Many of the techniques used by garde mangers years ago were designed to use product and preserve food and are still widely used today. Foods are still cured, brined and smoked, air and sun dried; made into sausage, pâté, salami, and other forcemeats; made into cheese and other milk based products, fresh fruit jams, preserves and an endless variety of pickled and fermented vegetables. One great misconception is that a lot of space and a great quantity of food are required in order to properly make these products. The fact is, however, that all of the aforementioned techniques can be used in small production for both the restaurant chef as well as the savvy home chef.
Curing and Brining
Curing and brining are both processes that are used primarily for meat, poultry, and fish and use salt as both a flavoring and a preservative. Curing, also referred to as dry curing, is done by making a mixture of salt, herbs, spices, and sugar and rubbing it all over the item that is to be cured. The salt in the cure helps to draw out moisture, thus making the environment less desirable to bacteria and less prone to spoilage. The cure also imparts flavor and when left on long enough, permeates the entire piece of meat, poultry, or fish with flavor.
Brining, or wet curing, is similar to dry curing but entails submerging the food into a well seasoned salt water solution where it sits for a specific amount of time. Brined foods trap the salty brining fluid in the cell walls, which imparts flavor, inhibits bacterial growth, and makes them less prone to drying out when they are cooked. Cured foods, such as gravlax or prosciutto, are often ready for consumption once they have cured and aged for a specific amount of time. Often, however, curing is the first step in the process of preparing an item that is then smoked or cooked like dry cured bacon or a brined turkey.
Smoking is a process that uses heat to draw out moisture while at the same time imparting flavor and diffusing bacterial growth. Smoking was discovered as a preserving process centuries ago when meat carcasses were protected from predators by being hung from trees above smoldering campfires. As the carcasses hung, the moisture was drawn out and the warm air and smoke would leave them well-preserved and highly flavored.
Today there are two commonly used methods of smoking--hot and cold. Hot smoking is a process that flavors at item with smoke but also cooks as it smokes, because it is doing so at such a high temperature. Typically used on larger cuts of meat, hot smoked items are fully cooked and ready to be eaten once they are properly smoked. Because hot smoking is a process that takes a long time, it is imperative that any items cooked in this way be properly brined or cured before the smoking process begins to ensure safety.
The cold smoking technique is used when a product is already cooked or will be cooked using a different technique and all that is desired is the imparting of the smoky flavor. The cold smoking process is done at a very low temperature for a very short time. This technique is often used when smoking cheeses and vegetables.
Each of the aforementioned processes are commonly practiced in professional kitchens, but can just as easily be done in a home kitchen. Curing and brining require only proper ingredients and ample space in the refrigerator. Cold smoking can be done in a metal pan with tea leaves, a rack, and a tight fitting lid. Many home barbecues and grills are equipped to do hot smoking. The most important things to remember are to find good recipes and instructions and follow them precisely to ensure that the process is always a safe one. All home cured and smoked products should always be stored in the refrigerator.
Drying and Dehydrating
Drying and dehydrating is a process of preserving that slowly leaches water that is naturally present in some foods using a warm temperature. Removing the water from these foods causes the flavors to intensify and concentrate, which is why dried fruits taste so much sweeter than fresh. The easiest way to dry foods is to use a purchased dehydrating machine that uses electricity to produce heat at a very low temperature and slowly draw moisture out of the food. These machines can be used to make everything from banana chips to beef jerky.
Oven drying is a technique that works with an oven that is reliable and properly calibrated. In many cases, however, it is difficult to maintain consistency at the low temperatures required and often foods dried in this way do so quite unevenly. If oven drying is the only option, it is important to use an oven thermometer and to check the drying food regularly, removing pieces individually as they are finished, so that they don't become hard or burnt.
Sun drying is a technique that works well in areas that boast consistent hot, dry temperatures. Foods dried in this way should be well encased in screens to prevent insects and animals from getting to them as they dry. With high enough temperatures and foods that are properly prepared, drying can take only a day or two. Like all preserving techniques, the drying process should never take too long because bacteria could thrive and grow. When drying vegetables, it's a good idea to blanch them first in salted water to retain color, structure, and flavor and to ward off bacteria. Dried foods should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place until ready to be eaten.
Forcemeats are made by combining meat, fat, and flavorings in such a way that they are bound tightly together and remain that way even after they are cooked. Forcemeats can be smooth or coarse in texture and the term refers to an array of items ranging from sausage to salami to pâté and beyond. Once used purely as a preservation technique, it is still used today because forcemeat products also happen to be delicious, versatile, and fun to make.
