Curing and Smoking Food for flavor and preservation.

 

What is curing meat and how do you cure food?

The Simple Answer to Curing Meat

To put it simply, Curing ham, bacon, fish, meat and other food is a matter of treating the food to flavor and preserve it.

Curing meat is chemically treating it, while observing food safety standards, to keep the meat from spoiling. Meats can be dry cured or wet cured and although the processes are different, the results are very similar with some exceptions. The primary chemicals used for curing have been used commercially and by individuals for years with proven results.  They are, salt (sodium chloride, NaCl), Sugar, Nitrates and Nitrites and Wood Smoke.  These curing chemicals not only help preserve the meat but also give it an outstanding flavor if done correctly.  Many cured meats can be eaten after being smoked but without being cooked, like lox and beef jerky or chicken jerky.

 

Salt

Salt or sodium chloride is regular table salt except without the iodine added.  Salt is the primary ingredient used in meat curing.  Salt is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs water so it works by dehydrating the meat, thus preventing the growth of some of the harmful bacteria and it helps lower the pH of the meat. This lower pH helps good bacteria like lactobacillus acidophilus grow which further lowers the pH making it difficult for the harmful bacteria.  Salt also causes the soluble meat proteins to come to the surface of the meat and solidify forming a dry skin which bacteria cannot penetrate.

 

Sugar 

Sugar is used in curing meat because, like salt, it is hygroscopic and thereby absorbs water as well,  It also feeds the beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus which create and environment not well suited for the harmful bacteria.  The type of sugar used in meat curing can vary form syrups like corn syrup and maple syrup to things like honey and brown or white cane sugar.  This added sugar does not flavor the meat with a sweet taste but it does help tame the harshness of other curing agents.

 

Nitrates and nitrites

Nitrates like potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate are typically used as a meat preservative together with salt. The combination is typically called a curing salt or pink salt. The pink salt is died pink sot that it will not be confused with table salt.

Nitrates were a typical contaminate of natural salt and as a result were discovered to assist in meat preservation by early civilizations.  Nitrate and nitrite is a very effective inhibitor of the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism poisoning.  They not only help kill bacteria, but also produce a characteristic flavor and give meat a pink or red color like the familiar cured ham.  Smoking ham, bacon and other meat products also helps give it a pink color.   Much controversy has surrounded the use of nitrite in recent years. However, this has been settled and all sausage products produced using nitrite have been shown to be free of the known carcinogens.

 

Smoking

Meat can also be preserved by smoking with real wood smoke in a variety of flavors.  When hot smoking, the meat is further dried and the surface of the meat is taken to a temperature above 140 F which kills any living bacteria.  The smoking process also dries the meat to help preserve it.  Cold smoking also helps dry and preserve the meat.  The smoking of meat also give meat that great wood smoked flavor which one of the primary reasons for smoking.  Like all curing methods it is very important to adjust the amount of smoke being used to get the right flavor.