Curing is a process where moisture is drawn out of food through osmosis. It is one of the oldest methods of preserving food – especially meat. When properly done, cured meats have an indefinite shelf life. However, curing meat does have a very high learning curve and must be done with care.
How Salt Preserves Food
When you put salt on a food, it will draw water out of the food’s cells. Because the cells become so dry, harmful bacteria are unable to grow there.
Further, the salt makes an acidic environment that harmful bacteria cannot survive in. Helpful bacteria like Lactobacillus are able to survive, and this helps protect the food even further.
Certain bacteria can be inhibited by salt concentrations of just 3%. Others, such as Staphylococcus, are able to survive salt concentrations up to 20%. Thus, it is important that salt curing use at least 20% concentrations.
Often, sugar is also added to the salt during the curing process. The sugar helps preserve the meat by feeding the helpful Lactobacillus bacteria which in turn keep harmful bacteria levels in check.
Honey, corn syrup, and maple syrup also work like sugar for curing. With the exception of bacon, the sugar doesn’t add any flavor. Rather, it balances out the intense flavor of the salt.
Shelf Life of Foods Cured with Salt
Cured meat can last for months or even years, provided that it is hung up to dry somewhere with low-humidity.
However, because the risks of food poisoning are so severe, you shouldn’t rely on salt curing alone to preserve meat.
After curing the meat, it should either be smoked or dehydrated. These methods (when done properly) will dry out the meat enough that bacteria won’t grow.
The meat can (in theory) last indefinitely. You will still have to take care to protect the meat against pests though.
What Type of Salt to Use?
There is a lot of confusion and conflicting advice about what type of salt to use for curing meat. In the past, regular salt was used to cure meat. At some point (probably around the 1800s, according to this history lesson), people started adding saltpeter to their curing mixtures.
Saltpeter is a name for either potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate. Contrary to common belief, saltpeter does not directly preserve food. Rather, certain bacteria in food are resistant to salt. They eat nitrates and then convert them into nitrite (NO3). A reaction then causes the nitrites to turn into nitric oxide (NO).
The nitric oxide then bonds with certain proteins in meat, causing them to turn pink and prevent oxidation. In this way, NO can kill deadly botulism spores and preserve meat.
Note that saltpeter is meant to be used IN ADDITION TO SALT, not instead of salt.
Pink Salt and Prague Powder
Saltpeter used for curing today is typically called pink salt. The reason the salt is pink is because manufacturers add dye to it so you won’t confuse it with regular salt. The pink dye doesn’t actually add color to the cured meat (it’s the curing process with nitrates that does that).
There are two types of pink salt:
- Prague Powder #1: Also called pink salt #1, it contains 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% regular table salt. Use Prague Powder #1 for short-term cures that will be cooked after curing.
- Prague Powder #2: Also called pink salt #2, it contains 6.25% sodium nitrite and 4% sodium nitrate with the remainder being regular table salt. Use Prague Powder #2 for dry curing meats that will not be cooked, such as salamis.
Some recipes will also call for Morton Tender Quick, which is a combination of salt, sugar, and both sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. This isn’t dyed pink, so be careful to store it separately from your table salt.
*Curing salts are not interchangeable. Always use the type of salt called for in the curing recipe!
Is Curing Salt Dangerous?
In large quantities, curing salt can be very toxic. Don’t breathe it in and make sure not to rub your eyes. Keep it away from children. However, they are perfectly safe to use in curing recipes so long as you stick to the recipe.
And what about the risk of cancer from nitrites? Nitrites are actually commonly found in many foods. You’ll get more nitrites from a serving of spinach than from an entire cured salami.
Botulism is a greater danger than nitrites in cured food. So, follow the curing recipe and use the curing salt it calls for!
Alternatives to Curing Salt?
Ideally, you should use curing salt for preserving meat. It simply does a better job of ensuring that botulism spores aren’t able to survive. It is possible to cure meat with regular salt. However, there can be some issues.
The first issue is that table salt is iodized. The iodine in the salt can impart a weird taste in the food. Table salt also often has anti-clumping agents added to it. This can make dry cures get lumpy or sediment to form in brine.
If you are going to cure with regular salt, you should look for non-iodized salt (again, follow the recipe!).
Note that the size of salt grains can vary. This will affect how much salt there actually is in one unit of measurement. For example:
- 1 cup of table salt: weighs approximately 10 ounces
- 1 cup of kosher salt: weighs anywhere from 5 to 8 ounces
Thus, 1 cup of table salt is not the same as 1 cup of kosher salt. To make sure you are using the right amount of salt, you will need to weigh the salt on a scale instead of relying on measuring cups.
