by Cat, May 2012 (Photo, right, from ruhlman.com (5))
Curing meat is an ancient way of preserving it to last without refrigeration. However, it is still quite common in today’s modern world, primarily for the wonderful flavors produced by the cure.
- Includes: 1. Brining (and How Long in the Brine); 2. The Saltpeter Dilemma; 3. The Cure Mixture; 4. Drying or Smoking; 5. Storage; 6. Keeping Time
- See also: 1. Curing, Culturing, Fermentation Menu;
- Other sites: 1. Cured Meats – Salami is Just the Beginning (21)
This method can be used for curing beef, yak, lamb, goat, buffalo or pork, and is especially wonderful for curing venison and other wild game. You can use a dry cure, wet cure (brine, or ‘pickle’) or a combination cure, and there are many variations on each of these.
Probably the best known brined meat is Corned Beef, although it can also be cured with a dry cure. Probably the best known dry-cured meat is smoked salmon or pastrami.
I present my recipe for Corning Beef as well as several ways to serve it (cooked or raw-cured). While writing this post, I tested Dried Beef (Brine Cure); the result was quite tasty. During the air-drying phase, a greenish mold appeared, which scared me a bit, but I learned it is a safe Penicillium mold that is often added to curing meats to keep the bad bugs away. I did not smoke it since I don’t have a smoker, nor access to one. (using either a wet or dry cure, then drying and optional smoking). I have not tested the Dried Beef (Dried Cure) method.
In case you’re wondering, the term ‘corned’ comes from the old English word for salt: ‘corn.’
See Meat Curing Methods (1), Processing Meat in the Home (Univ. Minnesota Extension (2)), and Meat Curing (Oklahoma State Extension (3)) for lots of good information and explanations. See also a discussion thread about curing meat on the CastBoolits website (6). Charcuterie – The craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Ruhlman, Polcyn & Keller, is an excellent book on the topic (see Amazon (14) for a peek inside).
I address here some generalities as well as specific issues involved in curing meats.
The cut of meat
You can cure any meat, including fish, duck, pork, beef, lamb, buffalo, yak, venison and so on. (Survivalblog.com advises not curing poultry other than duck, but doesn’t give a reason).
Fatty cuts are the best; the leaner the meat, the drier will be the cured product.
Whole muscle works best, but ground meats can also be cured (think salami). Just remember that grinding introduces any contaminating bacteria to the interior of the cured product.
Brine or ‘Pickle’
This is used for a wet cure: immersing the meat in a salty brine with added sugar (for curing and flavoring), and added herbs & spices (primarily for flavoring, but some also contribute to the cure). The meat is kept in the brine for at least 4 days or longer for thicker cuts, to ensure complete penetration of the salt.
The salt brine draws moisture out of the meat, making a less favorable environment for bacterial growth. As the moisture is drawn out, salt is drawn in, deeper and deeper into the meat, drying it out and preserving it. Do NOT use iodized salt–the cured meat will taste bad. Your best choice is Koshering salt (Kosher Salt).
Many different cuts of meat can be brined, depending on the desired end product. Brisket is primarily used for corned beef, while rump or round roast are the most common cuts for dried beef. The flavors (spices) vary by ancestral culture.
While some recipes indicate using a large metal saucepan, I would suggest using a porcelain-coated stock pot, large glass bowl, or stoneware crock (non-lead glaze) for the brining. A good heavy stainless steel pot in good condition will work in a pinch.
How Long in the Brine?
This varies with the size & thickness of the cut of meat. The smaller/thinner the cut, the less time it takes for the salt to penetrate to the core and remove moisture from the cut (removing the moisture is the key to salt preservation, but depriving pathogens this medium for growth).
If you plan to cook it within a week of brining, 4 – 6 days should be long enough to get the desired flavor and texture. But if you plan to keep the cured meat for a longer period of time – as a preservation method – you will want to brine it longer, up to 3 weeks.
No worries if you brine it too long (it gets really rubbery and salty). If you don’t want that much salt flavor, a day or so before you plan to dry it, soak it in several changes of fresh cold water, to remove excess salt.
This is accomplished by rubbing the meat with the curing mixture (salt, sugar, etc.), then letting it rest in the refrigerator, turning every few days; then rinsing and repeating the process one more time.
