Curing Meats at Home

Brisket in brine

by Catherine Haug, June 5, 2012, and ongoing updates

One way to reduce your energy consumption is to find ways to keep foods without refrigeration, such as curing meats: homemade jerky; pemican or (real) mincemeat; home-cured bacon, ham and sausage; dried beef or pastrami; and so on. We hope to have a presentation on this topic later this year.

Many questions also arise: How long do you cure the meat? What herbs & spices make the best flavor for a particular cured product? How much salt should you use? Is saltpeter needed? When do you use a wet brine vs a dry cure? I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I’m researching them as I experiment with making cured and dried beef (more on this below).

Subjects addressed in this post:

  • The saltpeter (nitrate) dilemma: Botulism, Cancer,  and Alternatives to saltpeter
  • My dried beef experiment
  • Home-cured bacon
  • References & resource

See also my posts Corning Beef,  Cured vs Processed Meats, and Sugar and Salt in Food Preservation. The book: Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Ruhlman, et. al., is an excellent reference with recipes. See Amazon for a peek inside.

The saltpeter dilemma

Recipes for cured meats inevitably call for ‘curing salt’ which contains nitrates, or saltpeter (potassium nitrate) to protect against botulism. But are these safe to use – what about the risk of cancer? Or are there alternatives? Note that you can make your own curing salt using Kosher or other salt, sugar and additives of your choice. This will usually be less expensive than a commercial curing salt.

Before you start with a cured meat project, you need to decide whether or not to use saltpeter or an alternative. We’ve all heard about the potential cancer danger of nitrates & nitrites in commercially-cured foods like bacon, wieners, jerky, corned beef and lunch meats.

Research on rats in the 1960s suggested that nitrites may cause cancer, and noted that nitrates like saltpeter are converted to nitrites during the curing process. While subsequent research indicated nitrates & nitrites are not themselves carcinogenic, cooking the meat over a flame to char (or overcooking) produces nitrosamines that are.

Home curing may be one solution for avoiding the added chemicals, if only small quantities are made at a time (so long-term storage isn’t an issue). Using food sources of nitrates, such as celery juice or seeds, may be a safer alternative for longer-term storage.

For millenia, however, traditional peoples have included saltpeter (potassium nitrate) in the brine to protect the cured meat from the Clostridium botulinum bacteria that causes botulism, as well as other benefits. These include producing the red color and underlying taste of cured meats, and also preventing rancidity (from fat oxidation). (4) Obviously, the practice has not decimated humanity. So what then is the harm?

As points out, “If you are concerned about the supposed carcinogenic affect of Nitrites: there are more Nitrites in a serving of spinach than in a whole cured salami. Botulism is a much greater danger.”

How nitrates & nitrites protect from botulism

First I want to point out two pertinent facts: botulism is not the only pathogenic microbe that can infect meat; and nitrites are not effective against some pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. However, the dehydrating and oxygen-depriving effect of salt (sodium chloride) in the wet or dry cure is effective against most of these.

C. botulinum (or botulism) thrives in the absence of oxygen, so as the moisture (and dissolved oxygen) are drawn out of the meat by the salt, the dehydrated meat becomes an attractive environment to anaerobic bacteria like botulism. (1)

Nitrates like saltpeter are converted in the food to nitrites. The nitrites are what controls the growth of botulism, by inhibiting certain metabolic processes of the bacteria.

What causes the cancer danger?

Several factors including:

  • charring and/or overcooking of the meat
  • presence of acids, such as in the human stomach or in the brine (from lacto-bacteria that produce lactic acid)

result in the conversion of nitrites to nitrosamines, and these are what can be carcinogenic. The good news is that the addition of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and/or vitamin E to the meat prevents the formation of nitrosamines.(4)

However, as points out, “If you are concerned about the supposed carcinogenic affect of Nitrites: there are more Nitrites in a serving of spinach than in a whole cured salami. Botulism is a much greater danger.”(6) 

Alternatives to saltpeter

It is important to note that all fruits and vegetables contain nitrates, and some contain significant amounts:

  • celery (all parts including the juice and the seeds)
  • beets (especially the beetroot)
  • carrots
  • leafy greens like spinach, chard and beet leaves

Using these in a wet brine will not only provide flavor to the meat, but will also protect from botulism. And adding celery powder or ground celery seeds to a dry brine will also provide this protection.

Indeed, the addition of celery to the cure is what allows some ‘healthy’ commercially-cured meets to declare they are nitrate/nitrite-free, since what they add is celery. It’s not their problem that the celery provides nitrates.

This has caused some ire in the blogs, as they assert there is no difference between adding sodium nitrate as saltpeter, and adding celery that contains sodium nitrate. However, my belief is that the nitrate-containing foods like celery contain other things besides the nitrate – things that might help counteract the conversion of nitrites to nitrosamines.

My dried beef experiment

As a child, my favorite comfort food was chipped beef on toast (or SOS as it was known by WWII vets), and I still love it. The problem is that sometime in the ’70s, the well-loved small glass jar packed with random slices of dried beef was replaced with a small glass jar containing perfectly identical round red things that didn’t quite taste like dried beef. And I didn’t like the change (even Stouffers frozen Creamed Chipped Beaf used the newfangled stuff).