Natural Nitrates for Curing Meat
If you want to use regular salt for curing but still want nitrates for preserving, one solution is to use celery juice. The celery juice contains natural nitrates which will work similarly to saltpeter in curing. It’s not as effective as curing salt though, so do this at your own risk.
When you are just beginning, it’s best to follow recipes for curing instead of making up your own concoctions. So, don’t try to substitute celery juice for saltpeter in curing recipes.
Methods of Curing Food with Salt
There are three main ways that salt can be used for curing meat: Dry curing, injecting, and wet curing. However, wet curing is usually the safest to do at home.
Method 1: Dry Curing
This method is best for ham, bacon, and small pieces of meat. To dry cure, you put the meat in a container and surround it completely with salt. The meat should be in a cold environment (such as your fridge) while dry curing.
If you can’t control the temperature and humidity, then dry curing is not safe to do. Thus, it generally isn’t recommended that you try dry curing at home unless you are a professional and have access to microscopes/analytical tools that can be used to check the safety of the meat.
Method 2: Injection Curing
Injecting involves using a syringe to inject a salty brine into the meat. Unless you have access to professional tools though, it is very hard to get the brine evenly distributed throughout the meat. Thus, it generally isn’t recommended for DIY curing.
Method 3: Wet Curing (Submersion)
This is the best method if you are trying to cure small amounts of meat at home. It involves soaking the meat in salty brine. Meat already contains a lot of moisture, but the salt in the brine draws it out to create an equilibrium.
With wet curing, it is very easy to control the amount of salt that you use. The brine will get throughout all of the meat without making “pockets” as can happen with injecting.
Wet curing should be done in a refrigerator. It is important that meat stays submerged under the water during the entire process. If it is exposed to the air, bacteria will quickly start to grow. Small cuts of meat can be wet cured in just a few days. Large cuts of meat can take weeks to wet cure. The meat must be cooked before consumption.
How Much Salt to Use in a Brine?
The USDA recommends using one ounce of curing salt per quart of water. However, you can make a stronger brine if you like your meat very salty.
|Amount of Salt Per Quart of Water|
|Brine Strength (% Salt)||Any Salt||Morton Table Salt||Morton Coarse Kosher Salt|
|5.7% (weak)||2.0 oz.||3 TB.||1⁄4 cup|
|7.5% (weak)||2.7 oz.||1⁄4 cup + 1 tsp.||1⁄3 cup + 1 tsp.|
|15.3% (strong)||6.0 oz.||1⁄2 cup + 1½ TB.||3⁄4 cup + 1½ tsp.|
How to Know When Meat Is Finished Curing?
Curing is part art and part science. There is no exact amount of time that the meat should be left to cure. It depends on your personal tastes, the type of meat, the size/cut of the meat, and the strength of the cure.
However, here are some general guidelines to go by so you know how long curing will take.
Dry Curing Time:
You will know that the meat is cured if it reduces in weight by 35-40%. Large cuts of meat could take weeks or even months to finish!
The only way to know if the dry cure is done is to weigh the meat. Use this formula:
Beginning meat weight X 0.65 = target weight when curing is finished
Wet Curing/Brining Time:
It takes approximately 24 hours for the brine to soak into ½ inch of meat. However, the type of meat, texture, and brine strength can all affect how long you need to cure the meat in a brine.
*Avoid stacking meat in brine. If you stack two pieces of ½ inch meat, you’ve now got a 1-inch slab of meat. It will take longer for the brine to get into the meat.
Here are some general guidelines:
- Weak Brine: 3-4 days per pound
- Stronger Brine: 2 days per pound
If the meat hasn’t been cured long enough, the color will not be uniform throughout. You don’t really have to worry about curing meat too long (assuming that you’ve kept the temperature at a safe level). If the meat got cured too long and is too salty, you can always soak it in plain water to remove some of the saltiness.
Remember that cured meat should be treated as though it is raw meat. To preserve meat with salt, you need to completely displace all of the water in the meat, so curing will take a lot longer! Always play it safe and cook or smoke your meat after curing.
When in doubt, throw it out. It’s better to play it safe than sorry!
Do you cure your own meat? Let us know your tips in the comments below!
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I’ve considered curing meat this way, so this gives me some information on what/what not to do. Thanks for the insight.
Looking to start curing meat incase shtf. Don’t know anything about this except for reading this .
all i want to do is smoke cure, dry, preserve my meat for storage (freezer). what do i need to learn?
I am a Country Boy raised in the Mountains of East Tennessee. We had a farm and raised our own hogs every year. Folks will have you believe that curing meat is a great mystery and art ! Not True! It is a very simple easy way of preserving meat for a very long time. I have seen hams several years old and delicious.
