Curing Meat &
Curing meat, fermenting foods and other natural ways of preserving foods are something that I’ve relatively recently gotten into. But over the last few years I’ve grown to love making cured meat and other naturally preserved foods such as fermented, dried and smoked foods. These food preparation methods may seem foreign or advanced to those who are inexperienced with them, but they can be done at home to great effect and many are not nearly as difficult as they may first seem.
Curing meat and fermenting foods probably originally started out as accidents but people realized it helped preserve their foods for longer, in the days before refrigeration. However, they quickly discovered that in addition to the natural preservative properties of salted, dried and fermented foods, the process also brought out great depth of flavor and complexity the likes of which were only hinted at in the raw ingredients. These methods can really turn a simple food into something truly special.
So what are cured and fermented foods?
There are several different methods that are used in curing meat and to preserve foods and also add unique new depth of flavor in the process. Some cured meat products use more than one of these techniques. For example, bacon, corned beef & pastrami are all generally made by a multiple step process which includes first curing or brining the meat in a salt and spice mixture, then smoking the meat (although corned beef skips this step), then cooking the meat. Curing meat can also be followed by drying, without cooking or smoking, such as in making proscuitto, beef jerky, bresaola, various dried sausages and others.
In addition to preserving the food and preventing the growth of unhealthy bacteria which could spoil food or make it unsafe to eat, all methods for curing meat use salt. Salt is a magical ingredient which is central to most, if not all, forms of curing meat and other natural preservative methods. Besides the fact that salt just tastes good and naturally prevents growth of bacteria, salt does amazing things when it interacts with various types of foods. For meats and fish, it fundamentally alters the structure of the muscle, making more tender, preserving moisture and bringing out tremendous flavor. For vegetables, it can also transform the food into something new, often accompanied by fermentation which adds more flavors, preservatives and health benefits of its own (such as in kimchi or natural sauerkraut). These different types of preserved foods vary in their technique as well as how difficult they are to accomplish. While curing meat of some types can be quite difficult and require special equipment, such as making dried sausages/salami or large dried meat products like proscuitto, some cured foods are much easier and do not require much specialized equipment, such as beef jerky, sauerkraut, gravlax and such. You can get good at curing meat too!
As a quick overview, here are a few general curing, fermenting and preserving basics. Note that some of these terms have at least partially overlapping meanings and can have slightly different meanings depending on the context:
- Curing - Curing is a very general term which in its simplest form simply refers to any method to preserve meat. In general, this involves some form of salt curing or brining. It can be used to describe the process of making bacon, pastrami, salami and other dried sausages, gravlax & smoked salmon (which is first salt cured before the smoking) and many others. Some forms of curing use only regular salt while others use nitrite and/or nitrate salts in addition to help prevent the growth of unwanted bacteria such as the one that causes botulism. More on nitrites and nitrates later.
- Dry curing - Some forms of curing only add dry ingredients to the meat for the curing meat process. Usually the salt is accompanied by sugar and other flavoring agents such as various herbs, spices and/or garlic. Although these start out dry, in most cases the meat will throw off liquid as it cures, creating an intense brine solution around the meat.
- Brining or wet curing - In this case, curing is done in a brine (salt) solution with a liquid (usually water but can include fruit juice or other liquids). Brining can be done as a simple prelude to cooking, as in the apple cider brined pork tenderloin elsewhere on my site, or it can be followed by other preservation techniques like smoking or dry aging (such as pastrami).
- Canning - Canning is a general term for foods that are sterilized (generally by heating) and then vacuum sealed in an airtight container, most commonly a mason jar. This can be done to foods that have not yet been significantly seasoned or salted, such as in various canned vegetables, or it can be done with an already pickled or otherwise seasoned food, such as with some forms of pickles, dilly beans, olives, pepper and vegetable condiments such as Italian Giardiniera, and others.
- Pickling - Pickling can refer to either using a high acid liquid (such as vinegar) to preserve and flavor foods or using fermentation to produce the acid content that preserves and flavors the food (such as is done with fermented pickles, sauerkraut or kimchi). The high acid that is in the finished product both adds a zingy flavor to the food and helps preserve it.)
- Fermenting - Fermentation is the product by which a microorganism, generally bacteria or yeast, converts compounds in the food product into something else. Now before you go freaking out about bacteria and yeast, this is actually a very natural and healthy way of preparing foods. When done correctly, the bacteria and yeast involved are perfectly healthy and in fact many can have beneficial health benefits of their own. Probiotics are not just something you buy in a capsule at the market or pharmacy, natural probiotics grow in fermented foods and are healthy and safe.
