Salt Curing

Introduction

How do you usually keep your meat safe? The answer is you refrigerate it. Well, refrigeration is a relatively new invention. Before refrigerators were introduced, curing was the technique most used to preserve meat. Salt-cured meats are popular even today, not just out of necessity but also because of their unique taste. You can make different types of cured meats such as bacon, sausage, ham, and corned beef at home if you know how curing works.

Curing is essentially a technique that uses salt to preserve the meat. Remember, in the previous chapter, we mentioned that pathogen contamination or growth of living organisms such as bacteria results in food spoilage? Salt helps kill them and prevents this process. If any pathogens start ingesting the meat and metabolizing it, the meat’s texture, color, and flavor start changing. These are all telltale signs of food spoilage.

So, how exactly does salt help preserve the food? Salt removes all the moisture or water present within the meat cells through a process known as osmosis. Osmosis has two beneficial effects. The first effect is it dries the meat, and the second is it kills all the pathogens. It’s important to remember that salt here doesn’t mean regular table salt. Instead, it refers to a combination of salt, salt cures, and a little sugar.

The most common types of salt-cured meats are bacon, ham, and corned beef. Apart from this, pancetta, liverwurst, summer sausage, salami, and chorizo are also salt-cured meats. Even if the time taken to salt-cured meats is stretched to several weeks, the flavor it produces is worth it. During curing, different enzymes in the meat undergo various chemical changes that build the meat’s flavor. Besides this, the salt used in curing further elevates its natural flavor. This, coupled with sugar, herbs, and spices, further balance the flavors and elevates them to the next level. If salted meat is smoked later, it creates a wonderful and well-rounded flavor profile. Salted meats aren’t cooked. Some salted meats are further dried to ensure they are fit for consumption.

Curing Agents and Mixtures

The most common curing agents are salt, nitrates, nitrites, and sugar. You also have the option of purchasing readymade cure mixtures. Salt was commonly used for curing meats before saltpeter replaced it. It’s believed that during the 1600s, it was discovered that a mixture of saltpeter and salt was a better and effective way to preserve meat. The potassium nitrate present in the saltpeter kills bacteria responsible for botulism. The nitrate also retains the pink color of the meat. This is what our ancestors believed. It turns out, the reasons for the pink color and the extended shelf life are not as straightforward.

You will learn more about the different types of salts used, commercially produced curing mixture, and alternatives in the next chapter.

Benefits of Curing

Raw steak with sea salt, preparation for salt curing

The most obvious benefit of salt curing is to prolong the shelf life of ingredients. For instance, if the meats are properly cured and later dried or smoked, their shelf life increases by a couple of months. If stored at the right temperature, cured meats are fit for consumption for almost a year! This is a great way to preserve meats, poultry, fish, and even game meats.

Another advantage of salt curing is it kills any harmful pathogens in the meat. The salt dries out the meat and removes any traces of moisture. When this happens, the pathogens are automatically killed. The meat becomes inhospitable for disease-causing pathogens.

Salting is also a great way to elevate the flavor and texture of certain meats. Once the meats are cured, they can be cooked in different ways. For instance, bacon tastes different from a regular strip of pork belly, doesn’t it? This is due to the curing process it undergoes. Learn more about curing and smoking.

Risks to Remember

It was a popular belief that nitrites and nitrates have carcinogenic properties. This widespread belief resulted from a rather flawed experiment conducted back in the 70s. Even though this risk has been debunked as a myth, the damage was done. In 2003, WHO (World Health Organization) issued a clarification stating there was no association between cancer risk and nitrites or nitrates. Most natural foods, including vegetables such as carrots, spinach, lettuce, and celery, are sources of nitrites. So, don’t worry about nitrites.

Perhaps the most significant risk you must take into consideration while salt curing meats is the presence of pathogens. Clostridium botulinum is the bacteria responsible for Botulism. Botulism can be deadly, and it is more dangerous than food pathogens such as E Coli or salmonella. Botulism is a food-borne illness, and the bacteria causing it is commonly found in soil. The microbe by itself is not harmful. The problem is with the neurotoxin it produces. Bacteria can produce this toxin in an anaerobic environment.

