The short answer is “don’t,” the longer answer is “very carefully.”
Cooking meat has become a cultural norm for a variety of reasons. Cooked meat tastes good, and it is more nutritious, or at least has more available calories. Cooking makes tough cuts tender. But these days the single biggest reason most people cook food is safety. Heat can kill all the pathogenic bacteria commonly found on foods, though the spores of some, such as clostridium botulinum, can survive even boiling temperatures. While cold isn’t an adequate kill step for most pathogens, it can stop or retard bacterial growth. Again, there are exceptions. Trichinosis is not bacterial, but it is a potential source of illness, and it is destroyed by freezing. So far as I know, freezing will stop the reproduction of all pathogens, but some, like listeria, can grow at refrigeration temperatures.
Temperature guidelines are based around this model. Potentially dangerous food, including any meat, should be kept cold until it is prepared, at which point it should be cooked; it should be between 40 and 140 (the danger zone, infamous to anyone who has taken a food safety class) for as short a time as possible. There are still exceptions and nuance. A rare steak is safe because even though the inside might have only reached 125, the outside has been cooked much hotter, and a steak, unless it has been mechanically tenderized, should have no bacteria within it. Cross contamination is always a risk. While living with cheesemakers in the French Alps, Alanna and I once watched in horror as skewers of pork were cooked over open flames, only to be put directly back onto the bloody platter that had held them when they were raw. Needless to say, this sort of behavior negates any safety benefits of cooking, and it should be guarded against.
And yet, there is a way to not only render raw meat safe, but to make it absolutely delicious, and that is curing. Curing meat involves a combination of salt, time, and sometimes fermentation, which work together to render the food free of pathogens, or so I’ve read. As I set out to make dry cured sausages for the first time, my biggest mental hurdle was the idea of leaving it right in the middle of the food danger zone for weeks on end. But the most terrifying prospect was botulism.
Here’s a fun fact – the word botulism derives from the Latin word botulus, which means sausage. These days botulism is overwhelmingly associated with poorly canned goods. It’s a pathogen that is basically everywhere, but it requires particular conditions to thrive. It needs an appropriate medium, and it needs an anaerobic environment. It can be limited by pH and sugar, which is why you MUST FOLLOW YOUR CANNING RECIPES, not reduce sugar, or remove vinegar or lemon juice, or add a bunch of carrots to your tomato sauce. (If you want to do this sort of thing, get a good pressure canner and read up on its use.) Before the widespread advent of canned goods, however, aged sausage fit the bill. Ground meat stuffed into a casing and left hanging about for a few weeks is a near perfect place for botulinum bacteria to do its work.
Luckily, there are curing salts – nitrites and nitrates – that can prevent botulinum growth when used appropriately. (You might be wondering whether I’m concerned about consuming nitrates, which is a topic I have a lot of opinions about. That, however, is a subject for another time, so for the moment I’ll simply say that no, it doesn’t worry me.) So the processes that work together to render an aged sausage safe to eat are manifold, or at least threefold. Curing salts inhibit botulinum while allowing the growth of beneficial bacteria. Beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus lower the acidity, which inhibits the growth of pathogens. (In fact, the culture I used includes strains specifically selected to prevent listeria, which is pretty cool.) As the sausage dries, its available water decreases, which also kill off pathogens. The end result is a reliably safe, delicious product. It’s also meat that is, in a sense, still raw. It has never been heated, and it has even been encouraged to foster a huge colony of bacteria. It feels illicit, almost like black magic, to violate basically every conventional precept of food safety, and yet to end up with something uniquely wonderful as a result.
I can’t sell these sausages, since I don’t have a registered, inspected space in which to make them, but I can share them with people I like, and if you’re reading this blog I probably like you. So if all this talk about potentially lethal bacteria hasn’t scared you into boiling everything for three hours prior to eating it, ask me for a sample next time you see me.
Photo credit – Alanna Rose