We did it as follows and works every time. Traditionally slaughtered hogs in late fall when the weather gets very cold at night After Thanksgiving.Take fresh slaughtered pork cut into hams, shoulders, side meat and the pork belly. Must be fresh killed and cut up. Place it in a out building on a table, skin side down and cover it with a mixture of salt, black pepper and brown sugar, mixed up say 5lbs salt, a large box of black pepper and two or three pounds brown sugar. (may have to mix up a couple of batches depending on size of hog or if doing a couple of them, Rub in and really cover the meat with this mixture with at least a half inch of it all over the flat sides of the meat on top. Leave it on and next afternoon go back and recover any bare spots showing. It will dissolve from the heat of the meat and start absorbing into the meat.That is all there is to it ! We did it for years this way. Leave it for a couple of months and when ready for some fat back for beans go cut a hunk off and wash it off, trim slightly. cut skin off. slice it and put in beans to cook. Slice some for frying etc. After about February try a shoulder sliced and used just like ham. We always left the hams till spring time and let them really cure good. Trim one slightly to get off outside dried areas, slice and Get ready for some fine fried ham and eggs with the ham grease turning the eggs and gravy a reddish brown color and out of this world taste. Use ham hocks and bones for soup or great pots of beans.
Want something really good in summer get fresh green beans, string them and then use a large darning needle, and heavy thread. String up large ropes of these beans unbroken and hang then up to air dry for a few months. They turn brown and look awful. In winter time, pull off 2/3’s of a pot full of the beans, soak in cold water over night, rinse and then toss in a hunk of side meat, about four ounces, salt and pepper and cook slow for several hours ! Get ready for some of the best “Shuck Beans” you ever tasted !
I use a brine to cure brisket (corning). If done in winter (very cold here) it can be done in a food safe 5 gallon bucket in the garage. Just put a frozen jug of water on top to weigh the meat down. Be cautious about the curing salt. Some recipes can differ, make sure you know if it calls for sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite as the amount used is different.
It takes about 8 to 10 days to cure, just check and turn it daily, and while you are at it stab it all over with the cook fork your turning it with, to help distribute the cure.
Interesting stuff, really like the frozen jug tip to keep the food covered.
Salt types matter in doing this.
How can you tell when the meat is totally cured?
That’s a great question! I’ve updated the post with a more detailed answer. In a nutshell, for WET curing you need about 1 day per 1/2 inch of meat and 3-4 days per pound. You’ll notice an uneven color in the meat if it hasn’t cured long enough.
I love this! It should not be complicated. And how did we do it before refrigeration? I am thinking about doing this with my rabbits. I have seen there is a delicatessen in California that make rabbit pastrami. Wow. Is the cold temperature critical? How would they have done this in warmer climates?
Dumb question maybe . . . If a brined meat needs to be treated like raw meat (v dry cured meat), what’s the benefit of brining it for preservation? Won’t it still require refrigeration? How is this beneficial in survival eating? Why not just keep the meat unbrined or dry cure it? Also does of brining or curing change the nutritional value of the meats?
Curing is also used to turn a fresh ham into a City ham, a beef brisket into a corned beef brisket or a pork belly into cured bacon. It can be accomplished in days rather than months that dry cured preserved meats take. Also wet curing is normally followed by smoking.
I believe I read that table salt is good to use. I was under the impression that the iodine in table salt will concentrate in the meat and that is not good. I always use kosher salt or pickling salt – something without iodine – and I always weigh the salt, no volumes. Much more accurate.
DON’T use #2 cure to make Brine! it is for meat that will be dried and no require refrigeration, and these meats are whole pieces like a whole fresh(green)ham which is the rear legs of a hog, and the front is called a picnic ham. the pork neck makes capicola, and
so does the coppa muscle in the Boston butt or pork shoulder-same thing!
#2 is a dry rub on the outside of meat, and takes about 2days/pound to cure the meat and it is applied all over the meat. the rule of thumb is 1.134gram per pound of meat, refrigerate the meat and it will drain moisture from the meat, and then rinse off the cure at the end of the curing period, and hang it up to dry. I use a pillow case to put my meat in, like a leg of lamb, a ham, they are whole large cuts of meats.
I find that if u just sprinkle the #2 cure on, it comes out to be very near the rate above even without measuring it .
if u r going to smoke sausage, it should have cure in it. botulism can grow very quickly in the casing and u can get a lot of people very sick by eating it without any cure!!
We hang our meat in smoke house after salt curing
I live in France and it’s impossible to get my hands on cure #2 !
Can I try to find the different ingredients and mix them to have cure#2 ?
Thank you !
