingThen slice your amazing bacon with a sharp knife, and cook however you prefer.  I like to pan-fry my back bacon.  This one is gorgeous and I can only heartily recommend you make some for yourself!

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Basic Butchery – how to portion a chicken

A whole roast chicken is a wonderful treat – more on that later – but it’s not the sort of meal most people want to wait for on a week night after work.

We eat a huge amount of chicken in the UK, and a lot of that is bought pre-portionned and packed from the supermarket, it’s certainly convenient and the portion sizes are more practical.  We’re in love with breast meat in this country, to the extent that the UK is a net importer of white chicken meat – mostly from Thailand and other East-Asian countries – and an exporter of leg meat.  When you think about it, that’s pretty bizzare, not great for the environment (think of the fuel involved in sending the ‘wrong’ chicken backwards and forwards half way around the world!), and leaves us eating lower health and welfare-standard poultry meat than would have been produced in the UK.

Fully portioned chicken

It’s really easy to portion up a whole chicken, and learning this basic butchery skill will save you money.  Even if you just buy a ‘bog-standard’ roasting bird from the supermarket, you get more for your money buying a whole bird and cutting it up yourself, and the savings are even better if you’re buying free range or organic chicken.  And with a bit of kitchen creativity, one whole chicken can provide three or four meals for two people, as well as a lovely batch of chicken stock – bargain!

First, un-wrap your whole chicken and remove any trussing string / elastic holding the legs together.  Pat it dry with kitchen towel as this will help with handling it while you’re cutting it up.  You will need a very sharp knife with a long but reasonably slender blade.  Feel down the centre of the bird, and you should feel a bone running the full length – this is the ‘keel bone’.  Starting on this line, cut downwards parallel to the bone along the full length until your knife stops.

You can now pull the top of the breast away from the keel bone to get a better look at what’s going on.  The bone beneath the knife is the ribcage, so continue carefully cutting the breast meat away from this.  If you work carefully you’ll leave surprisingly little meat behind on the carcass.  After you’ve done this a few times, you’ll get a lot quicker, but speed is not of the essence the first few times.

Once the breast meat is mostly free from the bone, cut the skin between the breast and the thigh and finish removing the breast from the bird.

Portioning chicken - step 4Now we need to detach the legs.  Grasp the thigh and extend the leg away from the body.  You should be able to feel the hip joint (indicated with the knife point in this photo).  Insert the knife firmly into the joint to separate the leg from the body, then cut the leg meat away from the torso leaving as little as possible behind.

Portioning chicken - step 5

Grasping the wing in the same way, identify the joint and push the knife firmly through it, separating the wing from the body of the bird.

Portioning chicken - step 6Congratulations, you’re half way there!  Repeat the process on the other side of the bird.

You will now have two breasts, two legs, two wings, and the remains of the body.  Put the body in a saucepan ready to make stock.  You may be happy with the portions you have now, but more commonly we’d divide the legs into thigh and drumstick portions

Portioning chicken - step 7Grasp the leg, and feel where the joint moves between the thigh and the drumstick.  Simply cut down firmly along this line.   If you’re accurate your knife will pass through the joint space, but the bone here is actually quite soft so if you’re not quite on target, you should be able to cut through anyway, it will just take a little bit more force.   Cut off the ‘knuckle’ part at the bottom of the drumstick in the same way, and discard these (the only bit of waste in the process, as it happens!).

Portioning chicken - step 8You’re there – one whole chicken transformed into two breast portions, two thighs, two drumsticks and two wings, to do with as you please.  With practice it’s less than a five minute job.  Better still, think of the costings.  With standard supermarket chicken (I costed this in my local co-op the other day), starting with a £4 bird, and bearing in mind two breast fillets retail for £3 (smaller fillets than you’ll get from a roasting bird, with the skin off and frequently robbed of their ‘mini fillets’, too!), you’ve just got two thighs, two drumsticks, two wings, and a pint of excellent fresh chicken stock for £1.  Use what you want today, and bag and freeze the rest.  How’s that for thrifty!

I said I’d come back to roasting chicken.  That’s for the next post!

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