Pickled Pork

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Serves

    6 to 8

    as a main dish.

Appears in

Food snobs say petit salé, but down South the term is “pickled pork,” and nobody is too poor to be a connoisseur of it. The New Orleans taxi driver who told me, “We wuz poor but we ate good,” explained how it was they ate good: “We used to go to the store and say, Lemme see your pickled meat, and only if it wuz nice and lean you’d say, Cut me off a inch piece.” The taxi man had just had a long discussion with his wife about “how come poke chops today don’t taste like my mama’s mama’s chops. We got the same skillet, one of those heavy cast-iron fellas,” he says, “and we got the same seasonings but the poke ain’t juicy, it’s tough. By golly, I realize, we don got the same poke. My mama’s mama killed her own hogs and put the meat in the pan. Now we got to go to the superstore and you don know how long it’s been frozen or thawed but you know there ain’t no juice to be just oozin out so’s you can dip your bread in it.”

Even though few of us raise our own hogs to put in the pan, we can recapture some of the country taste of pork by the centuries-old method of brining it instead of freezing it. Time was when almost everybody’s mama had a barrel of pickled pork on hand for her gumbos and jambalayas and the taste of salted or cured pork was entirely different from slowly smoked and aged ham. The Picayune favored pork shoulder as the best cut for pickling, “about twenty hours after killing,” and if made in small batches of three or four pounds, the meat would keep in the pickle barrel for a year.

The Cajuns called pickling salt “Turks Island salt,” after the Caribbean island where it was once produced. They were as particular about their salt as about their pork. Any pure salt will do, but table salt will not do because of its iodized additives. The salt draws out the meat juices to create a brine that both preserves and flavors the meat.

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Ingredients

  • 1 fresh picnic shoulder or shoulder butt (about 5 pounds after boning)
  • 1 pound pickling or (kosher) salt
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 bay leaves, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon each thyme and black pepper
  • 2 cloves, mashed
  • ½ teaspoon allspice
  • optional: 1 teaspoon saltpeter*

Method

Remove bone from the shoulder and cut meat into 1-pound hunks. Mix ¾ cup pickling salt with the remaining seasonings. Rub the spiced salt into the meat on all sides.

Put a layer of salt in the bottom of a stoneware crock or plastic bucket, pack the meat into the salt, and cover with a thick layer of salt. Place a weighted board or plate on top to press the meat down. Leave in a cool place (38° is ideal) for a minimum of 10 days (2 days per pound of meat). Once cured, the meat can remain in the brine at least a couple of months. You can use home-cured pork wherever you would use ham, ham hocks, pig’s feet, or fatback.

* Saltpeter is a nitrate salt that has been used since the sixteenth century to help preserve color, flavor, and texture in cured meats. It dropped out of general use when commercial curing, with pure nitrites, replaced home curing. If you wish to preserve a pink color in the pork, which will otherwise turn gray, and if you don’t wish to use a nitrate in any form, you can substitute for the saltpeter ½ teaspoon ascorbic acid.