From hoarding provisions for long barren winters, to batch cooking and menu planning for today’s busy families, preserving and storing meat has been at the core of eating and enjoying food for thousands of years.
Historically, meat has been preserved and dried in order to prevent the growth of bacteria and make it last longer. Nowadays, with sophisticated refrigeration and preservation techniques, the curing process is as much about adding depth and flavor as it is keeping food edible for longer. As an added benefit, curing also tenderizes tough tissue, enhancing cheaper cuts of meat.
Whatever your reasons behind wanting to cure your own meat, the process is easier than you might think. If you’re just starting out, pork belly is one of the simplest and most accessible meats to cure at home, but once you are familiar with the curing process, you can substitute other meats such as beef, lamb or even duck, and experiment with different cuts of meats, additional flavors and methods of enhancing the curing process.
Since ancient times, curing has been used to extend the life of meat using the preserving effects of common salt. The Greeks and Romans routinely salted meat and for Native Americans, smoking meat above the fire in a tepee was a traditional practice. Useful as a means of providing food during lean hunting seasons or disappointing harvests, salted meat also sustained sailors during the 18th and 19th centuries, enabling longer journeys and exploratory travel.
The common practice of curing meat continued until refrigeration was introduced in the middle of the 20th century. Today, although not essential as a preservation method, the practice of curing with salt is still hugely popular due to the delicious taste and texture imparted to meat.
Although our ancestors may have enjoyed the taste and effect of salting meat, it was not until the 20th century that the role of nitrites in curing meat was properly understood and exploited.
Meat is made up of 70% moisture, so when salt is added to it, this is rapidly drawn out through the process of osmosis.1 Salt also acts as an antimicrobial agent as, by eliminating moisture from the meat, the growth of bacteria is also hampered. Concentrations of salt up to 20% are required to kill most species of unwanted bacteria.
However, it is the use of nitrates and nitrites in cured meat products that strictly controls the growth of microorganisms and this prevents the development of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes the rare but deadly botulism poison.
During the curing process, nitrate (NO3) is broken down by bacteria to nitrite (NO2) 2. Generally, only nitrite is added directly to meat to cure it, but for products like sausages and hams that require a very long cures, nitrate is continually added to keep producing nitrite throughout the process.
Good curing starts with a good piece of meat. This doesn’t have to be the most expensive cut but simply the most appropriate for the process. Developing a direct relationship with a reliable butcher is a good way of knowing the origins of your meat and to ensure you are getting good quality joints, ribs or brisket. Your butcher can also provide you with all parts of the animal, and curing is a great way to use unusual or less popular cuts of meat that simply require extra treatment in order to enhance their suitability and edibility.
Pork is the most popular meat to cure as, due to its high fat content, it lends itself well to salting and smoking. The ham and shoulders are standard cuts for curing, and pork belly typically provides bacon. However, other meats such as beef or turkey can be cut and prepared in a similar way. Beef brisket is another common joint of meat for curing and is customarily transformed into corned beef or pastrami.
Salt is the primary ingredient used in meat curing. Simply dry curing your meat with salt will remove moisture from the meat and add an intensity of flavor, but it won’t completely kill potentially dangerous bacteria.
This is the reason for using sodium nitrite in combination with salt. Colored to distinguish it from ordinary salt, Pink Salt, also sometimes known as Prague powder, is a nitrite and is poisonous in quantity. However, by using it cautiously, and in the correct very small amounts, it is the safest way to ensure you remove the chance of botulism spores taking hold. As a bonus, it adds taste and imparts the rich, reddish pink color to cured meats. For very large pieces of meat, evaporation doesn’t occur quickly enough to keep the inside of the meat safe from bacteria. In this case, injecting the meat with a solution of water and nitrite mixture3 will ensure that microbial growth is stopped deep inside the muscle.
If this is the first time you are attempting to cure meat, it may be a good idea to purchase a pre-packaged cure as it can be tricky to get the exact measurements right. If you use a packet mix, then one ounce of the mixture per one pound of meat should be applied.
Curing times will vary depending on the size and density of the meat and also strength and depth of flavor required. This can also be altered by the aging process. After the meat is rinsed, it is hung to dry out further, with a large ham taking 2 to 3 months to reach the desired taste and texture.
