Long before refrigeration, our ancestors discovered that meat could be preserved using salt. Salt draws moisture from meat, preventing the growth of bacteria, and ensuring the meat doesn't rot. The process uses salt to cure meat, and it's surprisingly easy to do at home with just a few simple steps. Almost every culture in the world has its own variations of cured meats, but you'll notice many of the most popular originate in Spain and Italy. These warm-weather countries developed hundreds of different types of cured meats, from traditional staples like salami and prosciutto, to Americanized, modern cured meats like pepperoni. All of them share one thing in common: they have undergone a process of preservation that creates a whole new and delicious dish.
The Curing Process
The old-fashioned way to cure meat simply involves completely covering the meat with salt for one to five days. The size of the piece of meat and the curing method you choose will determine how long the process takes. Curing tends to work best with thinner cuts of meat that will cure quickly without beginning to decompose. Let's get into our discussion by describing the different ways of meat curing you can do at home.
The first thing you should do before curing is to weigh your meat. Record the weight because you will need to use it latter to determine when your meat has cured completely. All methods will need to be cooked once the curing process is done.
This is the original recipe. It's quite simple: get a large container and place a layer of salt in the bottom. Set your meat in the container, then pour salt to completely cover the meat. Put the meat in the refrigerator for about 24 hours and it'll be cured. You will know for sure when the meat was lost 35%-40% of its original weight. Dry cured meats you are familiar with include prosciutto, an Italian cured meat that is made from pork thigh.
Equilibrium curing is a modern dry cure method. For this method, you'll only want to use the amount of salt that is equivalent to 3% of the weight of the meat. One you weigh your meat and figure out how much salt to use, evenly coat the surface of the meat in salt Then place the meat in a vacuum bag and seal. Place the sealed bag in the refrigerator for about 5 days, and it'll cure. Weigh it to before and after to be sure. This is a great way to make home curing more affordable and works particularly well when curing ham.
Brine curing simply involves immersing a protein in a very salty solution and refrigerating it. This is one of the most popular curing methods for corned beef and turkey. Brine curing is a great way to get tons of flavor into the meat, and often, dry curing and brine curing are combined for what is know as combination curing.
The major difference between sausage curing and other methods is that sodium nitrate is mixed into the ground meat which accomplishes the cure. This is most often done when the ground meat is being mixed along with other ingredients. Our YouTube channel and our blog have great recipes for some of our favorite sausages we make at home.
Is Cured Meat the Same as Raw Meat?
Salt curing alone is not always enough to prevent bacterial growth at room temperature, but even salt cured meat is not raw. Rather, it is dried meat. Regular table salt that contains iodine should not be used for curing meat because it can leave an off taste. Kosher salt is commonly used for curing salt, but does not contain nitrates or nitrites necessary for curing. If you are using kosher salt, you'll need to add elements both for preserving the meat and to add the color you expect. Meat cured without nitrite will be grey instead of the rosy pink and red color you want.
You can also use an over-the-counter powder curing agent. Most often, the cure is sodium nitrite, often in the form of pink salt. Sodium nitrite converts to nitric oxide in the curing process, giving your cuts of meat a beautiful pink color. When we make our go-to summer sausage recipe, we like to use this seasoning and curing pack. Please do not skip using a curing agent when you are curing meats at home. Your finished product can be harmful to your health if the curing agent is insufficient to prevent spoilage.
Steps to Take Next
Once the meat has released most of the moisture, you need to wipe the curing salt off the exterior and hang the meat in your refrigerator to dry the rest of the way. The meat will be preserved, so it shouldn't rot, but it's important to keep an eye on it. Any sign of mold means the curing process was unsuccessful and you'll need to discard the batch.
Many cured meat products, like bacon and sausages, are smoked after curing. Smoking cured meat is straightforward and fairly simple. You simply choose a wood to smoke, get the temperature set low, and cook the cured meat until it's done. Bacon is often smoked on hickory wood, while a ham can be smoked on apple or oak. Smoking completes the cooking process and ensures bacteria can't grow. Bacon is made from the belly fat of pigs and is one of the most popular meats in the United States.
On of our favorite cures is sausage. Sausage is made from ground pork or beef with added animal fat. You can use a meat grinder to process cuttings from ham to make really good smoked sausages at home.
Is Cured Meat Bad for Your Health?
As delicious as they are, it's a good idea to moderate the amount of cured meat you consume. The World Health Organization reports that a diet including processed meats can lead to an increase in colon cancer, heart disease, and cardiovascular problems.
Final Thoughts on Cured Meat
Home curing can be a lot of fun, and it's a great opportunity to experiment with different flavor combinations and seasonings. Please make sure to follow a good recipe like the ones we have on our blog and YouTube channel. Curing meat at home is a great way to preserve meat, and it's something we do with game every year before hunting season starts as a way to get the whole family involved and clear space in the freezer.
The Bearded Butchers are dedicated to providing as much information as we possibly can to help you understand how to best process and prepare meats of all kinds. To help you, we maintain a blog and Youtube channel with lots of free, high-quality information. The Bearded Butchers and Beardedbutchers.com are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This means that The Bearded Butchers may receive a commission if you click on a link above and make a purchase on Amazon.com.