Many people have me asked the question, “what the hell is a curing chamber” and finally I am now in the position to put a post up that would answer that question in addition to several others that may be lingering.  A curing chamber is an artificial environment where one can control the temperature and humidity at optimal settings ultimately resulting in perfectly cured, fermented and or aged proteins such as pork (salami, ham and sausages) or beef (dry-aged beef). 

The next question naturally is, “why the hell would you make a curing chamber” to which I say, “don’t get me started”.  While this may not be very typical, I revel in the thought of taking raw pork or beef and transforming it through the art of Charcuterie into something that tastes ten times better than it did originally, is perfectly paired with beer and wine and doesn’t even require refrigeration!  What other reasons would you really need to proceed?

When one cures a protein such as beef or pork you essentially create an environment that is inhospitable to nasty things that could otherwise hurt you (bacteria).  When you dry age pork or beef you slowly evacuate the water from the protein at the cellular level where bacteria like to live and feed, creating a situation where they can’t survive.  When you do this you also concentrate the porky and or beefy flavors resulting in a far more flavorful product.  This is why the steaks at Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s always taste better than the steaks you make at home.  The steaks have had a chance to age over time concentrating their flavors as well as improving their texture.

The art of Charcuterie has been in practice for hundreds of years and has been perfected in areas such as Italy and France where the conditions you are creating in your curing chamber exist naturally.  Italians have been dry curing their hams and salamis in caves for centuries, where the conditions (temperature, humidity, darkness) are perfect.  Unfortunately, I live in Phoenix, Arizona (it’s a dry heat) where the temperatures and humidity are often way to hot and way to dry to do so naturally thus my needing a curing chamber.  The optimal temperature for a curing chamber are in and around 55 to 65 degrees with the humidity in the 60 to 65 percent range.  This allows the cure to work its magic while the cells slowly give up their moisture.  The key to the humidity is to prevent the outside cells from drying out to the point where they no longer allow the moisture to escape.  Who would have ever thought biology and osmosis would actually be applicable!?  If the surface were to dry out and harden this would cause the water to be trapped inside the cells resulting in the growth of harmful bacteria which is not good for you or I. 

That is probably way more information than most wanted however, I did warn you to not get me started.  An old refrigerator is a great starting spot for creating your own curing chamber.  While as is it operates at a temperature that is too cold for curing and dry-aging it can easily be modified to suit your needs.  Refrigerators are excellent for maintaining constant temperatures which are critical to well cured meats such as salamis, in addition to being void of light which can cause it’s own set of problems. 

Through my research I felt like the webpage on The Sausage Maker best equipped me with the necessary knowledge to begin building my own curing chamber.  Some of the best advice they gave was looking for a refrigerator that has a bottom freezer section and top refrigerator section.  This allows you to maximize the space where your cured meats are going to be hanging while efficiently using the smaller freezer space to house your humidifier.  As mentioned in a previous post they used a Kenmore refrigerator which fits the bill perfectly.  I had looked around on Craig’s List for a similar fridge only to find models that didn’t have the right configuration or priced far beyond what I was willing to pay.  One day, by the grace of god, my coworker mentioned that he was replacing his perfectly good fridge with a newer and quieter version.  I asked about the configuration and quickly learned that it was exactly what I needed.  After a few emails of pictures I learned that he literally had the exact same model that was used on The Sausage Maker website…JACKPOT!

Future home of many tasty treats...I hope!

 After unloading my new treasure I quickly got to work removing all of the shelving and drawers to make way for my charcuterie endeavors.  After doing so I began the process of removing the layer of plastic and insulation that lay between the fridge section and the freezer section. 

Let's get this party started!

I did this rather simply with a carpenter’s knife.  After puncturing the plastic it literally cut like butter with the brand new razor blade that I used.  I was careful not to cut too far into the insulation so that I didn’t sever any of the wires that potentially lie beneath.

Plastic interior cut out to expose insulation.