Any environment devoid of oxygen is known as an anaerobic environment. For instance, the environment inside the tissue of cured meat or meat being cured is anaerobic. With fresh meat, you don’t have to worry about botulism. The real trouble starts when you are curing and preserving meat. To prevent botulism, there are three methods available. The first is salting and dehydrating. The second method is to reduce the environments’ pH or create an acidic condition that inhibits the microbe’s growth. The third idea is to pressure-can the meat. Whenever you are using any meat, you can avoid the risk of Botulism by curing and then smoking it.

One way to kill this bacterium is by submerging it in brine or keeping it in the dry salt curing mix. This, coupled with temperature control, will make the cured meats safe for consumption. Curing should take place in a temperature-controlled environment. The ideal temperature to be maintained is between 36-40°F to prevent the growth of pathogens.

Cured meats are safe for consumption. That said, those with any existing cardiovascular disorders, including high levels of cholesterol and blood pressure, should severely restrict their consumption of cured meat. Cured meat is rich in sodium, and this can further worsen any existing blood pressure problems.

Always keep the salt cures out of the reach of children. Nitrites and nitrates aren’t carcinogenic agents, but children shouldn’t directly consume them. Their digestive systems, especially the helpful bacteria in the digestive tract, aren’t yet developed to digest nitrites and nitrates.

Don’t try to cure meat at home without using curing salt. Without the salt cure, the desirable action of nitrites and nitrates doesn’t occur. Unless the nitrites in the cure react with the meat, the meat proteins aren’t broken down, and if this doesn’t happen, nitric oxide isn’t produced. Nitric oxide prevents the growth of harmful pathogens and removes all their traces. You will learn more about all this in the next chapter.

Chapter 6: Basic Things to Note Before Salt Curing

Raw ribeye steak with rosemary and salt, gourmet food prep

You might be quite tempted to skip to the recipes about preserving different ingredients. Before you do this, it is important to know the basic steps involved in salt curing. It is not just about understanding the concepts. You must also understand the different methods, types of curing salts, and so on. If you are a beginner, do not skip this chapter.

Types of Salts to Use

To understand how curing works and the different salt you can use, you need a brief chemistry lesson. When selecting the salt used for curing, there are many options available, and the evidence is often conflicting. In the past, regular salt was used to cure meat, but during the 1600s, saltpeter was added to the curing mixture. Saltpeter is the common name for sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate. However, saltpeter does not directly preserve the food. Salt is mainly used to preserve the food. However, certain types of bacteria can’t be killed by salt alone. As such, saltpeter is added to protect against them. Bacteria in the food eat the nitrates in the saltpeter, and in this process, nitrites are produced. After this, another reaction further occurs, which turns these nitrites into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide starts bonding with various proteins present in the meat. This makes the meat pink and reduces the risk of oxidation. Nitric oxide is essentially preserving the meat while killing the deadly spores of Botulism and other harmful bacteria. Whenever you are using saltpeter, it is always used along with salt. Saltpeter is not a salt substitute.

This brings us to something that is commonly known as pink salt or Prague powder. It is another name for saltpeter, used for curing meat. It is known as pink salt because a food coloring is added to it, so consumers do not mistake it for normal salt. The pink hue of the cured meat resulting from salt-curing isn’t associated with the red dye mixed in the cure. Remember, it is the activation of nitric oxide, which gives the meat a pink hue. Prague powder #1 and Prague powder #2 are two types of pink salts. They are also known as pink salt #1 and pink salt #2, respectively. The former contains around 93% common table salt, and the rest is sodium nitrite. If you are cooking meat, poultry, or fish after curing it, choose Prague powder #1. But pink salt #2 contains 4% sodium nitrate, 6.25% sodium nitrite, and the rest is table salt. This is used as a dry cure for meats that will not undergo any further cooking processes, such as prosciutto.

Besides this, some recipes use Morton Tender Quick. It is a mixture of salt, sodium nitrite, sugar, and sodium nitrate. It is not dyed pink like its counterparts. If you are using this at home, ensure that you keep it separate from the regular table salt. A common mistake most beginners make is that they believe all curing salts are the same. Curing salts are not interchangeable, so please do not make this mistake. If a curing recipe uses a specific curing salt, follow the instructions. Don’t try to change it. The salts are chosen based on the preservation process involved.

