Humans have been preserving foods for thousands of years, an achievement that likely allowed nomadic tribes to settle securely in one place with a ready supply of food, rather than wander from place-to-place with the seasons to hunt continuously. In recent years, there has been a resurgence in primitive eating, or what has come to be known as the Paleo Diet. Styled after what humans hunted and gathered during the Paleolithic era, the diet relies largely on fish, meats and game. The trend also put bacon back on the menu, which is usually chemically processed. For this reason, some home butchers prefer to use curing salt without nitrates.
What Is Cured Meat?
By definition, a meat that has been cured technically means that it has been preserved by introducing sodium nitrate, a naturally occurring salt and antioxidant. This water soluble compound is not born in a test tube, but is found in abundance in plants. In fact, some leafy greens and root vegetables may contain up to 1900 parts per million of sodium nitrate, which is converted into sodium nitrite when it meets the saliva in your mouth.
As for hot dogs, bacon and other products on the market reputed to be nitrate-free or uncured, these are actually meats that have been processed with a natural ingredient that contains a lot of sodium nitrate, like celery, to produce the same effect. This allows manufactures to label their products with the phrase, "no nitrates added."
Sodium Nitrate Preserves Food Longer
The food industry widely uses sodium nitrate to add flavor and red or pink coloring to bacon, ham, hot dogs and other meats. It is also used to reduce moisture content, creating a hostile environment for botulism-causing bacteria. So, the benefit to sodium nitrate-cured meats is a reduced risk of food spoilage and, most notably, a longer shelf life.
The question of safety of this compound has been questioned in recent years, although studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services indicate that the levels of sodium nitrate used in cured meats meet industry guidelines for safety. On the other hand, the Mayo Clinic cautions that consuming high levels of sodium nitrate may damage blood vessels and impair glucose utilization, increasing the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. It's also worth mentioning that some people are sensitive to nitrates in cured meats and may experience adverse reactions, such as migraines.
Curing Salt Without Nitrates
Is it possible to cure meat without sodium nitrate? Yes. In fact, some world-class hams like Italian prosciutto and Spanish Jamon Iberico are cured with just sea salt (sodium chloride) and air. There are three methods to cure meats without adding sodium nitrate: dry curing, brine curing and combination curing.
The dry curing method is used to preserve small cuts of meat, such as bacon and small hams. The curing salt is applied to the surface of the meat and then placed in the refrigerator in a sealed bag. Note that the ideal temperature in which to cure meat is between 36 F and 40 F, which is the average temperature of home kitchen refrigerators. Some people prefer to invest in a small refrigerator to use exclusively for curing meats.
Brine curing is a popular method for curing meat, especially ham. The brine consists of curing salt and water to make a liquid solution sometimes referred to as the sweet pickle cure. This method involves either completely submerging the meat in the brine solution – a weight may be necessary to keep it down – or the brine is injected into the meat with an injector pump, a large perforated needle with holes to release the brine. The latter method is commonly used for large cuts. As with the dry curing method, brine curing takes place in the refrigerator.
Curing Salt Recipe
How much homemade curing salt to use will depend on the weight and thickness of the meat. As a general guideline, plan to use 3 to 5 percent curing salt of the total weight of the meat, and as much as 6 to 10 percent for whole hams. For best results, use sea salt – never table salt – or pure dried vacuum salt, which has been vacuum-dried and sealed without the use of anti-caking agents.
Basic Dry Cure Method
Total Time: 15 minutes | Prep Time: 5 minutes |
- 2 cups salt
- 1 cup raw cane sugar
- Using a large canning jar, combine the salt and sugar. Stir to mix. Pour out the portion needed into a small bowl and apply to the surface of the meat with fingers. Discard any unused portion.
- If there is any remaining cure mix in the jar, cap it and store in a cool dry place for another use.
Once the meat is rubbed with the dry curing mix, place it in a well-sealed bag in the refrigerator for three days for every pound of the meat. After curing, the meat may be cooked or frozen for future use.
Your local butcher may be able to supply you with vacuum pack bags.
Herbs and spices may be added to the mix for additional tenderizing and flavoring. The possible combinations are endless, but here are a few to start experimenting with:
- Bay leaf
- Whole cloves
- Allspice berries
- Black peppercorns
- Juniper berries
- Coriander, crushed
- Fennel seed, crushed
- Red chili flakes
- Lavender buds
Brine Curing Ham Without Nitrates
It takes a bit of time to brine ham without nitrates, but the end result is well worth the effort. This recipe makes enough to brine cure a six-to-eight pound bone-in ham.