After removing the insulation and exposing the wires that ran through, I then cut the second layer of plastic out which opened the two sections creating one large curing chamber. 

Insulation removed to expose bottom layer of plastic.

Two separate chambers become one!

The Sausage Maker version used stainless steel making the hole look nice while creating a barrier between the wires and insulation and the plastic interior housing of the refrigerator.  I have not had a chance to do this part yet however, everything else is good to go.
The first things I purchased were some stainless steel “L” shaped brackets that I could mount on the sides of the fridge.  I will then use dowel rods that will slide inside the fridge and hang from the brackets. 

L brackets to hang salami laden dowel rods on.

The salamis, hams and sausages will be suspended from the dowel rods.  I drilled four holes into the brackets large enough for stainless steel screws to go through and attach to the plastic interior shell of the fridge.

Hang Time!

I then assembled a fixture that I could set inside the fridge allowing me to artificially raise the temperature inside the chamber when necessary (all purchased at Home Depot).  When would that be necessary you may be wondering?  Many salamis must first undergo a fermentation stage which is responsible for the tangy flavor we often associate with dry cured salami and sausages such as pepperoni.  In order for the fermentation stage to begin the curing chamber needs to operate at a temperature of 80 degrees or more for one or two days depending upon the recipe.  The fermentation stage is also important in that is lowers the Ph levels (increases the acidity) in the meat which again aids in creating a bad environment for nasty bacteria to grow and flourish.  To accomplish this increase in temperature I am using an outdoor lighting fixture, an extension cord and two 75 watt bulbs.  I cut the female end of the extension cord, stripped the wires and wired it into the outdoor lighting fixture.  I suggest outdoor versus indoor in that it is more equipped for the humid environment that is the curing chamber.

Equipment for heating element during fermentation stage.

Next, I purchased a thermostat controller from a brewing website called Homebrew Heaven for $46.00, much cheaper than what is offered via The Sausage Maker’s website.  I opted for one that was not digital as it was less expensive and one less thing that could break (in my opinion).  I mounted the thermostat controller to the outside of the fridge and plugged it into a power strip I mounted on the same side.  The controller has a piggy-back style plug allowing you to plug the fridge into it.  When the desired temperature range (give or take 2 degrees) is achieved it will cut the power to the fridge until it is necessary to cycle back on in order to maintain the correct temperature.  I ran the temperature probe inside the refrigerator and will mount it to the back middle part of the fridge’s interior so that it is out of the way.

Thermostat controller mounted on outside of refrigerator.

The next item I needed to purchase was the Titan EOS 1 Humidity Controller from eBay for $112.00, again far cheaper than what is offered by The Sausage Maker.  This controller is mounted on the inside wall of the refrigerator so that you get accurate readings on your humidity level inside the chamber.  It utilizes that same piggy-bag style plug to which the humidifier is plugged into thus controlling its operation on and off as necessary to achieve the 60-65% humidity levels.   

Humidity Controller mounted on inside of curing chamber.

Then I purchased a Vick’s filter free (cheaper to operate) humidifier and several gallons of distilled water from Wal-Mart.  The humidifier was about $45.00.   I also purchased a thermometer that allows me run a cord inside the chamber indicating the interior temperature and humidity level so that I do not need to unnecessarily open and close the door to monitor what is going on inside.  Last but not least I installed an analog style hygrometer, (out of my old cigar humidor) just so I could double check my humidity levels as necessary.

Voila! The Finished Product

I have had the chamber up and running for the past few days and have had to tweak things here and there to achieve a consistent environment of approximately 60 degrees and 60% humidity as is often called for in the recipes of Charcuterie.  The first lucky item to enjoy some R&R in the chamber is the pancetta which has about 4 or 5 more days curing time left.  I hope you find this helpful and can tell you that I am quite possible one of the least handy type people around and I was able to build this contraption…my point…don’t be afraid, you can do it.