While making forcemeats was once left to restaurant chefs and artisan food producers, that is not the case today. With the aid of food processors for chopping and mixing, stand-up mixers with attachments specifically designed for stuffing sausages, and a vast assortment of pâté and terrine molds and recipe books, the capacity to prepare these items at home is endless. Even without a sausage stuffing attachment, it is quite simple to make a country style sausage by purchasing already ground meat and pork from a butcher, combining it with seasonings and other ingredients, forming it into patties, and cooking it in a pan. Mousses and smooth pâtés are simple to whip up in a food processor and some really ambitious home chefs have even been known to experiment with homemade salumi. A simple grasp of the basic techniques will most likely be enough to inspire delving in deeper and attempting more difficult forcemeat preparations in the future.
Cheesemaking was once done as a way to preserve milk and milk products so they would not go to waste. It quickly grew into a true art form, however, with literally thousands of different varieties and types of cheeses available today. While cheesemaking seems like something that should only be left to experts with extensive experience, there are in fact a great many cheeses that can be easily made at home by following simple techniques and using readily available ingredients.
The key to proper cheesemaking is ensuring that recipes are being followed precisely and that all ingredients used are the freshest available. Once that is determined, making cheese can be something as simple as combining a few ingredients to make a soft, creamy ricotta or by adding a few more steps and ingredients to create more complex cheeses. There are a number of books and websites that explain the process and sell the necessary equipment to beginning cheese makers. Most lessons start out teaching the steps for making yogurt, cottage cheese, ricotta, cream cheese, and other simple, soft cheeses. After that they advance to firmer cheeses and for the really bold, lessons on making aged and even inoculated cheeses, such as the blue veined variety are available. The freshness of a cheese that has been made at home is unsurpassed because there is the satisfaction one has when accomplishing such a feat.
Jams, Jellies, and Preserves
The thought of making jams, jellies, and preserves is often quite intimidating. The canning process, however, is what is really difficult and daunting and not the actual act of making preserves. Canning is a process that was invented to preserve foods in the summertime, when fruits and vegetables were bountiful, so that they could be safely stored and consumed throughout the year when fresh produce was not available. Today, produce is readily available to most of us throughout the year and it is practically effortless to make preserves and other such items without the burden of having to can them.
Preserves made in small batches will most likely be fully consumed before they start to go bad and can therefore be stored in the refrigerator. Those made in larger batches can be stored in the freezer and removed as needed. This really only leaves the issue of deciding which fruits and techniques to use. Once you have decided, the process simply entails heating up some fruit and sweetener and cooking it until it is of a desired consistency.
Preserves are made by cooking whole or large pieces of fruit that, when finished, have a thick, chunky consistency with visible pieces of fruit suspended in a fairly viscous liquid. Jams are cooked down for a longer period of time than preserves, which results in something that is quite thick and chunky with a more uniform, tight body and smaller pieces of fruit throughout. Jellies are made by heating strained fruit juice and thickening it with pectin, a naturally derived thickening agent. Jellies have a very smooth consistency and no pieces of fruit at all but can be a bit rubbery in texture because the properties of pectin are similar to gelatin when it cools. Fruit purees, coulis, syrups, conserves, and confitures are all different types of fruit products that are also quite easy to make at home using a few simple ingredients and a little bit of time.
Pickling and Fermenting
Pickling and fermenting vegetables is another centuries-old preservation practice that easily translates into restaurant and home cooking. Pickles can be made from just about any vegetable (and even fruit, eggs, and meats) and range in flavor from spicy to tart to sweet and beyond. An endless number of techniques for pickle making range from a quick process that involves pouring a hot brine over vegetables and allowing them to marinate for just a few hours to a full blown process of cooking and canning the pickles and allowing them to rest for weeks.
Fermented vegetables have a tangy, sour flavor and are made by combining vegetables and salt, which allows good bacteria, similar to the kind found in yogurt, to break down the vegetables. Salt is crucial to fermented vegetables because it not only draws out moisture, but also helps to inhibit the growth of bad bacteria and also helps to keep the vegetables crunchy.
Most cuisines throughout the world include some form of pickled or fermented vegetables. Korean kim chee is spicy, fermented cabbage. Preserved lemons are frequently used in Moroccan cuisine and pickled ginger is commonly found in Japan. Fermenting and pickling vegetables is really quite simple and requires a short list of ingredients; the only difficult part is waiting for the process to be completed before consuming them.