We’re not going to perform a full treatment of meat curing in this publication. You don’t have to be an expert to cure meat, although producers would have you believe that you do. They are protecting their proprietary corner of the market. Remember, illiterate, unscientific, ancient populations were curing meat successfully without even knowing why it worked. We’re gonna shoot for something in about the middle of that knowledge curve.
First we settle the debate. There was and is a school of thought that argues that curing using Sodium Nitrate ( NaNO3), and Sodium Nitrite ( NaNO2), is not safe. Fine. Maybe it’s not. But it’s been in use for thousands of years, and margarine turned out not to be so great for us either, not to mention Coke. These two anti-bacterial ingredients are added in extraordinarily small amounts, a tiny per cent of an even smaller per cent of the weight of the raw meat. Scientific studies haves debunked all the claims of evilness, and, in fact, raw celery and our own mouths have much higher concentrations of nitrites and nitrates than do any cured meat.
Curing mixes/recipes need to be calculated very carefully, and by weight, preferably, as opposed to by volume. Too much salt leaves you with an inedible product. No matter what people tell you, there really isn’t any way to remove it once you’re done. Not enough salt leaves your meat vulnerable to spoilage, despite frequent claims that “they put way too much salt in those cured meat products, you can do with a lot less.”
The fact is, producers pay very close to their formulae, and are reluctant to share them. Curing mixes always contain salt, sugar, and “Prague powder,” also known as Pink Salt (not the Himalayan kind), or just “Curing salt.” This product is predominately regular salt too, with 6.25% of Sodium Nitrite dispersed in it, to protect against over use.
Typically, Prague powder comprises no more than .25% of the weight of the meat. Salt, itself, comprises somewhere between 2% and 3% of the weight of the meat. What this means is that the basic cure by volume, tablespoons, cups, whatever, is:
8 parts salt,
4 parts sugar,
1 part Prague powder.
The simplest application is to energetically apply 1 Tablespoon/lb. of this mixture to cure almost any meat. Use gloves and make sure every square millimeter is exposed. This can be used to make bacon, corned beef, city ham, any number of simple cured products. It can be used to make sausage, but there is no wait–the effect is instantaneous. Otherwise, dry curing should be allowed at least 5 days/inch from surface to center to fully penetrate, and the meat should be flipped and moved around periodically.
Simple sugars can penetrate the muscle, but, extremely slowly, and serve mostly to disperse the salt evenly over the surface of the meat during application. As you can see, the amount of Sodium Nitrite used is miniscule. Prague powder also has a tiny bit of pink dye so that it is not confused with table salt.
Once the curing is done, the meat is ready for sous vide processing. Things like pastrami that have rubs should be sv processed first, and then rubbed so you can smoke pastrami, etc. Rubs in the bag dissolve into the purge, and cannot penetrate the meat. Individual recipes tell you how to create the crust, pellicle, bark, etc.
The dye in Prague powder is NOT responsible for the pink color of cured meats, as I mentioned before. There are other flavorings in many curing mixes, recipes call for pepper, garlic, herbs, etc., but none of them make any contribution to the curing process, they are surface treatments only. Some mixes have dyes in them that can penetrate the protein matrix, but all other flavonoids are too large to perform this function. Again, people will tell you different, but, the science says no.
Dry brining vs/wet brining can be confusing. Linguistically, a “brine” cannot be “dry.” Dry brining refers to applying the powdered cure directly to the meat. “Wet” brining refers to dissolving the curing solution in water, and submerging the meat in it. Dry cure penetrates the meat FASTER than a wet brine will, as counterintuitive as this seems. Dry curing usually takes anywhere from three days to one week per inch to penetrate, from surface to center; wet brining takes about twice that long.
The science says that nitrites, applied in those carefully measured amounts, are not only completely safe, but effective in preventing the growth of Clostridium Botulinum (Botulism), and even Salmonella and E. Coli.
If curing was as dangerous as its opponents said it was, surely humans would have been long gone by now. Anywhere that salt occurred naturally, which is just about everywhere, people were usually quick to discover that applying it to raw meat (and seafood) would help prevent it from spoiling. They almost certainly didn’t know WHY, however. Salt and its nitrous cousins are just about the only things that will penetrate the complex matrix of proteins that comprise muscle. Not only is it toxic to most bacteria in small concentrations, it also changes the amount of “available” water in the meat.
“FATTOM” is an acronym that refers to the conditions that control bacteria’s ability to survive. It stands for “Food, Acidity, Time, Temperature, Oxygen, and Moisture.” As you can probably see, it applies to many other organisms, too. All of these components are altered to preserve food. As for the curing of meat, limiting available moisture through application of salt is probably the dominant principle. There is also a chemical reaction caused by the nitrites that results in the meat developing the characteristic texture and pink color—this is not the result of food coloring, as some people might believe.