Now that you understand the different types of curing salts used for food preservation, it’s time to address some worries most have about curing salts. It’s a common misconception that curing salts are extremely toxic. Curing salts are only toxic in large and excessive quantities. Curing salts are not meant for direct consumption. You’re not supposed to inhale it or rub it over your eyes. It should be kept out of children’s reach. Don’t worry about all of this because home curing recipes do not call for such massive quantities of salt. Also, you are not exposed to it constantly, and therefore, it does not threaten your health.

Another common worry regarding nitrites is their association with an increased risk of cancer. Nitrites are found in natural foods. They are more common than you might have believed. For instance, you will consume more nitrites in a single serving of spinach than from a serving of salami.

The only concern to worry about when curing meats is the risk of botulism. Apart from that, there’s nothing else to worry about. The risk of Botulism reduces when you follow the curing recipe properly and maintain the required salting and smoking temperatures.

There are alternatives to curing salts. The only reason to use curing salts is to eliminate all traces of Botulism spores in the meat. You can cure using regular salt, but there are a few issues you need to be aware of. The presence of iodine in regular or table salt is a major issue. Table salt is always iodized, and iodine can lend a weird taste to the cured meat. Other anti-clumping active ingredients in table salt make the dry cure lumpy. If you use it to make the brine, there might be sediments in it. When using regular salt for curing the meat, stick to the recipe and ensure you choose non-iodized salt.

If you are using regular salt, pay attention to the size of the salt granules. This can affect the amount of salt that goes into a recipe. For instance, a cup of kosher salt is about 5-8 ounces, while one cup of table salt equals 10-ounces. So, one cup of table salt is a different measurement as kosher salt. An efficient way to measure the ingredients whenever you are curing meats at home is to use a weighing scale.

If you are looking for a natural source of nitrate, choose celery juice. Celery juice has natural nitrates. In the curing process, celery juice triggers a reaction similar to saltpeter. However, this isn’t a substitute for the results produced using saltpeter.

Curing Options to Consider

You have three options for curing meats using salt. Namely, dry curing, wet curing, and injecting. The safest option available for curing at home is wet curing. Let us learn more about these options and how they work.

Dry Curing

The most common preservation technique for curing meats is dry curing. Remember when you were introduced to the different curing mixtures in the previous section? Now, you simply need to rub the meat with the curing mixture, place it in a container, and cover it with more curing mix. The meat must then be placed in the refrigerator or any other cold space where a steady temperature of 36-40°F can be maintained. Regulating the temperature and humidity are the most crucial aspects of curing meat. So, pay extra attention to it.

Wet Curing

To cure limited quantities of meat, wet curing should be your go-to option. It is especially helpful if you will be cooking the cured meat again. For this, you need to make a brine solution and simply submerge the meat in it. The brine removes the excess moisture and helps create an ideal balanced that prevents pathogen breeding. You can easily regulate the salt used with this method. This method ensures that the salt has evenly seeped into the meat and there are no salt pockets created in it. While wet curing the meat, store it in the fridge or freezer. The meat must always stay submerged in the brine, and you must keep turning it every few days, so it is evenly exposed to the brine. The meat shouldn’t be exposed to air. Preferably, use a separate storage area for curing meats to prevent cross-contamination.

Injecting

As the name suggests, you will essentially be injecting salty brine into the meat using a syringe. It is slightly difficult to ensure the brine is evenly distributed with this method, especially if you don’t have the required professional equipment. As a DIY solution, this rarely is recommended. One common problem with this method is it can create salt pockets in the meat.

Equipment Needed

Whether it is dry curing or smoking meats, you’ll need some basic equipment. The most important aspect of curing meats is a cool area or a fridge. Temperature regulation is a crucial part of curing. If you’re not careful, improper temperature increases the risk of pathogens breeding on your meats. This makes the final product unfit for consumption. The usual temperature required for curing and storing meats is less than 40°F – anything more than this and the risk of pathogen contamination increases. So, you will need a refrigerator, freezer, or any cold area where you can maintain this temperature for as long as the meat is being cured and stored.

Tips to Remember

The time required to cure the meat depends on the bone and fat in the meat and its thickness. For instance, thin cuts of meat can be cured quickly, while thicker cuts take longer. You can add a variety of herbs, spices, and other ingredients to the curing mixture. However, do this only after you get the hang of the basic curing process and have understood the recipes well.

