Dry Curing Meat Basics

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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.

Photo by © Keller + Keller Photography

Hang, Dry, Smoke

After the meat has cured long enough, you can either let it hang to dry in an environment that is around 55°F (13°C) and around 75 percent humidity, or you can smoke it. Smoking helps preserve the meat by allowing it to dry further; the smoke itself also has preservative effects. And as we all know, smoke adds another flavor dimension.

Because curing is about preserving uncooked meat, we generally cold smoke the meat after it’s been in cure, rather than hot smoking it. Notable exceptions to this are some kinds of bacon, ham, and sausage. With cold smoking, temperatures don’t rise above 90°F (32°C), whereas hot smoking smokes and cooks the meat in a temperature range between 175° and 275°F (80° and 135°C).

Tasting the Effects of the Cure: Jamón

Envision a plate of thinly sliced prosciutto or jamón. You take a slice and hold it up before you. The light shines through it like it’s stained glass, an effect that results from the restructuring of the protein strands while the meat is curing. (Uncured meat would remain opaque.)

You place the slice on your tongue and close your eyes, taking in the flavors. You might taste something nutty, maybe a hint of Parmesan, probably something akin to cantaloupe or possibly apple, maybe grass, and some butter. These flavors could only come through because of the process of curing, where the salt removes the water content and concentrates the flavor, while simultaneously creating chemical breakdowns (the enzymes breaking down the proteins and fat cells) that release these hidden flavors (the peptides). Now that your mouth is abuzz with unexpected flavors, you start to chew and the prosciutto virtually melts in your mouth, barely requiring any chewing. This is another result of the restructuring of the protein strands that occurs from the introduction of salt.

More from The Smokehouse Handbook:

Cover Courtesy of Storey Publishing

Excerpted from The Smokehouse Handbookby © Jake Levin. Photography by © Keller + Keller Photography. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.