Dry Curing Meat Basics

Learn about the basics of dried curing, how you can start at home, and all of the gourmet foods such as prosciutto or gravlax you can make.

| May 2019

Photo by © Keller + Keller Photography

“Cured meats” are those that have been salted, smoked, and/or dried. Curing is a process that came out of a need to preserve meat before the advent of refrigeration, but today it is mostly used to produce gourmet food like prosciutto or gravlax. In the context of this book, “cured meats” refers to meat that is salted and smoked, such as lox (salmon), country ham, speck, and some types of dried sausage and bacon.

Start with Salt

Whether a cured product is simply dried or smoked and dried, the curing process always begins with salting the meat. “The cure,” as we call it, is generally a salt mixture made up of table salt (sodium chloride), curing salt (sodium nitrite or nitrate), sugar, and a combination of spices and herbs, in a specific ratio and applied for a specific period of time as dictated by the weight of the meat. Because most cured meats do not get cooked, applying the right amount of cure for the right amount of time is crucial for food safety. Not doing so could cause spoilage and allow for ­dangerous bacteria and other microbes to develop in the meat.

When you’re mixing up a cure, base the amount (in weight) of table salt on 2 to 3 percent of the weight of the meat, and follow the manufacturer’s directions for the amount of curing salt (for example, Veg Stable 504 — the industry standard of naturally derived curing salts — calls for using an amount equal to 0.5 percent of the weight of the meat). How long the meat sits in the cure depends on the weight; 1 day per 2 pounds (1 kilogram) ensures that the salt fully penetrates the meat and the right amount of moisture has been removed.

How Salt Affects the Meat

In addition to removing moisture, the addition of salt creates an environment that is inhospitable to the bacteria that cause spoilage, while also encouraging the growth of microbes that preserve the meat and enhance the flavor. The inclusion of sugar in a cure helps to balance out the flavor of the salt and also helps to draw out moisture. Enzymes within the meat begin to break down the sugars and release lactic and acetic acids. These acids begin to break down proteins and fats into smaller molecules like peptides. Over time, these peptides turn into flavor compounds that further enhance the flavor of the meat.

The cure also begins to alter the texture and appearance of the meat. The concentration of salt within the meat loosens the protein strands in the muscle cells, causing them to separate. This results in a silkier texture in the meat. The best example of the effects of cure on meat is prosciutto or jamón. Prosciutto (if you are Italian) or jamón (if you are Spanish) is a ham that is cured with table salt, and sometimes a little sugar and other spices, and hung to dry for a minimum of one year. Many people (myself included) consider it the king of cured meats.



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