Whenever you place any meat in the refrigerator for curing, ensure you label the container with the date clearly. It is easy to forget when you might have placed a specific batch in the fridge.

The temperature in the refrigerator should be between 36-40°F for best results and safety.

If the meat is too salty after curing, soak it or boil it in water to get rid of the excess salt. You can reduce the curing time if the meat becomes too salty on the first attempt.

It’s important to understand that cured meat is still raw. So, you will need to cook it after curing before it is fit for consumption.

Chapter 7: Guidelines for Meat Preservation

An important aspect of curing and smoking meats ensures that the essential nutrients are not lost. Since the meat is not exposed to direct heat and is instead cooked at low temperatures, its nutrients are preserved. The texture and integrity of the meat are also preserved. Adding a wonderful smoky aroma simply elevates the flavor profile of the meat altogether. Smoking also helps tenderize the meat making it easier to eat. Once you follow all the different steps discussed in the following section, the meat is ready for consumption. The savory, tender, and smoky flavors of the meat will make it simply irresistible. Besides this, all harmful pathogens are killed, and the risk of the meat going bad is drastically reduced.

Before you learn about curing meats, the three aspects you need to focus on are temperature, sanitation, and storage. Meat is not cooked until its internal temperature reaches around 160°F. Don’t forget to check whether the meat is fully cooked or not before you consume it. Overcooked meat is hard and tough like rubber, but undercooked meat increases the risk of food-borne illnesses. Microbial growth usually occurs in temperatures between 40-140°F. Once the meat is ready, ensure that you store, cure, and age it at a temperature less than 40°F.

Whenever you store the meat, make sure that all the cooked products are separated from the raw ingredients. When stored close together, the juices from one container or ingredient can transfer to another, increasing the risk of contamination. All the utensils used, include the equipment and workspace, must be thoroughly sanitized and cleaned before and after each use. Now, let’s look at the different steps of preserving meat.

Selecting The Meat

Before you concentrate on preparing and preserving the meat, the first step is to select the right meat. Whenever you are purchasing meat, ensure it is not discolored. If purchasing poultry, check the area under the wings, and if there are any blood clots or bruises, check for better meat options. Poultry rarely has any odor, and if there is any, don’t purchase it. Red meat has a specific odor, and it usually depends on the type of meat you want to purchase. Even if it has an odor, it should never be overpowering. There should be no slimy coating on the meat, and the flesh should be springy. Here is a simple finger test you can use. Poke the flesh with your finger. If it bounces back, it is fresh. Use this simple test to check meats before purchasing.

Curing

You will need food-grade salt, curing compounds, and meat. Alternatively, you can also purchase commercially prepared cure mixes and carefully follow the instructions on the package. To preserve meat, ensure you are starting with fresh and high-quality meat. Curing is not a method to salvage any meat close to going bad or has bacterial growth. You need not age the meat before curing it because this process and smoking will tenderize the meat itself.

Food-grade salt contains no additives- especially iodine, and this is what you should be using. If the salt has any traces of impurities, the results will not be as desirable. Before you start curing the meat, ensure it has sufficient fat content. If the meat is lean, a wet cure will be better. If you are purchasing any cure mixtures, ensure it contains nitrate for dry-cured products that are not smoked, cooked, or refrigerated. If the meat needs to be cooked, smoked, or canned, use nitrate mixtures. You can use 1o z of nitrite for 100 lb. of meat, whereas you can use 3.5 oz of nitrate for 100 lb. of meat.

You need to be extra careful whenever handling nitrates and nitrites. Nitrites become toxic if you exceed the recommended limit. As a rule of thumb, always remember one gram of sodium nitrite is lethal for an adult human. To avoid any confusion, it is better to use curing mixtures instead of working with pure nitrites.

Dry Cure

Decide on whether to dry or wet cure the meat. If you are dry curing, start by trimming any excess fat but leave a few layers so the meat doesn’t dry out. If the meat has a rather thick layer of fat, penetrate it with a fork so the dry cure can enter the meat easily. Take your chosen cure and hand rub this mixture all over the meat.

