Curing salts. We’ve all heard of them, but do you know what they are or how to use them?
Every meat fan should be capable of curing their own meats. A home-cured ham, bacon, or corned beef has an unrivaled taste. Nothing is more fulfilling than biting into a pastrami patty that you spent a month making.
Understanding what curing salts are and how they function is important. Making cured meats might occasionally seem like a difficult chore. A batch of meat that has been destroyed or spoilt due to improper curing salt use can be harmful and even fatal.
However, curing meats will be easier if you understand what salts do and how they function.
Curing the meat is also an essential part of cold smoking. Cold smoking takes a longer time than hot smoking, which can be dangerous. Using curing salts will help keep the meat safe during the entire process of cold smoking.
The Roots of Curing Meats
It can seem incongruous to teach history to someone who is eager to learn how to cure meat. However, we believe it is an excellent place to begin when talking about treating salts.
Nobody is certain of the precise moment when our ancestors began smoking meat. The development of food preservation is mysterious. For instance, fermentation has been used for many different meals throughout history and has been around for thousands of years.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that meat preservation became a common practice.
There is information that Mongol tribes were the ones discovering the potential of using salt for preserving meats. They placed selected pieces of meat under the horse’s saddle. When the Mongols raid, they pressed the meat, and the water in it was drained. In addition, the horse’s sweat salted the meat. The ancient Mongolians find that this meat spoiled much more slowly.
We do know that the Romans, Egyptians, and Chinese were curing meats long before the existence of refrigerators and freezers. They preserved meat by using a combination of drying and salt.
Well, however, this happened; the world started to use salt for curing meats. This was of great benefit back in the day, since there were no refrigerators or butcher shops. Therefore, people needed to preserve food for as long as possible. We can call our ancestors smart for discovering the right way of doing this.
The use of salt had many different roles throughout history. Preserving meats was one of its most important uses.
During the Middle Ages, people discovered Saltpeter, which changed our way of thinking about how to preserve food.
Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, a chemical compound that slows down certain biochemical processes, such as the ones taking part in meat spoilage. People found that curing the meat with Saltpeter preserves the food and helps it maintain its pink-red color.
Even if curing meats only with salt was dangerous and sometimes fatal back then. Nevertheless, people didn’t stop curing their meat using only salt.
In the 20th century, German scientists found a relation between preserved food and foodborne illness – Clostridium botulinum.
Salt inhibits the growth and proliferation of bacteria, which helps preserve meat for a longer period of time. Yet, mastering that process didn’t come at no price. Many unfortunate people lost their lives throughout the centuries due to ignorance and unpreparedness using this food preservation method.
The first commercial sale of curing salts dates back to 1920.
Often people mistake Himalayan salt with curing salt. They might look somewhat similar, but they should not be confused. Himalayan salt is ordinary salt with some additional minerals added to it. Curing salt is a mixture of nitrates and nitrites and overdosing it could be dangerous.
What are Curing Salts These Days
Curing salts are the combination of salt, sodium nitrate, and/or sodium nitrite. They serve two important functions: to inhibit the growth of some spoilage organisms that thrive in low oxygen environments and to preserve the meat’s color. These are the basic curing salts ingredients:
- Salt (NaCl) – In other words – ordinary table salt
- Sodium Nitrate – Used in curing salts destined for longer cures. The bacteria in the meat convert the sodium nitrate into sodium nitrite. Тhis allows the gradual transformation of nitrates into nitrites for longer cure periods.
- Sodium Nitrite (NaNO2) – This is the ingredient that triggers the curing process.
Nitrites help prevent botulism poisoning by preventing Clostridium botulinum bacteria from producing deadly toxins and the unpleasant color change in meat associated with spoilage. In addition, nitrites help prevent the growth of bacteria like Listeria monocytogenes, which are present in poultry and can be deadly to humans.
The Dangers of Using Curing Salts
Nitrates and nitrites are toxic, and when used over the recommended quantities, they can have dangerous effects. There is a reason why the label on your meat cures says – use only according to instruction. Using too many curing salts could lead to the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines.
For example, if you swap common salt in a recipe with curing salt, it can be fatal. This is why curing salts are often colored in pink as a reminder and warning.
Storing and curing salts is also very important. Keeping them away from children is a top priority.
Again, never mistake curing salt with Himalayan salt!
Curing salts, Nitrates, Nitrites and the Risk of Cancer
It is common to connect the curing salts with cancer. The internet is full of articles about the health risks that come with nitrite and nitrate consumption from food, in particular meats and fish. A science report back in the 1970s showed a connection between consuming cured meats and esophageal cancer.
Nitrites can indeed combine with amino groups to form carcinogenic nitrosamines under certain conditions. Yet, there is no evidence that such reactions take part in the human body or food.
Since 1970, many more studies have been made, and as usual, the results were not definite.
A study published in 2015 gives us information that nitrates and nitrites can even reduce cancer risk. Yet, they stated that high nitrites consumption could be connected to a risk of developing cancer.