While the salted meat is resting, it needs to be turned every few days, and checked daily for accumulation of liquid. The excess liquid must be drained off to avoid a prolonged contact of the meat with the liquid, which would make the meat too salty.
The Saltpeter Dilemma
Because meat is alkaline in nature, it is a fine target for certain disease-causing microbes such as botulism, whether you use a wet or a dry cure. If the cured meat will be stored without refrigeration, you need to take special precautions to protect your product from these bugs. The primary way to do this is to add saltpeter (sodium or potassium nitrate) to the curing medium, whether wet or dry.
The addition of nitrates has become controversial, as their conversion nitrosamines may be carcinogenic. However, as survival blog.com (13) 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.”
From Formulation Trends in Processed Meats and Alternatives, January 2009 (4)
“To naturally cure meat [for example, “Organic” cured meat], two components are required. The first is a naturally occurring nitrate source that is found in many plants and vegetable juices. The second component is select microorganisms capable of reducing nitrate to nitrite within normal meat processing steps. Toward this end, for example, brine for a whole-muscle meat could be composed of ingredients such as sea salt, turbinado sugar, spices, natural flavoring (celery juice powder, which is also a source of natural nitrates) and a lactic acid starter culture to reduce the nitrate to nitrite.”
[More on using celery juice powder, below: Alternatives to saltpeter; and Disadvantage to using celery powder instead of saltpeter].
Commercially cured meat has a red color, due to the use of saltpeter (sodium nitrate) in the brine, to prevent botulism. [It is also possible to get the red color by using vegetable sources that naturally contain nitrate, and adding probiotic culture]. Saltpeter is a nitrate salt, and is believed to be carcinogenic, and to have other negative health effects. But remember that humans have used saltpeter for curing meats for centuries, without too many ill effects. The key is not to cook the cured meat at a high temperature (such as direct grilling), as the heat increases the toxicity of saltpeter by converting it to nitrosamines.
Most recipes use Morton’s Tender-Quick, which is a blend of salt, sugar, 0.5% sodium nitrate & sodium nitrite (a version of saltpeter), and propylene glycol. If you want to avoid the saltpeter and/or the antifreeze (propylene glycol), make your own salt/sugar mix. Many recipes call for ‘pink salt’ or ‘Prague powder’, which contain saltpeter and a red dye to mark it as different from regular salt. [Note also that some recipes refer to Himalayan salt as ‘pink salt’ but this is not the same as pink salt for curing.]
Alternatives to saltpeter:
If you don’t want to use saltpeter or don’t have access to it, but want to store your meat in a root cellar, a reasonable alternative is to add certain veggies that naturally contain nitrates or other antimicrobials, enzymes/probiotics needed to control the conversion to nitrosamines. NOTE: you need both the vegetable nitrate and the enzymes/probiotics. These include:
- Celery: both the seed and the juice/powder contain nitrates (see Livestrong.com (15) for more on celery seed alternative),
- Carrot and/or beetroot contain nitrate,
- Raisins contain other antimicrobials,
- Probiotics: lactic-acid producing bacteria, such as those in whey or juice from fermented veggies, or starter culture of Staphylococcus carnosus. These provide the enzymes to inhibit the conversion of nitrates to nitrosamines. (from eHow: alternative to sodium nitrite in food (8) and Food for Thought: Curing Meats Naturally (4))
The question to be answered, is the quantity of these to add; only trial and error can determine this…. Here’s some info I found on that dilemma:
- Livestrong.com (15) suggests 3 Tbsp celery seed per 5 pounds of pork belly. Note that celery juice or powder made from the juice can also be used.
- Sausagemaker.com (16) says “1.25 oz … or approximately 8 tsp of celery juice powder … will cure 25 lb of meat with 1 tsp Bactoferm F-RM-52 (a lactic-acid culture). For 10 lb. recipes use 3 1/2 tsp Celery Juice Powder and 1/2tsp Bactoferm F-RM-52.
- Nourished Kitchen corned beef recipe (17) uses 2 cups fresh celery juice with 2 cups whey to cure a 2 – 3 lb brisket for corned beef
See Michael Ruhlman’s article: Charcutepaloozians: Food Safety and Common Sense (10) for good info.