To add extra depth and flavor to your cured meats, you can add spices and other ingredients to the curing salt mix or apply them to the meat just before it is covered and hung out to dry. Onion, garlic and the sharp, pungent aroma of ground peppercorns can be added as a general base flavor to any meat. The sweet smokiness of paprika lends color and flavor to sausage meat, and for Spanish chorizo, a type of smoked paprika known as pimentón is used.
For very fatty pieces of meat, citrus flavors provide a sharp contrast. Any other spices such as cumin or chili will add depth to the mix and seeds like coriander and mustard will add a smokier flavor.
Adding sugar, either in its natural form or as honey or syrup is a good way to counterbalance the saltiness of cured meat. It adds flavor but also a lovely caramel colored coating.
Ultimately, it is up to you to choose which are your favorite flavors or simply use whatever condiments and seasoning you have to hand.
Once you have your mix, you need to rub it well into the meat. Puncturing a large piece of meat beforehand will ensure that the mix penetrates further into the muscle. Then, place the meat on a tray and cover with more of the mix before placing in the refrigerator.
If you decide after your first attempt at curing meat to make it a regular habit, a small separate refrigerator might be a good investment, if you have room for one. Then, you can fill it with delicious cuts of meat and pretty much forget about them until they are ready to eat.
Generally, the meat should be left for at least a week then taken out of the fridge and rinsed until all the excess salt is removed. Pat the meat dry, then roll it if necessary and wrap it in cheesecloth.
The meat should then be kept in a cool, dark place for another month or more. A digital dry curing chamber allows you to control and monitor the temperature and humidity. Curing chambers are expensive, so before deciding on whether you want to invest in one, you can simply hang the meat in a closet, garage or basement, as long as the ambient temperature doesn’t exceed 60°F.
It is important to keep an eye on the meat, particularly if there is a risk of humidity, as this may cause the formation of mold or bacteria. However careful you are with your measuring, applications and timings, things can still go wrong, especially on your first attempt at curing. If you do find mold on your meat, throw it away and have another go. This is a good reason to first experiment with a cheap cut of meat that is easy to prepare.
The hung meat should lose about 40% of its weight as it is drying, so by weighing and measuring the meat before and after hanging, you can check when it has reached the end of the curing process.
Meat can be cooked through the high temperatures of hot smoking, as the heat dehydrates the meat and the coating imparted by the smoke has the effect of inhibiting bacteria.
However, cold smoking involves exposing cured meat to smoldering and strongly flavored woods such hickory, oak or apple in order to absorb the rich, smoky flavor. As the temperatures for cold smoking only range between 68 to 86 °F, the procedure does not cook foods and so cold smoking should only be attempted once the meat has been fully cured.
If you don’t have a smoker, you can simply use a grill or oven to smoke your meat. Soak wood chips in water, wrap them in foil with holes to allow the smoke to escape and place your meat on a grill over the wood.
If you are looking for a very straightforward way to cure meat and add juice, texture and flavor to a joint, then brining is an easy alternative to dry salting. It is a quick and simple preparation that is especially good for meats with less fat that tend to dry out when cooked.
Brining is a type of curing that uses salt to treat meat. As the salt is added to water, the effect of soaking meat in the solution is to keep drier meats moist rather than wicking away water content from them. It is a much quicker way to cure meat if you are short of time, but it still adds tenderness and flavor while reducing cooking times. It is particularly good for lean meat like turkey which, when cooked in conventional manner, roasted in the oven for example, can become dry and tasteless.
Meat usually loses a third of its weight during cooking but by soaking in brine first, this loss can be halved.4 Muscle fibers in the meat simply absorb liquid during the brining period and a salt solution can actually dissolve some of the proteins in muscle fibers, turning them from a solid mass to liquid form.
Whatever you’re brining, remember to rinse the meat well afterward to remove any surface salt. Properly brined meat shouldn’t taste too salty, but just be nice and juicy with a deep flavor. To preserve the meat for longer, submerge it in brine ensuring that it is completely covered and keep it in a tightly sealed jar for a couple of weeks.
There are many benefits associated with curing your own meat. You will become more aware of the origins of your food, have control over ingredients and flavoring, and enjoy eating high quality meat will little or no artificial additives. Although it is time intensive, once you have set the curing process in motion, there is very little to do except wait. Curing meat can also save you money in the long run, especially if you buy cheaper cuts in larger, more economical portions. Once you have got the hang of it, curing your own meat is extremely satisfying, especially as you become more confident in your skills and start enjoying the fruits of your labor. However, the main advantage, of course, is its great taste and texture, to be enjoyed and shared with friends and family.