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Salt and sugar brine used to preserve pork.

The hams and shoulders were trimmed into nice shape and put down cellar to cure in the barrels of pork pickle, Mother had made the day before, with salt, soda, brown sugar, saltpeter and water boiled together. – Farmer Boy manuscript

In Farmer Boy, Chapter 22, “Fall of the Year,” Almanzo and Royal place hams and shoulders “carefully into barrels of brown pork-pickle, which mother made of salt, maple sugar, saltpeter, and water, boiled together. Pork-pickle had a stinging smell that felt like a sneeze.”

Fresh pork will spoil quickly if not preserved. Two methods were used to cure pork: dry cure or brine cure. Mrs. Wilder cured the hams and shoulders in a salt brine, then they were smoked. Salt is a natural preservative, although if only salt is used, the meat will be dry, hard, and flavorless. Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, a traditional meat preservative. The brown sugar was used to offset the salt and add a sweet taste, and soda was used as a natural meat tenderizer.

You can try using pork pickle on a small scale by making a brine of three cups cold water, 1/4 cup brown sugar, and 1/4 cup kosher salt. Mix ingredients until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Pour over four pork chops in a plastic bag and close tightly, then place in the refrigerator for up to six hours (put the plastic bag in a glass bowl in case it leaks). When ready to cook, drain brine from chops and pat dry. Grill or fry as usual.

The following are historical recipes for pork pickle.

PORK, PICKLED. Dissolve an ounce of saltpetre and half an ounce of saleratus in a small quantity of boiling water. Put this into a large saucepan containing three gallons of water, and add two and a half pounds of common salt, two pounds of bay-salt, and one pound of moist sugar. Boil the liquid, and skim well until it is quite clear, then pour it into the pickling-pan, and when it is cold it is ready for use. Pork which is to be boiled should be put into this pickle, and kept under the brine, by means of a board and a weight laid upon it, until it is wanted. The time required for pickling will of course depend upon the size of the meat and the taste of those who are to eat it. A small ham may lie in this pickle for two weeks. The pickle may be used again and again if boiled occasionally. — Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (New York: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1883), 609.

TO PICKLE PORK. Take half a bushel of common salt, one pound of coarse salt, half a pound of saltpetre, and six pounds of coarse brown sugar; make hams of the legs. Take the sides of the pork, and rub them well with common salt; lay a thin bed of salt in the tray, and place one of the sides to cover it; lay the other side on the top, and sprinkle it also. Let them lie two or three days, rubbing the salt well in, then cover the whole with the other ingredients; and, as soon as the salt begins to give, rub them well in; turn the sides frequently, and let them be covered with brine; it will be fit for use in six or eight weeks. — Mrs. Florence K. Stanton, The Practical Housekeeper and Cyclopedia of Domestic Economy (Philadelphia: Keeler & Kirkpatrick, 1898), 347.

PICKLE FOR A HAM. Take 3 ounces of saltpetre, and rub over the ham; let it lie until the next day, then take half a pound of bay salt, the same quantity of common salt, half a pound of coarse sugar, a pint of beer vinegar and a pint of old ale; boil these all together, and pour the mixture boiling hot upon the ham. Baste the ham with the pickle, and turn it twice a day, for three weeks; then rub it over with barley-meal, and hang it up to dry. This pickle will do for a ham of twenty pounds weight. — Richard Parkinson, Treatise on the Breeding and Management of Livestock (London: Cadell and Davies, 1810), 280.

RECEIPT FOR PORK-PICKLE, USED TO CURE HAMS. For every ham, half a pound each of salt and brown sugar, half an ounce each of cayenne pepper, allspice, and saltpeter; mix and rub well over the hams, laying them in the barrel they are to be kept in with the skin side down; let them remain a week; make a pickle of water and salt strong enough to bear an egg, add it to half a pound of sugar, pour over the hams till they are thoroughly covered, let them remain four weeks, take out and hang up to dry for at least a week before smoking; smoke with corn-cobs or hickory chips. — Mrs. S.M. Guy, Centennial Buckeye Cookbook (Marysville, Ohio: J.H. Shearer & Son, 1877), 337.


pork-pickle (FB 22)