Curing meat is an age old process. It has been used to preserve, intensify flavors, and make unpalatable cuts of meat acceptable for consumption. Most of us don’t worry about the preservation aspect so much anymore, but if you’ve ever made a marinade then you’ve dabbled in curing (perhaps with out even knowing it). In this post I’m going to go over some of the ingredients needed to cure meat and introduce a couple of salt mixtures that can be very useful in curing your meats. I’ll also go over some things that could be kept in your food storage.
First of all there are a couple of items that are needed to cure meat. You don’t have to use each of these items when you cure, but they all play an important part in the curing process.
Lets talk about salt first. In terms of curing, salt’s primary purpose is to kill the microbes that inhabit the meat you are trying to cure. Of course a very nice side benefit is that your meat tastes better in the process. There are two primary ways to apply salt to meat: a dry cure, and a wet cure.
The dry cure is simply applying the salt along with any spices directly on the meat and putting it in a cool place to allow the curing process to take place
The wet cure (brining) uses water and salt. The meat is submerged in the brine until done.
The length of time to cure really depends on what you want to do with the meat. If you are trying to store the meat then you need to make certain that all harmful microbes and bacteria have been killed off. This will take longer and of course depends on the size, weight, type of meat etc. If you are curing for flavor and are going to be cooking the meat, then it is less important to kill the harmful bacteria. You just need to give the meat enough time to pull in the salt and other flavorings that have been applied.
The main reason for sugars in cures is to help compensate for the harshness of the salt. Additionally the sugar brings flavor to the meat. Think maple syrup when curing bacon.
Nitrites / Nitrates
“Nitrite does a few special things to meat: it changes the flavor, preserves the meat’s red color, prevents fats from developing rancid flavors, and prevents many bacteria from growing, most notably those responsible for botulism poisoning” – taken from Charcuterie pg 38. You generally won’t store nitrites or nitrates by themselves but they are found in many commercial curing salts such as Mortons Quick Cure, InstaCure and DQ Curing Salt. One common cut of meat that really benefits from salt curing with nitrites is a brisket. If you let that set for a week then the brisket will cure, and will turn the nice red color that is associated with Corned Beef.
Smoke is used in curing for two reasons. Really the main reason any more for smoking is to apply flavor to the meat. The smoke also helps preserve the meat. Generally hard woods are used to help smoke the meat. Ham, for example, is a smoke cured meat. You can also use smoking as just a flavor enhancer. The weekend BBQ jumps to the next level when you start smoking your meat.
What to store
- Salt. The salt that you plan on using for curing should not have iodine. That will mess with the flavors of the cure. I don’t have any direct recommendations on the amount to store, but most simple recipes can call for 2 cups of salt or more. If you plan on doing a lot of curing then be sure to store plenty. Plus if you have extra you can use it as a barter item. You really should have a few different kinds of salt. Kosher salt is great. Keep lots of this on hand. You can also get regular table salt (just with out the iodine). You should also have some curing salt such as the Mortons Quick Cure or InstaCure that were mentioned earlier. You don’t usually need as much of this since a little goes a long way.
- Sugar. In most wet and dry cures the sugar is about half the amount of salt used. So store half the amount of sugar that you plan for salt.
- Wood. This one is hard since it is bulky. You can get everything from wood chips, chunks and of course whole logs. I generally keep several bags of my favorite woods (maple, mesquite, hickory). In a pinch you can also store liquid smoke, but it doesn’t always work as well.
Like most preparedness matters you really should practice curing before you need it. The upside is that the results are delicious!
With the help of the curing process they all taste fabulous.