Disadvantage to using celery powder instead of saltpeter
A 2019 article from Mercola: Beware of ‘Nitrate-Free’ Organic Cured Meats (22), provides the following summary:
Most organic processed meats (whether labeled nitrite-free or not) are cured using nonorganic celery powder. The problem is that part of the technique used to produce conventional celery powder is extra loading of nitrogen fertilizer which the celery plant is very adept at taking up.
The nitrate loading makes conventional celery powder a very rich source of nitrate — far richer than organic celery powder. Organic celery powder is not nitrate-rich enough to be able to replace nonorganic celery powder.
In addition to synthetic fertilizer, nonorganic celery powder may also contain traces of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. For these reasons, organic leaders believe celery powder must be taken off the organic exemption list.
This all supports my reasoning that using saltpeter is no worse 9and perhaps better) than using celery powder for preserving the cured meat product.
The Cure Mixture
You can buy commercial cures such as Tenderquick (a blend of salt, sugar, 0.5% sodium nitrate & sodium nitrite, and propylene glycol), to which you add your own flavorings. I prefer to make my own, so I have more control over the ingredients; plus I think it costs less to make your own.
- Salt: I prefer to use Kosher Salt, which contains no anti-caking agents, sugar, saltpeter nor glycol. It’s not the same as unrefined sea salt, but it is more pure than table salt.
- Sugar: Some commercial curing mediums contain both salt and sugar, but I add my own sugar. I like Rapadura, or other brands of dried sugar cane juice) for the active enzymes it contains, but you could use brown sugar or a mix of refined sugar and molasses.
- Preservative: I add saltpeter (or a vegetable alternative to saltpeter) only if I don’t plan to store the meat in my root cellar. I also add whey or juices from fermented vegetables, whether or not I add saltpeter, as the probiotic cultures in these fermented products are antimicrobial.
- Herbs and Spices: These are entirely your choice, depending on the desired end result. For some products you would simply add peppercorns (whole, or ground and rubbed into the meat). If you are new to this, try tried & true combinations that are based on centuries of ancestral culture. For example, the ‘pickling spice mix’ used for corned beef, or rosemary and juniper for Italian beef. Some are also preservative by their antimicrobial action: onions, garlic, carrots, beets, raisins and celery (See alternatives to saltpeter, above).
Drying & Smoking
Drying is typically done by hanging, although you can also use a dehydrator. Wrap & tie cotton string around your meat, both vertically and horizontally. Attach a tag indication the type of product, it’s weight and the date when you first hang it. These are all illustrated in the photo, right.
Choose a good place to hang your meat for drying. You want a humid, cool environment: 70% humidity and 55 F are ideal. You can increase humidity by placing a container of salted water near the meat. Note that higher humidity yields better results, tho it may slow the curing process a bit. If the humidity is too low, the outer surface of the meat will dry and lock the moisture inside, causing spoilage. (1)
The drying can take from a few days to several months depending on the size and type of the cut, and climate conditions. (1)
Rubbing crushed black pepper or other spices on the outside of the meat not only adds flavor but also helps to keep insects away. Wrapping the meat in muslin or good-quality cheesecloth is also useful for keeping insects off the meat.
Molds may appear during the drying process: some are beneficial by protecting against toxic molds and rancidity, and may also improve the flavor; others can be toxic. Charcuterie pros sometimes spray the beneficial Penicillium mold (powdery white mold that has a blue-green bloom) on the surface to protect the product.
During my first experiment with this (a wet cure followed by hanging to dry), the white Penicillium mold with blue-green bloom appeared on the surface of my product at the end of the drying period, which quite alarmed me. But after some research, I learned this is not a bad thing. So I wiped it off with a vinegar-soaked cloth and let it rest overnight in the fridge. The next day I rubbed a bit of salt all over it, hoping that would help remove any remaining mold sequestered in the indentations left by the tying and between muscle fibers. After another overnight rest in the fridge, I rubbed olive oil all over the surface to protect it until I can get it sliced. The vinegar, salt and oil were all recommended by different website on the topic.
Smoking the meat is optional, primarily to add flavor. But it also helps to preserve the meat. Ideally, you do this in a smokehouse, as this provides the best long-term protection from spoilage. Small portable smokers, a grill or even special pans for stove-top smoking can be used if flavor rather than preservation is what you are after. (NOTE: I have no experience with any of these).
The Preparedness and Survival Site (TPASS) (18) has good instructions on how to build a smokehouse.