Place the meat in a container laid out with parchment paper. Place something heavy on top, such as weights or a cast iron pan, to ensure the meat goes deeper into the curing mixture while leaving a small gap for flow. Transfer the meat to the refrigerator for around ten days. Once it is ready, remove it from the refrigerator, rinse it with water, and now the meat is ready for smoking.

If you are curious about making a dry rub, you can add salt, curing salt, sugar, and any spice you want to use. For instance, you can add cumin, black pepper, paprika, dry mustard, onion powder, cloves, and even Bay leaves to the rub.

Wet Cure

If you want, you have the option of wet curing the meat. It essentially means the meat will be immersed in a salt water-based liquid or brine. As a rule of thumb, the meat needs to stay in the brine solution for 12 hours per pound of weight. If the meat weighs 4 pounds, it needs to stay in the brine for 48 hours. The meats ideal for brining are the ones that tend to lose moisture during the cooking process, such as lean cuts of pork and beef.

To start brining, once again, it’s important to trim any excess fat, especially the dangling bits. Place the meat in a brining bag or a sealable container that is big enough to hold the meat and the brine. The container shouldn’t be filled to the brim, and there should be some space for movement. If you are using premixed brine, follow the instructions when mixing the brine cure with water. If not, you can make the brine at home.

The simplest brine recipe calls for 4 cups of water mixed with 1 cup of food-grade salt and ¼ cup of sugar. Increase the proportions based on the portions you will need. Start by heating two cups of water with salt and sugar. Once the ingredients dissolve, remove them from heat. Let this mixture come to room temperature and add the rest of the water. Place this brine mixture in the refrigerator to chill until needed. Other ingredients that can be added to the wet cure are apple cider, fresh citrus, and herbs, honey, vegetables, ginger, etc. If the mixture has at least 20% salinity, it will prevent the growth of microbes.

Let us get back to brining the meat. While the meat is stored in the refrigerator, keep turning it in the brine daily to ensure it is evenly cured. Whenever you are ready to remove the meat from the refrigerator, take it out and rinse it with water until the excess salt has washed away. The meat must be patted dry before it can be smoked. If you don’t want to smoke it immediately, store it in the refrigerator until ready by wrapping it in cheesecloth.

Smoking

Now that the meat is cured, it’s time to smoke it. Whether or not you have a smokehouse or use a backyard smoker, the heat, airflow, and moisture need to be well balanced. While doing this, pay specific attention to the internal temperature of the meat you are smoking. Smoking does not work as an effective preservation technique if the meat is not cooked properly. So, the first condition is that the meat should be thoroughly cooked. As explained, between the temperatures of 40-140°F, meats are at a higher risk of attracting pathogens.

The ideal internal temperature of fresh beef is between 145-170°F, depending on whether you like it rare, medium, or well done. This range is applicable for fresh lamb and veal. For ground meat and meat mixtures of turkey and chicken, the internal cooking temperature must be 165°F. If the ground meat or meat mixtures are made of pork, veal, and beef, the internal temperature must be 160°F. The ideal internal temperature for a whole chicken, turkey, duck, and goose is 180°F. For pork, the ideal internal temperature to ensure cooking is between 169-170°F.

Once the meats have reached their desired internal temperature, cool them quickly to 40°F. After this, keep it refrigerated. Try to reduce handling cooked meats if they are meant for storage. Get more important details about smoking.

Storage

Once the meat is cured and smoked, it is time to store it. You can store it for two weeks in the refrigerator and for a couple of months in the freezer. Refrigerate the meat within two hours of smoking. The best way to store meat is by wrapping it in butcher paper or plastic wrap. Butcher paper comes away easier than plastic wrap. After this, wrap it in a layer of aluminum foil and place it in the coldest part of the freezer. Store it at a steady temperature of around 40°F. If you want to consume it afterward, always heat it to an internal temperature of 160°F instead of tasting it right away. This is important for your safety.

Chapter 8: Guidelines for Game Preservation

Some might hunt for sport while others hunt to feed their families. If you don’t want to consume game meat immediately, learning to preserve it is important. From field dressing the animals to transporting and preserving them, you need to pay attention to different aspects of this process. If you’re not careful, this simply increases the risk of pathogen contamination, which can harm your health.