So I decided to investigate. Turns out the stuff is now “ground, dried, powdered, reconstituted and pressed into perfect rounds.” Could this mixture contain pink slime? (since pink slime is made from ground, dried, powdered and reconstituted meat). When my stomach stopped turning over, I decided it’s time to learn how to make my own, from scratch, using both the wet cure and dry cure methods, to compare.

Experiment #1: wet cure for dried beef

I’m already quite familiar with using a wet brine to make corned beef, so I decided to start with a wet brine, and to use celery instead of saltpeter with the salt and sugar. Usually dried beef is made from round or rump roast, but I wanted to use a small hunk of meat in case this didn’t turn out, so I used a chuck steak.

I used:

  • 3/4 lb chuck steak (round or rump roast is more common for dried beef)
  • Kosher salt & Rapadura sugar (antimicrobial and flavor)
  • fresh celery & carrot (pulverized in blender), and celery powder  (natural nitrates & flavors)
  • raisins (natural antimicrobials and flavors)
  • chopped onions, crushed juniper berries & peppercorns (flavor)
  • whey (for the enzymes that inhibit conversion of nitrates to nitrosamines, as well as lacto-bacteria that help create an unfavorable environment for pathogens).

I cured the meat in the brine for 3 days, then wrapped with muslin and hung it to dry in my root cellar (humidity 70 – 80%, 50-55°F ) for 14 days, weighing every 2 – 3 days until it lost 30% of its weight. However, on the 14th day, I noted hints of mold on the muslin. I unwrapped it and was greeted with a white mold and its green and blue-green bloom on the surface. I wiped off as much as I could with a vinegar-soaked rag, then rubbed salt of the surface and let it rest in my refrigerator for a couple days. The mold smell is gone and it doesn’t smell rotten. I cut off a bit at one end and the inside looks perfect. I rubbed olive oil onto the surface to protect it until I can get it sliced.

I’ll update this after it has been sliced – I plan to cook up a batch of SOS (Chipped Beef on Toast). But I’m not yet sure how I will store it long-term.

Here’s my recipe: Dried or Chipped Beef (or Venison, Buffalo) and a related article: Curing Beef and other Meat  on my personal website.

Home-cured bacon features two recipes on this topic, in case you’d like to give them a try: Applewood-smoked bacon and How to make DIY bacon. If you buy a whole or half hog, this is a great way to use the pork belly. You can vary the flavor by adding different ingredients to the brine, such as maple syrup, bourbon, peppercorns, and herbs; or by adding hardwood chips or sawdust to your smoker. You don’t have to invest in a smoker, as you can use your charcoal grill for small projects like bacon.

Home-cured bacon should be tightly wrapped in butcher’s paper (or plastic). It will keep in the fridge up to 1 week, or in the freezer up to 2 months. (3)

Tightly wrapped in plastic, bacon cured without nitrates will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 2 months. Properly cured with the addition of nitrates or celery can be kept in a cold place such as a root cellar for at least that long, perhaps longer.

References & Resources

  1. Culinary Arts:  Facts About Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite and Clostridium botulinum
  2. The Virtual Weber Bullet: All About Brining
  3. How to Make DIY Bacon and Applewood Smoked Bacon
  4. Wikipedia on:  Sodium Nitrtite
  5. Barbecues & Grilling: Brine-cured pork
  6. The Process of Preserving Meat by Curing: From Curing Salt to Finished Bacon, by Stefan M.
  7. Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Ruhlman, et. al., is an excellent reference with recipes. See Amazon for a peek inside

See also my personal website:Dried or Chipped Beef and Curing Beef and other Meats for more detail on my experimentation. I plan to test both the wet and dry cure methods, and also smoking after curing.

3 Responses to “Curing Meats at Home”

  1. Dave Miller says:

    Can I use just sugar, salt, and ground up celery to cure a pork loin? I wanted to make pea meal bacon (authentic Canadian bacon). How long do you suggest I leave it in the brine in the refrigerator?

  2. Catherine says:

    I believe the answer is yes to the sugar, salt and celery seed (ground). Although, you may want to add some herbs and/or pickling spices to flavor the loin.
    However, I’ve never cured pork so cannot advise as to time in the chilled brine. Most of my experience is with beef brisket (as in Corning Beef). I do have a friend here (he’s a French chef) who raises hogs and cures his own bacon. I will ask him.

  3. Catherine says:

    We received a question from Barb, but her email address is invalid. Her text is:
    “Hi, as a transplanted American living in Danmark, I cannot find food grade curing salt, they don’t use it here as I have seen the ‘gray’ corned beef here and there. Is it safe to cure your own corned beef using Kosher salt and the other spices and herbs alone or do I need to add something other than Salt Petre? Any help would be appreciated.”

    My response is: Commercial curing salts may include additives that have nothing to do with protection from botulism, such as colorants. However they do include saltpeter (sodium nitrate), which is essential if you don’t plant to store your cured meat in the freezer for a long term. Some vegetables like celery provide sodium nitrate naturally, but for long-term storage I would still recommend adding saltpeter.

    If you plan to store your corned beef in a cold root cellar or refrigerator, you should definitely add saltpeter to your cure.

    I know of no other additives needed to protect from botulism – just salt, sugar, herbs and spices – in addition to saltpeter.