Additionally, you can smoke-cook the meat. See National Center for Home Food Preservation (18) for a great chart on smoke-cooking times for various meats.
Storage of cured meat
Here are a few methods I’ve found in my research (references refer to sources at the end of this section):
- One way is just to let it hang in the curing environment, where it should last almost indefinitely. It may develop a coating of white mold on the outside of the meat; this is actually a good thing, as it protects your meat from harmful molds. (13) However, there is a controversy about green or blue mold, as some believe that any color to the mold spells trouble. However, the white mold is in the Penicillium family, and produces green or blue-green blooms, which develop the spores to produce more mold. So I believe that if you see both white and green or blue-green mold together, it is safe.
- Smoked meat can be hung to store in the smokehouse (19)
- Store cured meat in a salt box; see TPASS (18) for more detail.
- Wrap the cured product in muslin or or a close-fitting cloth sack (linen or cotton), then hang (see first item above about hanging) (4)
- ‘Larding:’ Apply a thin coating of olive oil or melted lard (choose an oil or grease that will not go rancid – do not use ‘salad oil’). This protects the product from the air and greatly risks the growth of mold. (20)
- Rubbing cracked or ground pepper, or mustard seed onto the meat before hanging to dry will protect against insects during drying and storage, and also provides some protection from mold. (20)
- You can pack it whole or sliced in freezer bags for storage in a freezer. (19)
- Vacuum-seal bags can also be used for storage provided it is kept at 40 F (the reduced oxygen atmosphere increases the risk of botulism poisoning). (19)
I want to slice my dried beef thinly and store it in glass canning jars with lid – just as commercial “dried beef” is sold. Botulism thrives in an oxygen-free environment, so I’m hoping that leaving air in the jar is a good thing.
If properly cured and dried, your product will keep without refrigeration (but find as cool a spot as you can) for a long time, up to a year. Brined beef with its pickling juices will keep in the refrigerator 5 – 7 days. If you drain off the juices, it will keep up to a month, according to several sources.
However, in older times before refrigeration, salting/corning was used to preserve meat for longer periods of time; in colder areas it would keep all winter (brine juices must be drained off first). A Texas website (12) indicates salt-cured meat will keep outdoors in a Texas summer for at least 5 days; up here in Montana, it may even keep longer. (This same website (12) has lots of good tips).
- Meat Curing Methods (wedlinydomowe.com/sausage-making/curing/methods)
- Processing Meat in the Home, Univ. Minnesota Extension (extension.umn.edu/distribution/nutrition/dj0972.html)
- Meat Curing, Oklahoma State Extension (pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-2055/ANSI-3994web.pdf)
- Formulation Trends in Processed Meats and Alternatives, January 2009 (preparedfoods.com/articles/formulation-trends-in-processed-meats-and-alternatives-january-2009)
- CastBoolits (castboolits.gunloads.com/showthread.php?t=44638)
- eHow: alternative to sodium nitrite in food (ehow.com/how_6524567_cure-meat-sodium-nitrite.html)
- Charcutepaloozians: Food Safety and Common Sense (ruhlman.com/2011/02/meat-curing-safety-issues)
- survival blog (survivalblog.com/2011/02/the_process_of_preserving_meat.html)
- Amazon book: Charcuterie – The craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Ruhlman, Polcyn & Keller (amazon.com/Charcuterie-Craft-Salting-Smoking-Curing/dp/0393058298)
- Livestrong.com (livestrong.com/article/549919-how-to-replace-sodium-nitrate-with-celery-seed)
- Sausagemaker.com (sausagemaker.com/11080celeryjuicepowder.aspx)
- Nourished Kitchen corned beef recipe (nourishedkitchen.com/home-cured-corned-beef/)
- The Preparedness and Survival Site (TPASS) (tpass.org/?p=54)
- National Center for Home Food Preservation (nchfp.uga.edu/publications/nchfp/lit_rev/cure_smoke_pres.html)
- On Meat Storage without Refrigeration, pdf file (MeatStorage_no_Refrigeration)
- Cured Meats – Salami is Just the Beginning (italianfood.about.com/od/curedmeats/Cured_Meats_Salamis_just_the_beginning.htm)
- Mercola: articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2019/10/22/celery-powder-nitrates.aspx