Total Time: 4 days 20 minutes | Prep Time: 20 minutes |
- 2 cups sea salt
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 1/2 cup fennel seeds
- 1/2 cup mustard seeds
- 2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 large spring fresh rosemary
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 onion, cut into quarters
- 4 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
- 20 whole garlic cloves, lightly crushed with side of a knife
- 2 gallons water
- Using a large tub or other container with a lid, place all of the ingredients in the container and stir to combine.
- Place the meat in the container. Be sure the meat is entirely submerged before replacing the lid. If necessary, place a marble cutting board or other weight on top of the meat to keep it covered with the brine.
- Refrigerate for three days.
- Remove ham from brine and rinse well with cool water to remove all trace of salt; lightly pat dry with a cloth towel.
- Allow the ham to continue to air-dry in the refrigerator on a rack for another 24 hours before cooking.
Nitrate-Free Bacon Recipe
For this nitrate-free bacon recipe you'll need to obtain a whole pork belly from your local butcher or an organic farm. If possible, have them trim it to uniform size and remove the rind, or skin. This recipe makes enough cure for five pounds of pork belly. You can also use this recipe to brine ham without nitrates – just cover the meat with water after rubbing the spice mixture onto its surface.
Total Time: 5 to 6 days | Prep Time: 30 minutes |
- 1/2 cup sea salt
- 1/2 cup raw cane sugar
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely cracked
- 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients until well-blended.
- Rub the spice mixture over the pork belly, taking care to cover every bit of surface on all sides.
- Place the pork belly in the refrigerator on a rack or baking sheet. Let rest there for four days.
- Remove the pork belly from the refrigerator and rinse thoroughly with cool water.
- Pat dry with a cloth towel. Return the pork belly to the refrigerator for another 24 hours before slicing into strips.
If you wish to impart a smoky flavor to your bacon, roast it in the oven at 200 F until it reaches an internal temperature of 150 F, or about 90 minutes. Alternatively, cook it in a smoker at 175 F for about three hours, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 150 F.
Directions for Roasting or Smoking Bacon
- After cooking, allow the meat to rest on a rack and baking sheet until cooled to room temperature.
- Wrap the meat in parchment and place in the refrigerator overnight.
- Using a long, sharp knife, cut the pork belly into bacon strips as thin or as thick as you like.
- Store uncooked bacon in the refrigerator for up to seven days. You may also tightly seal and freeze uncooked bacon for up to three months.
Sometimes, it's desirable to age cured meats to enhance their texture and taste. While the process certainly allowed our ancestors to store preserved foods to ensure a source of protein during the winter months, we can appreciate the results in a bite of spicy, chewy pepperoni or chorizo sausage. This is not always practical for the average home-cured meat enthusiast to do, however, since it involves a dedicated space with specialized exhaust fans and other equipment that carefully monitor and control humidity, temperature and air circulation for long periods of time. The size, type of meat and final product desired will make a difference in just how long to age, but the common goal is to dehydrate the meat by anywhere from 12 percent to more than 30 percent. A large ham, for example, may take up to 180 days to dehydrate, while prosciutto can take as long as two years. If you have the time, space and inclination, go for it.
Other Types of Cured Meats
Cured and smoked meats of all kinds are collectively referred to as c_harcuterie_. But this isn't limited to just pork ham and bacon or beef pepperoni. Some people prefer other types of meats based on personal preference or religious grounds. Here are a few alternatives to consider that are made by many artisan producers without the use of nitrates:
- Duck prosciutto is made from Moulard ducks and is dry cured. Like porkprosciutto, it is sliced paper thin and enjoyed wrapped around slices of peach, melon or fig.
- Wagyu beef bresaola is an Italian-style meat that's dry cured with sumac and celery extract. It is typically sliced very thin and served with olives, peppers and soft cheeses on an antipasti platter.
- Chicken truffle sausage is seasoned with garlic, spices, truffles and truffle oil and is suitable for grilling, roasting or pan frying.
- The National Center for Home Food Preservation: Curing and Smoking Meats for Home Food Preservation
- Mayo Clinic: Does the Sodium Nitrate in Processed Meat Increase My Risk of Heart Disease?
- The Spruce Eats: Facts About Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite
- Morton Salt: Meat Curing Methods
- Small Footprint Family: How to Cure Bacon at Home
- The Culinary Pro: Dry Curing
- Food Network: Brined Fresh Ham
- Dartagnan: Charcuterie
Karyn is a seasoned herbalist, book author, columnist and freelance writer who specializes in holistic living and natural health. She has written for numerous magazines, including Natural Living Today, Real Woman, The Herb Quarterly, Your Health, American Fitness, Mother Earth News, Better Nutrition and Natural Pharmacy, and her books are published in seven languages. Karyn also blogs for Mother Earth Living.