Salted Pork is another of those dishes that has faded from most American kitchens – except from a few here in Fredericksburg. It was one of my favorites—probably because we did not have it all that often. It takes time to make but is worth the effort – the taste is unforgettable!
Salting as a means of preserving food has been practiced since antiquity, and it accomplishes it mainly by osmosis. We remember that process being fully explained in Stella Jung’s biology class. For those of you needing a review, osmosis is the passage of water through ‘semipermeable membranes’ such as the cell walls of animal tissue—always in the direction from what is more concentrated to an area of less concentration. Basically, immersing something such as a meat in a heavy brine draws water from the meat. The salt also inhibits bacteria thriving and decay is prevented. Oila – Preservation! The strength of the salt solution depends upon what one wants it to do. When making sauerkraut, for example, only a moderate amount of salt is used, allowing some bacteria to thrive while preventing others. The lactic acid produced by the good bacteria will inhibit those which would cause decay by the bad. Eventually the solution becomes so concentrated that if one keeps adding more salt then even the good bacteria are inhibited: fermentation stops, and the food keeps.
Salted port is simply raw pork preserved either with dry salt or in a concentrated brine. The pork is generally cut into smaller chunks 3-4 inches square or larger. Don’t fret if the pieces are not square, any chunk size will do, just think individual serving sizes. Pieces with bone are my favorite. Today, canning, freezing, and chilling have made brining unnecessary. However, those who have ever eaten salted pork retain a desire for it. I know for a fact that it is still a favorite of Nicole Whorton, Fischer & Wieser’s Marketing Manager. Her dad, Jimmy Bernhard, still makes it today for their family’s special celebrations.
Historically, a major use of salt pork was for provisioning ships. Saltpeter was added not only to assisting in preserving but also caused the pork to acquire a reddish color. Brownish-looking meat was never attractive. Barrels of salted pork were placed aboard sailing ships where it became part of every sailor’s ration throughout the 17th to the 19th centuries. These would keep for up to two years, depending on climate and the skills with which it was prepared. To cook it, the meat was simply simmered gently in water. Saltiness can be reduced by soaking meats in water before cooking and even changing it during simmering. This is done over low heat since it takes a while for the osmosis now to be reversed, i.e., to remove a lot of the salt that had travelled into the meat.
There cannot be much doubt that our first pioneers had Salzfleisch with them on their trek up the Pinta Trail. They had likely also eaten much of it aboard their ship. The voyage from Hamburg or Bremen to Galveston or Karlshafen, near present-day Indianola, took at least a minimum of two months. Surely many were quite fed up with having to eat it every day, but if served with home-baked bread and mustard, I might have considered this hog-heaven—at least for a few days.
If you are among the fortunate to have inherited households from your grandparents or great-grandparents, you might now understand why they had so many large earthenware crocks. These were their early “freezers.” The advantage of brining anything is that one can take the poorest cuts of pork and turn it into an exceptional dish. Some sources recommend using only the pork belly, but whether you use a whole ham or just ham hocks, it is the brining that does all the work. If you have a crock—use it. If not, any vessel will work. Simply choose the size that will adequately fit your cut of pork—preferable with a bone. Since Kohlmeier, Probst, and Kuenemann hardware stores have long been out of business, you will have a hard time buying a new crock. The last pottery manufacturer, in fact the largest in the U.S., was Marshall Pottery, but they closed their doors in 2015. I couldn’t find another manufacturer, so if you see one of these crocks for sale anywhere you might consider grabbing it. Fortunately, a large zip-lock plastic bag will do.
My mother always made her brine by dissolving enough salt in water until it floated an egg. Whether one uses Kosher or non-iodized salt is irrelevant. Simply rinse your pork under clean, cold water and then submerse it in the brine. A weight will be necessary to weigh it down and keep it submerged. If using a plastic bag, try to immerse as much of the pork and bone as possible. Turn it every so often—perhaps twice daily. This can be kept refrigerated for up to two weeks, so there is no rush.
Oscar Krauskopf shared his recipe in the 12th edition of the Fredericksburg Home Cook Book, and the 175th Anniversary Fredericksburg Heritage Cookbook contain recipes shared from Mr. and Mrs. Enos Rode and the Alvin Useners. There are many ways to do this. When the brining ends, simply place the pieces of pork into a large pot, cover with fresh water and bring to a slow boil. This will take a while, but one can easily tell when the salt pork is ready. The meat, which now has turned beautifully pink, separates, and literally falls from its bones. Serve immediately, bone and all, piping hot, and offer your guests your favorite mustard. Salted pork can be a meal unto itself. Boiled potatoes are a great compliment for this pioneer dish—even Sauerkraut, should one wish to go whole hog.
Any amount of fresh pork, preferably with a bone
Make a brine using a salt (non-iodized, if possible) until it can float an egg.
Completely immerse the pork in the brine. Use weights if necessary.
Refrigerate for 3 or 4 days.
Remove, rinse under cold water, and place the salted pork in a large pot or kettle.
Cover with water and bring to a near boil.
Reduce heat and continue to simmer slowly until the pork acquires a pinkish color and begins to separate from the bones. Add more water, when necessary.
Remove and serve immediately with a yellow mustard.