There are different forms of fermentation. One you may be familiar with is alcoholic fermentation, by which sugars in the food/drink are converted to ethanol, the alcohol in alcoholic drinks. This is how the alcohol gets in the wine, beer, mead, and spirits we drink (although the spirits have been further concentrated by subsequent distillation). Other bacteria can then convert the alcohol to acid (as in the production of vinegar). Other forms of fermentation occur in many types of sausages and in cheeses. Finally, lacto fermentation, performed by types of bacteria which are prevalent throughout our environment, including in and on our bodies and on the surface of most fruits and vegetables. These bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid. This type of fermentation therefore lowers the pH of the food (makes it more acidic) which gives a zesty tang to the food and helps preserve it against growth of unfavorable bacteria. This is what creates the flavors of natural sauerkraut and kimchi, amongst other things.
- Smoking - While smoking is sometimes just a cooking method, such as in smoking ribs or a tri tip roast, it can also be done as a part of curing meat or preserving other foods. Low temperature and slow, prolonged smoking not only adds flavor to things like bacon, pastrami, smoked salmon and others, but it also has natural preservative properties of its own.
- Drying or dry aging - Some cured meats, following the curing process, are dried or “dry aged” to evaporate off liquid, concentrate flavors and further preserve the meat. There are many examples of this from simple things like beef jerky to longer dry aged meats like proscuitto, bresaola, speck, coppa and dried sausages like various types of salami. Shorter term drying, such as with the smaller pieces of meat in beef jerky can be done relatively quickly in a food dehydrator or very low temperature oven. However, bigger cuts and sausages which require being hung to dry for several weeks or more (up to over a year for some large cured hams like proscuitto!) need special conditions to dry correctly, including the correct temperature and humidity.
- ”Uncured” foods - This is really kind of a misnomer and misleading to most consumers. For some time, people have been wary of foods that use nitrite and/or nitrates to cure foods. In reality, the risk from these compounds has been greatly exaggerated. These compounds are actually naturally found in many of the vegetables and other foods we eat. However, because of the distrust of these compounds, many newer foods are labeled as uncured. This is misleading in a couple ways. First of all, as I mentioned above, curing is a very general term that describes preservation of meats. Many methods of curing meat only use regular salt and do not require nitrite or nitrate. These foods are “cured” technically, but they don’t contain any added nitrites or nitrates. Furthermore, many foods that are labeled “uncured” simply mean that no nitrite or nitrate has been added. This is also misleading because most of those foods (such as some commercial bacon, hot dogs, sausages, etc.) say “*except those naturally occurring in celery powder and/or sea salt”. In fact, many of these foods have even MORE nitrite/nitrate because they use large amounts of these natural sources of the compounds! So “uncured” does not mean the meat has not been cured or preserved, it is just a tricky way the industry has come up with fooling people into thinking their food contains no nitrites/nitrates when in fact it does. That being said, nitrites/nitrates are critical in preventing botulism in some cured foods so they are a good thing in moderation.
I should say, obviously this section is not about fire pits or grilling. However, I do believe they fit the theme of my site because the most important thing is having fun with food and expanding your repertoire of what you can do and make. Besides, some of these things do use your grill for smoking as at least part of their process. This is a section in progress so please check back for new recipes and tips that are to come soon!
Curing Meat Topics
- All about bacon: Bacon is one of the most popular and widely consumed forms of cured meat. Curing meat in this way, in particular the wonderful fatty pork belly, really makes a magical product that is mouthwateringly delicious either on its own or used as a fat or flavoring agent for other dishes. Below are a few different recipes and thoughts on how to make excellent bacon at home.
- How to Make Bacon: Here is a basic recipe for bacon. It can be tweaked to your liking. For example, if you find it is too salty to your taste, try it with less salt and maybe increase the sugar (or use other types of sugar like honey, brown sugar, maple sugar or syrup, etc.) for a sweeter bacon style.
- Home Made Bacon Tips & Tricks: These are some further tips and techniques to perfect your home made bacon.
- Guanciale: Cured & Dried Pork Jowl: Not well known in the US, pork jowl is a great cut with a velvety fat layered between the meat, very similar to the pork belly used to make bacon and pancetta but with a character all its own. It is a traditional cured meat of Italy and can be either eaten alone or used in other recipes like traditional pasta alla carbonara.
- Traditional Fermented Kimchi Recipe: A traditional Korean specialty, kimchi is seasoned napa cabbage and other veggies, fermented until tangy and full of probiotics. Although it takes some time, it is not hard to make and this homemade recipe will beat anything you can buy in a market!
- Beef jerky: Beef jerky is essentially a cured/marinated and dried meat. I've always loved beef jerky but was always disappointed by recipes I found online. Over several years I've perfected this recipe which I now think is really good!
- Pastrami: Coming Soon!
- Fermented pickles: Coming Soon!
- Sauerkraut: Coming Soon!
- Fresh Sausages: Coming Soon!
- And more soon to come!
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