Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Curing & Fermentation Chamber

As I got started making different types of charcuterie I quickly saw my needs grow as the variety of types of things I wanted to make also grew. When I was just making smaller batches of air-dried items I was able to get by sufficiently with a place to hang items in my kitchen or pantry. That required some creativity to help maintain air-circulation and proper humidity. While most of my projects turned out well, they were never as good as I wanted them to be. Most of the trouble I ran into was maintaining a relative-humidity that allowed the meats to dry at a slow and steady rate. Case-hardening is an issue. If the items dry too quickly the outside can lose moisture while the inside doesn't. When the weight loss is too quick it doesn't allow proper changes throughout the meat to take place that lead to taste development through enzymatic changes that require a longer timeframe. So after having made several items that suffered in one way or another, mostly from these issues, I was ready for a better, yet affordable way to fix these problems and maintain success with other important aspects like temperature and air circulation.

Chamber ready to go to work.

The over-all chamber is what I would refer to as medium sized. It takes up a footprint of 18" X 48". The size is that of the InterMetro Rack that houses everything. It is 74.5" tall. I bought the black Metro rack for about $150 at The Container Store. It comes with four shelves, a top, the two middle shelves and a bottom. I arranged it so that the top is flush, the bottom is a notch or two off the bottom and the two middle shelved are equally spaced between top and bottom.


Metro Shelving and Nylon/Plastic Cover

Based on the construction you need not place the upper shelf all the way at the top, but I did so that I have something from which to hang the items. To make the trip to TCS even better I saw a Stor-Pod brand cover ($50) that covered the entire unit. What was awesome about it was it helped keep in the desired elements: heat/cold and humidity, and keep out those unwanted: dust/dirt and insects. Important to note is some of the benefits: easily accessible fully openable front; nylon and plastic construction with metal zipper; reinforced corners; vent holes if you need to bring in outside air; and a place through which to run power-cords.

Humidifier with Hygrometer (thermometer viewable)

In trying keep these a little more simple, I wanted to find a humidifier that had as much control built in as possible. Important items I was looking for included: hygrometer; fan control; large capacity tank; digital control; non-heated humidity; and a compact size. Luckily I found all this in the Air-O-Swiss 7135 unit at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Unfortunately it retails at $179, fortunately they have those 20% coupons all the time. The built in hygrometer reads the amount of humidity in the air. It couples that with a programable digital setting to a humidity percentage between 25% and 75% or can even go on a continuous setting. It also has fan settings of low, medium and high. The capacity of the tank is around two gallons. If set on full blast it can put out 3.5 gallons a day, but with the small space being humidified I've never come close to using that much water. You can choose between cold or hot mist which is nice when switching between fermenting and curing/drying. What's also nice it this is all controlled from a digital panel on the lower front of the unit. This unit is fairly small considering all that it does. The only trick with this item is keeping it clean internally to prevent mildew from growing in the inner basin. To manage this I clean it once a week, which is fairly simple.

High Temperature Cut-Off

While I was able to find a self-contained super-humidifier, I had to do the heat in two pieces. I couldn't find a small heater that I could control the temperature on very accurately. So to manage this I bought a high-temperature shut-off controller from my local brew/grow that controls a separate ceramic space heater. I think the controller cost about $40 while the heater was only $25. The controller works by turning the outlet on and off that is on the face of the unit. It has a thermometer that reaches about 30" that I have run to the third shelf of the chamber. This is plugged in just outside the chamber. The space heater is placed inside the chamber on the bottom shelf but plugged into the outlet on the controller. The controller turns the outlet on once the temperature drops 10˚F below the setting on the face of the unit allowing the heat to increase. It turns the outlet off once the set temperature is reached, thus stopping heating.

Ceramic Heater

A couple things to consider on this device are: inaccuracy; variance; and multiple cables. Inaccuracy: As a back-up measure I placed a probe thermometer inside the chamber to measure the accuracy of the unit. It isn't so accurate. I have to adjust the setting to gauge the turn-off point for when it actually turns off. Variance: If I need to ferment at 85˚F then I set the unit to about 88˚F. I set it a couple degrees above the desired temperature so the average is close to the desired temperature as it does tend to carry over the setting a couple degrees. If you are fermenting something fatty like 'Nduja though, this doesn't work as it wouldn't turn off until the temp was too high, so this needs to be considered in certain situations to avoid things like the fat breaking in too high of a temperature. Multiple Cables: It just requires that two cable are running around instead of one. It isn't a huge deal, just notable.

Movable Fan for Circulation

Another important aspect of successful dry-curing is air circulation. To aid in this need, especially in a contained environment, I have included a small fan ($10) to get the air moving within the chamber. This helps most of all in preventing the growth of mold on the exterior of things drying. This could be secured with zip-ties if needed but I like to be able to move it about when needed so it doesn't blow directly onto any items.

Fully opened

The chamber opens up nicely when needed. Whether you are loading it up with some freshly stuffed sausages, unloading a couple hanging hams, cleaning it off to keep it sanitized or keeping it aired out when it isn't in use, the clear front-panel unzips and rolls up and stays to make it easy on you. The over-all cost was about $300 including tax and coupons. Not cheap in general, but cheap in comparison and versatility.

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