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Chorizo Chorizero

February 18, 2009

chorizos

It was the end of February, my time in Spain was coming to an end, yet so many things were left undone. My stay in Madrid during 2008-2009 was marked my many life changes and lessons but above all, the time was spent in awe of food, food culture, food consumption and food creation. More often than not conversations in restaurants, at the dinner table or even just wandering the streets strayed to the topic of how and where food was made. Jamón, morcilla (blood sausage), salchichón, various cheeses, torijas (a spanish version of “french toast” that is vastly augmented by the addition of a sweet white wine), tortilla española…etc have all been the subjected to serious questioning to their origins and creation.

The simplest, most varied and one of the tastiest spanish food traditions is chorizo, the typical spanish cured sausage. Back in the day, when food customs differed from pueblo to pueblo and was practically unrecognizable from province to province, each family had their own tradition and way of making chorizo from the meat scraps and unused fat of the fall “matanza” (traditional killing of pigs). Depending on the local climate variations and meat availability today chorizo varies as much as the accent from region to region.

Carne de PotroMy closest personal connection to chorizo is through the father of a close friend of mine. He grew up in a very small town called Piedresnegres (Piedras Negras) in the north central part of the province of Asturias. Chorizo in many parts of Asturias is traditionally smoked due to the humid climate, the area where he was born is no exception. One of his childhood friends went on to become a butcher and owns a small store called “Carne de Potro,” I have included a picture of their sign. They sell mainly horse meat,which is popular in the town, and every week they make a few hundred kilos of chorizo to smoke. They generously offered to show me a bit about what they do and teach me a few things along the way. I will not include specific proportions since their recipe has been in the family for generations and they asked me to please not share it with just anyone.

How to make chorizo:

Note the meat scraps that the butcher leaves to his right as he prepares the meat
Meat scraps to the right

The beauty of chorizo is that it makes use of that which most butchers in the US would throw away. Chorizo is essentially made up of two parts: meat scraps and pig fat. I watched as the butcher took a skinned horse leg and with deft movements of his sharp knife reduced it to bones, meat scraps and clean cuts of meat. He explained as he worked that if you took the easy cuts of meat and made them into chorizo you would loose money. However, if you take the extra few minutes to clean the meat scraps that are inevitable when you process meat, then you can make a viable product from meat that some would not use. And it is good meat, small pieces, but meat that is left over from some of the best cuts and so is not for lack of flavor.

After the scraps are cleaned and the fat is prepared they are ground up and mixed with all the fun spices that make the chorizo so tasty. How finely you grind the meat makes a big difference in both taste and texture for the chorizo. Larger chunks take longer to cure, and some customers may be turned off by large pieces of fat. Chorizo from Carne de Potro is processed in the following manner:

Making “picadillo”

  • meat grinder“Tocino” or the fat from the back of the pig is ground first. The exit holes on the meat grinder that they used were roughly 1cm in diameter.
  • The tocino and meat scraps are then mixed together and ground up again, this ensures that the fat chunks are completely broken up.
  • meat mixerGround meat and spices are mixed together thoroughly until the mix changes texture and is more gelatinous.
    • Spices generally include garlic, salt, paprika, oregano, parsely…etc
  • meatThe mixture is covered for at least 24 hours in a cool dark place, then it is ready. The longer one lets it sit the more uniform the mixture (“picadillo”) becomes, and it will be easier to get into the intestines. Since we have a fancy pressurized machine to help us stuff the chorizo we are not too worried about its consistency.
  • meat squeezerThe next day we are ready to start stuffing and tying the chorizo. To the right you can see the “extruder” or embutidor. A few kilos of meat is placed into the machine and the intestine is placed around the nozzle, then by stepping on a pedal the chamber is pressurized and the mixture is squeezed out into the intestines.

Embutir

In our clean and semi-industrial basement the process feels slightly removed from the “old ways” of grinding with a hand cranked grinder, mixing with your hands and then hand stuffing the chorizo. But then again we were able to make 50kg of chorizo in under two hours. I was surprised by how durable the intestines were, perhaps it was the experienced touch of my teacher, but the intestines never ripped or bulged. There are synthetic alternatives to natural intestines, and they come in a wide variety of sized and are practically un-tearable. What they can’t do is shrink with the meat. As the chorizo, or whatever product you are curing, begins to shrink with the loss of water the natural intestine will shrink with it and not cause any wrinkling on the surface of the meat. Synthetics will often wrinkle and thus are not used for small scale, less industrialized operations. For bigger sausages the large intestine can be used, though there is less of it and the chorizo takes longer to cure because of its girth.

The intestines are kept in salt water to keep them fresh. Notice how as he pulls the intestine out of the bucket he passes it through his fingers to squeeze out all the liquid inside.

Tying the chorizo

tying chorizoThe average lenth of a pig’s small intestine is between 2 and 3 meters, which would be too long to try and hang in a smoke shack. Here we cut the chorizo into 1 meter sections to be tied and later hung for smoking. Each one meter section is tied together at its ends, leaving a little bulge to keep the chorizo from slipping out of the knot under its own weight. It can then be left as one long chorizo, or be sinched into smaller links within the chorizo. Here we opt to sinch the chorizo.

My fingers were not nearly as nimble, it took me a few minutes to do what he does in seconds.

Smoking chorizo

smoked chorizoSmoking generally takes between 7 to 10 days. We brought our chorizo over to the smoke shop and began smoking the afternoon after tying them up. They have converted an old two story house into the smokehouse. They replaced the second story floor with a strong metal grate to let the smoke from the fire below pass up into the room where the chorizo is hung. The fire is tended every morning, and if it is windy then the shutters on the second floor are closed so proper smoke density is maintained.

A few interesting facts about smoking chorizo:

  • Oak is the best smoking wood, large green rounds are used in the winter when a larger, hotter fire can be maintained.
  • Cold weather helps cure the meat, and freezing temperatures help soften the individual pieces of meat in the chorizo by freezing and breaking down the meat. The first question that they asked me was where I was going to try and make the chorizo, when I answered Canada, they were relieved because if it is too hot you simply can’t do it.
  • Meat, around the world, cures better on a waning full moon.

And so with my eyes still watering from the smoke and the smell I waved goodbye to my chorizo professors and mentors. They offered their services if and when I have my “business” all set up here in the United States/North America. While I made little effort to convince them that my interest was not based entirely on business, it was clear to me the traditions and culture behind what they did on a daily basis.  My hope is to continue those traditions in whatever form they take in my life.  For now a few lumpy chorizos, made by hand will have to suffice.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 18, 2009 6:13 pm

    That’s right. Food is such an important component of a culture, of a country; specially here in Spain.
    I’m glad of having shared with you all those conversations, and of having realized a bit more, through your eyes, the role of food in my country.
    ¡Ánimo con este blog!, we’ll check it regularly out to see your advices about food and to read the news about how you make it grow.

    Susu.

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