American Meat Institute stated that the amount of nitrites we intake from cured meat is no more than 5% and that around 93% of the nitrite comes from leafy greens and our own saliva.
Numerous studies have been done, and many proved that there is no correlation between the normal use of nitrites and cancer. Yet many people still prefer to use natural alternatives to curing salt. It is important to note that natural cures like black pepper or fruits are not as effective as curing salt.
When and How to Use Commercial Curing Salt?
Nowadays, there are so many different brands of curing salt in the market that it is hard to decide which one to purchase. The most important thing is to follow the instructions given on the label. There are different types of curing salts:
It’s a critical component in the meat curing and sausage-making process, enough to cure 100 lbs of meat, and contains 1 lb of Prague Powder No1 Pink Curing Salt.
Prague Powder #1 can be used to preserve and cure semi-dry, cooked meat products like sausage, fish, jerky, bacon, ham, pastrami, or hard salami.
Too much or too little Pink Curing Salt will negatively affect health, flavor, and food quality.
Important things to remember:
- Always follow the instructions on the label
- You cannot interchange Prague Powder #1 and #2. These are different curing salts used for different curing methods
Hoosier Hill Curing Salt #2 is a critical component in the meat curing and sausage-making process. It can also be used for air-dried products such as dried salamis, pepperoni, etc that will not be cooked.
Also referred to as Tinted cure or pink curing salt, Prague salt #2 is used for such long curing products because it provides a distinct flavor and helps to prevent product discoloration.
The distinctive flavor and lack of discoloration provided by this salt make it popular among many chefs and foodies alike who prize its quality. One pound bag with resealable opening for easy access to product anytime you need it.
Important things to remember:
- Strictly follow the directions on the package when using this product.
It’s fast-acting and less concentrated than other curing salts. Plus, it works especially well with small cuts of meat such as pork chops, spareribs, and poultry.
You could also use this curing salt for pickling.
Important things to remember:
- Morton curing salt is not pink colored, like the other curing salts. It is crucial to label and store the salt carefully to prevent any confusion.
- Most Morton products cannot be shipped outside the USA
Morton Sugar Cure Salt is a pre-mixed, complete cure for home use.
It’s similar to the Morton Quick Mix, but some salt is replaced by sugar. This means that you can use Morton Sugar interchangeably with the Morton Quick mix.
The formulation of Morton Sugar Cure Salt was designed specifically for dry or sweet pickle and meat, poultry, game, salmon shad, and sablefish curing.
Important things to remember:
- The packaging of this product seems to be good enough and does not keep the curing salt completely dry. Because of this bad packaging and the additional sugar, the curing salt may arrive hardened and clumped when ordered online. Before using it, the curing salt must be broken apart with a fork or spoon and then mixed well. To prevent such situations, consider buying this Sugar Cure Salt from local stores.
It takes more time to cure meat than the Morton Sugar Cure Salt, but in the end, the result is tastier meat with a deeper smoky hickory flavor.
Important things to remember:
- This product is not suitable for use in brines
How to Safely use Curing Salts
At present, we have discussed the debate and rumors. We proved the features and benefits of curing salt, and we finished the article. What is left to do? … We’ll give you the basic principles of working with curing salt.
- Although we suggest you always follow the exact instructions given to you on the label of each curing salt, there is also a convenient calculator, which you can rely on.
- Since curing meat is a precise process, following the instructions is most important. Do not try to experiment! Do not think that you know better! If the label says “do this”, do it! You will get used to it quickly and learn how much of salt you need for your meat. People often experiment when they cook BBQ, but you should never do that when it comes to curing meat!
- Keep everything clean! Meat is very delicate and sensitive to bacteria. You must take special care of everything you are using: tools, work surfaces, and your hands. Use rubber gloves or at least wash your hands thoroughly with soap before starting the process. Do not touch anything that is not related to the preparation of curing meat.
- Label each piece of meat and take notes on what should be done. A good option is to use a calendar or a notebook for that, so you will not forget later. Keep track of each step and the time it took to achieve a specific color, for example. Record everything down, don’t rely on your memory!
- The temperature of the mead should always be between 36°F and 40°F. The only exception is when you are air drying.
- You can soak the cured meat in cold water to reduce saltiness. It will be helpful to air dry it before smoking or barbequing it.
- Lastly, the most important principle of all. NEVER, EVER use curing salt for other purposes! Curing salt is designed to cure meat and only that. If you put it in the food as a salt substitute, it will be dangerous and even lethal to eat.
- In case of suspicion of spoiled meat, immediately discard it! No matter how much time and money you spent on it! Eating meat that has bad color or smell can be fatal. Never try to save money by using it, don’t risk your life!
- Never reuse curing salts! Never mix different curing salts! If you don’t believe us, read the label or do some research.
These are the Three Most Popular Methods for Curing Meat
We will be going over the three different methods of meat curing, each one having its own set of advantages and disadvantages for you to consider. Below we will talk about the differences between injecting, dry curing, and wet curing.
