When Armandino Batali retired from a career at Boeing, he decided to shift gears entirely, from planes to prosciutto. He spent a few years learning the art of curing meat before opening Salumi Artisan Cured Meats in Seattle.
Batali’s products are drawn from old traditions, including such hard-to-find Italian standbys as cotto, lardo, lomo, and guanciale. But he also likes to modernize his meats with unusual flavors: an added pinch of curry in finocchiona salami, or ancho and chipotle peppers in a “mole” salami.
Batali’s grandfather opened Seattle’s first Italian food-import store in 1903; his son, Mario, is one of the country’s best-known chefs. Recently, Batali passed Salumi’s day-to-day operations to his daughter Gina Batali and son-in-law Brian D’Amato.
Why did you start making cured meats?
Initially, we wanted to change the flavor of salami and revive a lost art here in the United States. It’s been an awesome thing for us to see the interest in our products. In fact, we recently had our first annual Salumi Curing Contest. We saw 75 different salamis from 50 chefs and 15 homemakers from across the states, which was very exciting.
How do you come up with your recipes?
Tap into our brains. It’s a creative business that involves imagination and a willingness to try something new. It takes a year to develop a commercially viable salami. You try certain things and notice how flavors dissipate differently in different products. We’ve got a couple of great ones in the mill.
What did you bring to Salumi from your job at Boeing as a process-control engineer?
My interest in science and discipline fit right into the food scene, especially salami-making. Although making salami used to be a kitchen operation, today it requires more real science to produce a safe, quality product. The role of the USDA fits really well into what we’re doing. The science and the artisanship marry very well. That’s a positive attitude. A lot of people view the requirements as restrictive. Those people probably just don’t understand the rules and what they help produce.
What are some of the most important requirements for you?
In meat curing, adequate drying methods are very important. Also, the sanitation involved in making these products — from the cleanliness of the equipment to environment — really matter. It’s not a simple thing when it comes to listeria or salmonella in pork products.
These days we’re starting to see nitrite- and nitrate-free meats on the market, a response to the idea that these additives form carcinogenic nitrosamines. Should the average consumer avoid nitrites and nitrates?
The scare about nitrosamines goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Testing back then determined that the excessive use of nitrites or nitrates in bacon created nitrosamines, especially when bacon was cooked to crisp or very crisp levels. Controls were put in place to greatly limit the amount of nitrites and nitrates included in the bacon-curing process to less than 200 parts per million (ppm), and these controls still exist today.
For dry-cured meats, the limit today is 150 ppm, which has been the requirement for years with no known resulting carcinogens. We are seeing cured meats with nitrite/nitrate-free labels, which more realistically would read “no added nitrites/nitrates,” because salt naturally includes forms of nitrites and nitrates.
So why are nitrates used in the first place?
Nitrates create the red color in many cured meats and act as a detriment to botulism. (The casings create a prime environment for botulism.) So we add a very small amount of nitrates that dissipate to un-measurable levels, which creates a safe product. I am a firm believer that for many products, nitrates and nitrites should be part of the recipe.
Historically, nitrates have been used in artisan curing processes in most of Europe and Asia. If you want to use a slow preservation process, you must include these salts.
How much fat should be in a good salami?
Fat is our friend in this business. In a muscle product, like a coppa or a prosciutto, fat is very important. We try to buy pork with 20 to 25 percent fat. In a ground product, we strive for 15 percent. We measure the fat input to all our salamis, but ultimately fat varies depending on the pig. For us to have really good muscle products, like culatello or capicolo or lomo, we want a bigger pig, around 300 to 350 pounds each, because the fat marbling is better.
Would you recommend that people only make fresh salami?
It depends on your environment. A lot of people have environmentally controlled wine cellars, which is a good place to dry products at home. The Italians used attics with air flowing through. You can control drying by weighing the meat when you start then weighing it until you see that it’s lost about 30 percent of its initial weight. So making it at home is possible. If you’re going to do it, use a wine-cellar atmosphere so the humidity and temperature are controlled. But if the idea scares you, cooked salami can be made very safely.
Lucy Burningham is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon.
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