Today I had the opportunity to cure a batch of our famous Hickory Smoked Honey Cured Bacon. Typically, Chad, Nolechek’s resident bacon curing-smoking-slicing expert, cures each 2000-pound batch of our bacon. However, today he was on the schedule to slice with Jenn, Caroline, and Lucille and I was on deck to cure. As I was curing, I was reminiscing about products I learned how to make and what it means to carry on the tradition of making ham, bacon, and sausage that’s been passed on to me by Bill and Kelly.
Growing up in the business, I wasn’t responsible for making the actual product, but instead worked in retail, packaging, developing HACCP, and of course, cleaning. If there’s one thing I learned at a very young age, was you can’t clean enough and if you weren’t busy, there is always something that needs to be cleaned. My least favorite and still is today, is cleaning ceilings. But, I digress.
I didn’t go down into production until a year after I returned to Nolechek’s, in 2015. Chad was transitioning out of the business and there was a void to fill and it was time for me to learn to chop sausage. The University of Wisconsin – Meat Science offers short courses on meat processing, so I took signed up to learn the science behind what we do in production at Nolechek’s.
The first surprise was that most meat processors use a grinder to mix in seasonings, water, and create the right consistency. We’ve used a bowl chopper at Nolechek’s Meats since the early-70s. The first bowl chopper we used had a cast iron bowl, four blades, a 50-pound capacity and cost $8,000, which was a large investment for Nolechek’s at that time. A chopper allows us to process sausage at a much lower temperature, which allows for better extraction of protein, binding of water, and overall yield. Each of these elements are important because it allows us to craft sausage that offers the highest quality texture, mouthfeel, and visual particle definition. Today we use an Alpina bowl chopper that has six blades, three speeds, and a 100-pound capacity. We can run it as slow as 300 rpm, to mix cheese in; or as fast as 1000 rpm to create an emulsion for skinless wieners.
I was so intimidated to learn how to run the chopper because it’s not a black-and-white process. You must be aware of the start temperature of the raw product, the order in which you chop the lean and fat, and how the texture should look when finished. There are so many variables to take into consideration. Fresh sausage is chopped differently than smoked sausage and specific products in each category are chopped differently, too. Today, Chad and I split chopping duties, depending on what is scheduled for production. I chop summer sausage because Chad runs the Poly-Clip and stuffs it, but Chad chops fresh bratwurst and other smoked sausage because I’m responsible for hanging the product on those days.
Some may say a disadvantage to using a bowl chopper is that there can be a wide range of variability because it is operator-controlled. But, to me that was the challenge, and I knew I had perfected the craft of using the bowl chopper when the consistency of the product was the same between batches. I no longer referenced my cheat sheets to see if the lean goes in before the fat (fresh bratwurst) or the fat before the lean (summer sausage), what temperatures to chop the lean and fat to (skinless wieners); and most importantly, I (rarely) ask Kelly anymore if the texture looks right. It truly is an art form that I learned from Chad and perfected under the watchful eye of Bill and Kelly.
I also found myself reminiscing about learning to cure bacon with Bill and how it was a multi-step process that started with observing and asking questions, moved to writing down the steps, and ended with me speaking up and telling him I was ready to have a go at it by myself. The whole process of curing is methodical; from preparing the individual components for the brine (ascorbic, salt, cure, honey) to mixing them according to a specific order so that all ingredients are properly distributed in the solution to running the needle injector and finishing the process with tumbling the bellies. It’s all part of a process that has remained unchanged since I can remember.
I think the most impressive thing about what we do at Nolechek’s is that the consistency and quality of our product that has withstood the test of time. It’s our attention to detail and knowing, from start to finish, who has been involved in crafting each product and being proud of the fact that everyone understands how important they are to the process at each level. It’s about the story and the people behind the products that really make them special…besides how they taste, of course. The story and the people are what creates a connection with our fans and in turn, our fans share their stories and connections with our products. How they remember coming to the store with parents or grandparents; the special meals they would enjoy with family when they came to visit; or the people they remember that worked here from generations past. It’s all part of the bigger picture and every single bit of it is what makes Nolechek’s Meats special and meaningful, we create food that is an experience.
- Lindsey Fox