Коли б сало крила мало, під небесами б літало
Ukrainians define salo as a slab of creamy white pork back fat on a golden pigskin. The layer of fat is usually measured with fingers and should be 3-5 fingers thick, with little or no meat.
It is believed that eastern Slav tribes were conquered and subjected many times by steppe nomads from Asia. Nomads were taking their herds of horse, sheep, cattle, and goats. Short-legged pigs were less mobile and left behind. Thus, pork and salo saved Slavs when there was no any other meat.
Якби мені паном бути, то я б сало з салом їв
What do you think about eating pure fat? A piece of dark rye bread and thinly sliced salo is a traditional snack to accompany a shot of gorilka in Ukraine. For many Ukrainians, just thinking of it inspires salivation and reverence. It’s the delicacy Ukrainian immigrants smuggle when returning from Ukraine, and the funniest part is that U.S. customs officers know the word salo to ask for it. Ukrainians claim they can say what the pig was fed from the flavor of its salo, which seems tasteless for the rest of humanity.
In the Soviet Union, pigs raised on collective farms had a muscle-building diet which made the pork fat too tough and thin. The best Ukrainian salo was found at farmers markets, coming from home-raised pigs, spoiled with milk and grain and secret ingredients to produce the luxurious fat that melted in the mouth like butter.
Дурне як сало без хліба!
Salo can be consumed raw or cooked. Aged salo and garlic are finely chopped and combined into a paste to flavor borscht at the end of cooking. Since salo is a high-quality back fat, it is used in some traditional sausages. While small pieces of salo are slowly fried to render the fat for cooking, the crispy cracklings (Ukrainian shkvarky) are reserved to become toppings for other dishes.
Сало можна їсти просто з хлібом, краще з чорним. Сало можна їсти з хлібом та цибулею, бажано на природі — від такого поєднання прокидаються народні архетипи, що сплять у душі. Сало можна їсти з хлібом, цибулею та горілкою — це основа основ, стовпи, на яких тримається оте відчуття чогось такого великого, близького, теплого та свіжого, наче сидиш біля багаття та дивишся у нічне небо. Але якщо їсти сало із чорним хлібом, цибулею, горілкою, гірчицею, печеною картоплею та квашеною капустою… Цей смак японці називають «омамі» — «бездоганний». — Дмитро Різниченко
You can eat salo just with bread, better — with dark rye bread. You can eat salo with bread and onions, and better — eat them outdoors. It brings up our national archetypes, which are hidden at the bottom of our souls. You can eat salo with bread, onions, and gorilka — this is the very foundation, the bedrock of what we feel like something great, intimate, warm and fresh — as if you are sitting next to a bonfire and gazing up at the starry sky. But if you eat salo with rye bread, onions, gorilka, mustard, baked potatoes, and soured cabbage… That’s what Japanese call “umami” — “irreproachable.”
Looking for a slab of pork belly in Central Texas? Easy! Do you want it with pigskin? Not so easy, but possible to find at Mexican meat markets. They are thin and meaty there but exist. When it comes to pork back fat or belly suitable for salo, I couldn’t find anything anywhere for years. Local farm markets, butcher shops, Central Market and HEB meat departments — I talked to many people and visited many local businesses. All was fruitless until I made a trip to Salt & Time. Here is what they say: “We buy whole carcasses directly from Texas ranchers who practice humane husbandry and sustainable environmental stewardship. We place equal value on ethics and flavor and only source meat that has the highest standards in both. Once we receive it we cut, age, cure, dry and smoke our delicious products. […] Whether it’s a classic cut such as Beef Ribeye or Lamb Chops, to less common cuts such as skin-on pork belly or a picanha roast, whatever cut you are looking for, we can cut it. If you’re looking for a hard to find cut, let us know, we’d love to help.” I’ve got a beautiful 4-finger thick pork belly with pigskin, and I have hope for a high-quality pork back fat in the future.
Even though true salo comes from the back of the pig, a thick pork belly with one or two thin layers of meat is what most of Ukrainians consider a treat as well. In any case, it’s a good start for homemade salo in Texas. There are different ways to make salo: dry and wet salting, using cold and hot brine, making it cold or hot smoked. Adding other ingredients to salt rub or brine changes the recipe from region to region. In Kharkov and Poltava region, I’ve seen salo made with salt and garlic only. In Western regions, black pepper and paprika are added to salt (thank you, Taras Mers, for your instructions!). The recipe below is my first experiment with local pork belly and dry salt rub and covers both variations.
Golden pigskin. Traditionally, the first step before butchering the pig carcass is to blacken the pigskin with a torch, wash it with hot water and carefully scrape the charred layer off. It is done 2 or 3 times. After that, the carcass is smoldered with rye hay. The result of this step is a salo with a thin layer of golden, pleasantly chewy and soft golden pigskin, with delicate smokey notes.
Spices, herbs, and seasonings. If you are really into delicious fat, you’ve heard about Italian lardo. Have you ever wondered why rosemary is always added to the dry salt rub (besides the fact that it’s a signature Italian herb, of course)? Yes, there is a special reason, and it’s the same as for thyme and paprika in Ukranian salo salting rub. Rosemary and thyme contain antioxidants that slow oxidation of fat and work as preservatives. Garlic and paprika contain antioxidants as well, and also nitrites and nitrates, which are responsible for color and flavor preservation and prevention of growth of harmful bacteria.