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Bruce Aidells On the Finer Points of Cured Pork

Less is more when it comes to curing pork and bacon.

Indeed, it’s what you don’t put into them that matters most, says Bay Area meat guru, Bruce Aidells.

It’s been years since Aidells has been associated with Aidells Sausage Company, which he founded and which still bears his name. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy with all things meaty. In fall 2010, the veteran cookbook author will publish a new comprehensive meat book that will include information on grass-fed beef, buffalo, goat, venison, sustainability, pasture-raised, and the importance of buying local.

Moreover, for the past three years, he’s been working with Vande Rose Farms in Iowa, helping its pig farmers cure bacon and ham, and find distributors for these artisan products. You’ll now find Vande Rose featured at restaurants such as BarBersQ in Napa, and sold at stores such as Andronico’s and  Mollie Stone’s in the Bay Area, Central Market in Texas, and Balducci’s nationwide. The products also are available on the Vande Rose Farms Web site.

Aidells’ ham and bacon cure is essentially just salt, pepper, brown sugar, and nitrates. No water is added, which is key.

The term, “ham,” means no water added, he explains. In contrast, “ham with natural juices,” means that water has been added. So much so that after cooking, the latter will weigh 10 percent less than it did when you bought it.

“True ‘hams’ are very hard to find,” he says. “Not many people sell them, and not many people can tell the difference between them. But ‘hams’ are more expensive.”

It’s not hard to guess which type Aidells prefers.

“I don’t like the texture of water added,” he says. “I like the texture of meat.”

That’s just what you’ll find with Vande Rose Farms dry-cured hams, which have no water added. Aidells arranged for me to try a sample of the ham quarter (which normally sells for $45).

The hams come from Durocs, an artisan breed traditionally raised for bacon. Historically, there were two types of pigs, Aidells explains: lard pigs and bacon pigs. Berkshire — originally a British breed that became a sensation when the Brits gifted some of them to Japan, where they became known as Kurobuta — are so heavily marbled that they’re considered lard pigs. You can’t beat a Berkshire for a fine pork chop, Aidells says. But he thinks it has too much fat for making ham or bacon.

Duroc, originally from New Jersey but now found in parts of Europe, has much larger legs than a Berkshire, less marbling, and is considered a bacon pig.

For the past couple years, I’ve bought a Berkshire ham for my Christmas table. It has a thick layer of fat all around the leg. Spiral-cut, it comes out of the oven almost looking like bacon on the outside, with thick ripples of crispy fat all around. It’s a quite decadent way to celebrate the holidays.

But Duroc was new to me. This ham didn’t have that blanket of fat on the outside that the Berkshire does. It was quite meaty and dense, yet tender. It had a huge porky taste to it. It’s also on the salty side, so you’ll want the counterpoint of a sweet glaze to brush over it.

Aidells enjoys the Duroc ham in mac ‘n’ cheese, stuffing, crepes, with eggs, and in grilled cheese. It’s a ham that’s best served warm, he adds.

The Duroc bacon (12 ounces for $12.95) it striking in how incredibly substantial and meaty it is. If you’re used to bacon that’s mostly fat, this one will surprise you. It’s less salty than the ham. After one bite, I was thinking what a killer BLT it would make.

Aidells advises to cook the bacon slow over medium heat because of its high sugar content. Don’t make it too crispy, either, he says, or else you’ll mask the complex flavor.

If you have more hog-wild questions, you can ask Bruce, himself, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, when he gives a talk all about pork and meat at the Tyler Florence Shop in Mill Valley, as reported on Tablehopper.com. Aidells will also sign copies of his previously published books, “The Complete Book of Pork” (William Morrow), and “The Complete Meat Book” (Houghton Mifflin). For more information, call the store at (415) 380-9200.

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