The most important aspect of preserving game meat is to regulate its temperature. Bacteria and other pathogens are present everywhere. Temperature plays a crucial role in their ability to survive. The most common temperature range for bacterial growth is between 40-140°F. If the temperature is less than 40°F, it is too cold for bacteria to grow. This is the reason for using a refrigerator or freezer while preserving game.

Once the game meat is ready, it must be stored in a freezer at 0°F and will last for almost a year. You must remember to cook game meat to its ideal internal temperature to preserve it. Once this temperature is reached, the bacteria in it are destroyed, which prevents food-borne illnesses. Once the meat is cooked, it needs to be cooled down rather rapidly before refrigeration. Now that you are aware of the different temperatures to pay attention to, it’s time to start processing and preserving the wild game.

Aging

Game meat is usually tougher than regular meat obtained from domestic animals. Wild animals are more active and exercise for longer periods while foraging for food, escaping predators, and their surviving in general. The tenderness of the meat is associated with the location of the muscle and the age of the animal. Healthy and young animals have the most tender meat. The condition of the animal before slaughter also affects the quality of the meat. For instance, if the animal was running a long distance before it was killed, the meat tends to be sticky, gummy in texture, and darker. The energy stored in the muscle of these animals is higher, and this increases their muscle pH. As there is an increase in pH, the meat quality reduces while increasing the risk of bacterial growth.

This is one reason why it was suggested that game meat must be aged first. Aging is a simple process that tenderizes the meat while enhancing its flavor. In aging, the carcass or the meat cuts are placed in an environment with controlled temperatures and humidity levels for several days. When this happens, the enzymes present in the meat start breaking down, and the complex proteins become simplified.

If the meat doesn’t have much fat, you don’t have to age it, or it will dry out. If you are directly cooking the game meat by stewing, braising, or roasting, you don’t have to age it because these processes will tenderize the meat. To age the meat, you will need to place it under a temperature of 40°F for up to 7 days to improve its tenderness. Pay specific attention to this temperature range. If it is above this range, it increases the risk of pathogen contamination. You can speed up this process by increasing the temperature, but this increases the risk of contamination.

Curing

You can either carve the carcass on your own or get a butcher to do it. Once the meat is ready, it’s time to start curing. You can cure it with a dry rub, place it in a brine mix, or inject it with brine. These are the three methods of curing you were introduced to in the previous chapter. You can add salt, salt brine, sugar, spices, and any other ingredients you want for curing.

Once again, pay attention to the temperature at which you are doing all of this. Whether or not you are making dry curing mix at home or purchasing a readymade one, coat the meat thoroughly with it. To opt for a wet cure, you can place it in the brine solution. Injecting is rarely recommended for home curing operations. For fattier cuts of meat, choose a dry rub, while the leaner ones do well with wet curing. Once you’ve applied the mix to the meat, place refrigerate it at a controlled temperature of less than 40°F. As a rule of thumb, you will need to cure the meat for seven days per inch of thickness. If the meat is about 2 inches thick, it will need to cure for 14-days.

Smoking

Once you have cured the meat, it is time to smoke it. The ideal wood types to smoke game meats are hickory, oak, maple, pecan, and even mesquite in moderation. While smoking meat, especially the larger cuts or large game, consider its size and dimensions. This makes all the difference. The ideal temperature of the smoker must be maintained between 225-300°F and cook the meat until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. This process can take 8 hours or even longer. The time for smoking depends on the size and thickness of the meat. Once the meat is smoked, it is time to store it.

Storage

After the meat is smoked, cool it and wrap it in butcher paper and aluminum foil. Transfer it immediately into the freezer. Store it at a temperature of 0°F. The shelf life of the meat depends on the storage temperature. Don’t transfer warm meat into the freezer and wait until it cools down. Also, air is your enemy while preserving meat. Whenever you store any meat in the freezer, ensure you wrap it in butcher or freezer paper or place it in Ziploc bags. You need to do this to avoid freezer burns. The idea is to preserve the meat without letting it come into direct contact with the cold air in the freezer. This is especially true for meats that will stay in the freezer for prolonged periods. One piece of equipment you can consider investing in, provided you are interested in curing and smoking regularly, is a vacuum sealer. It helps suck out any air from the bag or container used for securing and storing meats.

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