Two weekends ago I had the pleasure of attending a class on butchering and pork curing basics by the wonderful guys at Austin’s very own Salt & Time Butchershop and Salumeria. Benjamin Runkle and Bryan Butler are two guys with a passion for making and sharing delectable cured meats, handmade sausages and responsibly farmed local proteins. They recently began teaching their specialized skills and I was lucky to get a place at the table. Here’s a little bit about my experience. Warning to the squeamish: the following contains photographs of pigs being turned into delicious food.
Bryan is an experienced butcher with an eye for good meat and uncanny ability to make the process of processing an entire appear swift and simple. Ben has a nose for delightful flavor combination and the many storied practices of preserving meat. Together they make a team that is knowledgable and eager to discuss their craft.
Taking a hands-on class on butchering and processing animals has been a goal of mine since before I began actively eating red meat and pork again recently. This was only the second time I’d been close to a recently butchered, whole food animal. I didn’t know what to expect but I did go into the class with a few goals:
Oh yeah, and take lots of notes. I’ve always been fascinated with where meat comes from but I could never figure out even the simplest food anatomy – does bacon come from the inside or outside of the ribs? Now I have a much better understanding of where these diverse morsels originate – and greater appreciation for the skill it takes to use the full pig, a very giving and flexible animal (to use Ben’s words), to its full potential.
Pigs are really fascinating creatures. The body and muscular structure of the torso alone is very complex and layered and I saw that it takes great skill to understand and master. I learned about the various knife types used to break and bone meats as well as different grips to use to achieve different cuts.
We had lunch in the shop that day, prepared by Salt & Time’s resident chef Alex Jackson. He whipped up a delectable summer picnic of their own Lamb Merguez, grilled to perfection with rich red lentils, purple potato salad with soft-boiled eggs and lots of parsley, and green beans with marinated shiitake mushrooms. This was the perfect unexpected treat after a morning of butchering demos.
Ben explained that the flavors we love are actually natural byproducts of traditional curing processes – a balance of salt, acidity and fat delights the palate. This basic idea has created the two traditional building blocks of preserving meats:
Salumi: the umbrella under which all cured meats, like pancetta and salami live, Italian in history
As part of the class I got some hands-on experience making my very own Guanciale, or jowel bacon. This involved getting very close with my own pig head and removing its cheeks, lips and jowels with a few simple cuts. For my first time butchering a pig – my first time even touching a dead food animal – this was intense. I was nervous at first and intimidated by the task, but amazingly once I got my hands around it my instincts kicked in and I cut my Guanciale like a boss. I’m really excited to make a traditional Pasta a la Carbonara with my guanciale and I’ll let you know how it turns out!
I took a snap of the heads before we worked on them, but I felt they were a bit to graphic to show without warning, so if you want to see what my pig’s head looked like (jowels on) click here. I know it sounds gross, and it was a little gross, but it was such an incredibly empowering learning experience I’m no longer grossed out by it. I’m guessing if you’ve read this than you’re not too grossed out either, but if you are I’ll challenge you to get over it. This is easily done once you get to know it. Try it.
Salt & Time is unique in that they learn from the history of European preservation techniques while bringing native American ingredients and style to the foods they prepare. The sourcing and preparing of whole animals is also central to Salt & Time’s great products: informed by the American style of right-angle saw-cutting but influenced deeply by the European way of butchering to preserve natural tissues, these guys follow natural muscle seams in their cuts, thus creating whole, unmarred pieces to work with. This is a unique and modern approach to butchery that yields delicious and interesting flavors and an entirely new style of processing meat that uses all as much of the animal as possible.
This was an incredible class and I’d recommend it to anyone – foodie or otherwise – that is curious about the meat they eat, where it comes from, how it can be prepared or wants to start curing their own. I learned so much and had a great time, I’d do it all over again too.
And some excellent news for the locals: Salt & Time is opening a full-service butchershop-deli-restaurant-bar on the east side this winter! Yes! Check out the Salt & Time website for more information about the store opening, and to join their very popular Butcher’s Box CSA. In the meantime, you can buy their coffee lomo and other so so good cured meats and artisan foods at the Barton Creek and HOPE farmer’s markets around town.
During class, Bryan had something fantastic to say about his experience as a butcher opening a shop in Austin:
“I get to see the inside of a copa, and the meat is red and the fat is pure white, and it is beautiful. I get to create something beautiful – respecting animals, the craft and yourself, making something better each time. People want transparency, where their meat comes from. Look your dinner in the eye once in a while.”
I am thrilled to have had this opportunity to learn about the butchering and curing process of such good meat from these great folks. And I can’t wait to see what Ben, Bryan, Alex and Salt & Time do in the future, which is why I’m excited to announce that Salt & Time are now a part of our official Collaborators list. Check out the Collaborators section on our About page for more information about Salt & Time and the other great organizations we work with in our community. I can’t wait to make the new Salt & Time shop my next neighborhood haunt, so look for a review coming soon!