This method is often used for lower-quality meats like cheap ham, cornered beef, or bacon. Here the curing salts must be made into a solution. This solution is injected deep into the meat. This curing method is often used in a commercial setting where injecting helps obtain an even distribution of curing ingredients throughout the meat.
- This technique definitely speeds up the curing process
- The process of injecting curing salts is often seen as difficult or cumbersome, especially for a beginner.
- Uneven injecting of the curing solution may cause pockets in meat with a lot of curing salts and spots with any at all.
- The meat could become watery, flavorless, or mushy
The oldest way of curing meat is this one. If properly applied, this procedure will preserve the product and prevent the formation of microorganisms. It is a challenging procedure, and certain conditions must be satisfied for it to be successful.
Each piece of meat must dry and lose at least 35% of its original weight before being considered safe for consumption. Because of this, it’s crucial to measure each single piece of meat you intend to cure separately. It is essential to keep meticulous records and label each piece of meat with the date and its weight.
It is a question of preference if you wait until the meat has lost more than 35% of its original weight.
The spice mixture is combined with the curing salt before being massaged onto the meat. Each piece of the cured beef has a hook inserted through it, and it is hung from the ceiling.
The perfect temperature and humidity of the room should be between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with a humidity of 80%. Humidity in the curing room should be kept at a level that can be best described as “humid but not stagnant.”
One of the most important parts is maintaining an even temperature throughout this process. If the temperatures go up or down, it will eventually lead to bacterial growth, leading to a serious health hazard.
Before you dedicate yourself to dry brining, make sure you have suitable room to keep the meat in. It’s a good idea to make sure everything is set up correctly before starting the long dry brining process. Make sure this special room is also free from any dust, other contaminants, or even rodents or insects.
To monitor the temperature and humidity, you’ll need specialized equipment. A good quality humidity and temperature sensor will track both as those things fluctuate over time. ThermoPro TP50 Digital Hygrometer is a great-quality digital appliance that will give you accurate temperature and humidity readings without any hassle.
- Of all curing methods, this brings the most character to the cured meat. When handled correctly, different kinds of molds and bacteria will grow on the meat, giving it an even more complex flavor.
- The process is very long and must be monitored for each piece of meat. If you break these steps or forget any details, then you will end up not knowing whether your meat is ready and safe to consume.
- This method might not be suitable for people who don’t have much time to dedicate to the process.
- There is a lot of space for errors that, if made, can cause serious health problems.
- This method is better left to pros with experience in handling meat.
If setting up a dedicated room for dry curing is beyond your means, an alternative can give you some of the benefits.
Using an old fridge plus a temperature controller and humidifier to control the temperature and humidity is a cheaper option while still getting the benefits of dry curing.
Deciding on how much money and effort to invest in this method depends on your seriousness and goals. By choosing dry curing, you’re taking a big step in creating a delicious dish that can last months.
The effort will be worth it, but only if done correctly from the start. Being unable to control the humidity and temperature may cause unwanted bacterial and mold growth.
Resolve problems by identifying them
Understanding and identifying the mold and bacterial growths on your cured meat is vital, ensuring that you are not consuming something bad. Being able to recognize which are good and which are bad might be difficult. Equipment like analytical tools and a microscope can tell whether a mold is safe to eat or not.
Yet, if you’re in doubt about mold or bacterial growth, the best thing to do is to visit a local laboratory and check a sample of the meat. As a rule of thumb, if there are any signs that the meat is not safe to consume, throw it away immediately and do not eat it under any circumstances.
When curing inside the fridge, turning the meat is necessary.
If any moisture and liquids accumulate on the meat’s surface, you should dry them.
You should also watch for case hardening. This happens when the humidity is too low, and the airflow is high. Then the meat surface quickly dries out, stopping the inside of the meat from drying properly.
Brining or Wet Curing
This method requires fully submerging the meat into a chilled solution of curing salt and flavors. You can use a heavy object like a plate to keep the meat fully immersed.
Make sure the container you use shouldn’t react with the curing salt solution.
If brining for longer than seven days, the curing solution should be replaced. Mixing the nine ensures that all the ingredients are well dispersed.
- This process takes less time and effort than dry curing.
- The solution spread heavenly throughout the meat. This means you can relax a little and not worry about humidity, airflow, or other factors that might affect the drying process.
- This curing technique is suitable for small to medium cuts of meat.
Curing salts substitutes
They are products like celery or beetroot juice that are thought to be nitrate-free.
This is not true because these juices contain nitrates which later turn into nitrites.
Using these substitutes and overdosing on them could potentially end with more nitrates and nitrites on your food.
The truth is that nitrate-free cures cannot suppress botulism and are potentially dangerous.
There are a lot of ways to cure meat. The process is labor-intensive and requires patience, but it pays off in the end when you’re left with delicious flavor-packed meats that last for months on your shelf.
If you want some help figuring out how to choose between these curing techniques, we can offer our expertise!
Let us know if you have any questions about what this article has covered so far and how these principles might affect your business goals. We’re happy to answer them as best as possible!