I would recommend asking in your local deli what they use. Otherwise, if you can find the base ingredients, you could use a kitchen scale to carefully mix up your own #2 powder.
Prague powder #1 and 2 are available in Europe. Salt only cures can be used but botulism is mitigated by the Prague powder. Also, Staphylococcus can survive up to a 20% salt concentration.
I make salt crured meats using beef, pork and venison. 2.5% Kosher salt and .25% #2 cure.
For flavor I’ve used fresh rosemary, fennel seed, cayenne, juniperberries, and other dried herbs.
Initial cure takes place in the fridge with the meat vacuum sealed.
I then dry in a beef bung over my sink until 35% weight loss, then back in the vacuum sealed bag in the fridge to address case hardening. I often add a few drops of wine or bourbon at this point.
That sounds delicious!
I plan to salt and sugar cure a hog, in 2 food grade plastic barrels. How much sugar and how much salt should I use per gallon of water.
I plan to smoke in a smoke house after.
When you are talking about botulism, you are talking about an organism that will produce a deadly toxin in the absence of 0xygen. This is a way to get yourself dead.
If there is an extended electric outage, can I cook meats in my freezer and use pink salt or table salt to extend the preservation, even if for a little?
Thank you, Tammy
I’m not sure what you mean by “cook meat” in the freezer.
“Cook frozen meat from freezer” i believe is the question
i salt cure fish and i eat fish with breakfast then every morning with toasted bread and cheese and confiture. it is delicious that way.
You need a minimum of 18 grams of salt plus 4 grams of sugar per 1 kilo or 2.2 pounds of meat for low sodium salami. The lean meat 70% can be mixed with a maximum of 30% pork fat or less 80%x20% or 85%x15%. You can salt cure only with 4 to 5 teaspoons(24-28gr salt) per kilo of meat. For a salami or whole piece of meat 1 inch-2.5 cm to 1.5 inch-4 cm, the dry time is 21 days or a bit over, for meats or ticker 3-4 inches (7-10 cm) salamis the curing time is 6 to 8 weeks. If you are making salami mix the spices and salt or sugar and leave in a colder area or the fridge for 72 hours before filling it up in the salami casings. if you are making whole pieces of meats, salt, and/or sugar the meats with 20-24 gr salt, you can add up from 2 to 8 gr of sugar per kilo to the meat, sprinkle the spices all over the meat, put it in a plastic bag and turn it every day, keep in the fridge for 10-14 days and put it to dry outside in a dry and windy area, until the meat loses 35% of its original weight. You can put up to 5 teaspoons of salt per kilo of meat, but the final product will be pretty salty, and anything over 30 grams of salt per kilo will make your dry-cured meats inedible.You do not need to put Prague salt 1 or 2(pink salt), into the salt mix for dry curing, this is the centuries-old technique used in Europe for making the famous French, Italian, Spanish, and the numerous Balkan nations dry hams or salamis
I used a combo of injection/wet curing to turn a fresh ham into a city ham very quickly- 4 days. The only downside to quick curing is all skin and most of fat must be trimmed to allow cure penetration. Eatcuredmeat has a calculator for both dry and wet curing methods- just plug in weight and method to get water, salt, Prague powder quantities.
I make venison jerky by curing it in combo of liquid smoke and salt brine for 48 to 72 hours in fridge and then dehydrate it in oven. lasts a long time and is comparable to store bought jerky if not better. thanks.
Excellent information. My question is rather different.
I made Pastrami recipe in Water Immersion system for 2.5 hours at 75 degrees celcius (167 fahrenhite). The result was perfect but I need to know how to dry the output. The meat already lost 30% of its water content in the vacuum bag. Can anyone help?
In an extended power outage in a warm/hot, humid place (as mine is year-round), is injection the only way to preserve any meat that was stored in my freezer?
Or can another method be modified to use safely without refrigeration, temperature/humidity control etc?
That’s tricky. Curing could be used to preserve meat in a power outage. However, you should learn to do this BEFORE a power outage hits. Otherwise, you risk all of your meat going bad and not having a way to find out whether you did the process correctly.
i have brown sugar cured bacon from pigs we raised. don’t raise any animals now except chickens. i do however, make corned beef brisket a couple times a year because what i make tastes better than the supermarket stuff and because i know exactly what really went into it. 🙂
my father grew up on a farm without electricity. so, they waited until serious freeze time to butcher pigs. most of the pork sides were simply hung in the shed on the northside of the house, where it stayed frozen until all eaten up. when pork was wanted for supper, someone went out to the shed and whacked off a chunk and brought it into the house to thaw. it certainly simplified packaging and used only hanging space in the small shed.