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How do you know which kind of salt to use? The first distinction we need to make is between table salt (sodium chloride) and curing salt (sodium nitrate). We’ll focus on table salt first and discuss curing salt next.
For salting meat for smoking and curing, I use either kosher salt or a natural fine white sea salt, simply because they are low in naturally occurring minerals (which could affect the flavor of the cure; look for salt with less than 1 percent other minerals), they don’t have any chemical additives, and they have a consistent grain size (which makes it easier to measure salt in a consistent way). A fine-grain salt will ensure a good, even coating on the meat surface; it also ensures that the salt dissolves evenly and consistently. For this reason, I use a natural fine sea salt that I buy in 50-pound bags from my local food co-op.
What about Kosher Salt?
You may have noticed that many recipes, especially for working with meat, call for kosher salt. It’s called “kosher salt” not because it is kosher, but because it’s used to kosher meat — a process that involves drawing the blood out of the meat. Kosher salt is often called for in cooking with meat because it is a relatively pure salt (only sodium chloride), it has been through a process to remove other minerals, and it doesn’t have iodine added to it (something most other table salts have). Although you don’t need to use kosher salt, you should find a salt that does not have iodine or anti-caking agents added — both of which are common in table salt.
Save the Artisanal Salts for Finishing
Recently, there has been increased interest in artisanal salts from all over the world, with various colors, textures, and flavors: red, black, gray, white, chunky, flaky, round, or flat. These salts are not further processed once they’re mined or harvested (from evaporated sea water). The colors and shapes reflect the various other minerals in the crystals and the natural crystal shapes they form. While these salts are fascinating and fun to use, they’re best used as a finishing salt — to have on the table to sprinkle on a dish once it is cooked and ready to eat. Using artisanal salts on your meats in preparation for smoking is risky, because the naturally occurring minerals found in them can have unexpected effects on your meat. Not only that, the non-uniform shape of the crystals can lead them to dissolve unevenly, which adds more unpredictability to the process.
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Curing salts (sodium nitrite) serve an entirely different purpose than table salt does. Including curing salt in your cure or brine is important when making bacon, hams, or anything that is to be cold smoked. First, nitrites kill a wide range of bacteria, most importantly the one responsible for botulism. Second, nitrites help preserve the meat. The nitrogen bonds with the hemoglobin in the meat, acting as an antioxidant and thus stopping the oxidization of the meat. Oxidization causes meat to become brown or gray and increases the rate at which the meat goes rancid. Third, nitrites add a distinct flavor to the meat that I can best describe as “hammy” — a certain kind of piquant umami.
There are essentially two types of curing salt available: pink salts and plant-derived sodium nitrate powders.
Pink salts are synthetically produced and are dyed pink to avoid confusing them with table salt. The pink dye has nothing to do with the fact that nitrites help meat stay reddish pink. The two types of pink salt are called curing salt #1 and curing salt #2.
- Curing salt #1. This is also called “Prague powder #1” or “Insta Cure #1” and is a combination of sodium nitrite and sodium chloride. It’s used for products that are cured for a shorter amount of time and are cooked, like most hams, bacon, and hot-smoked sausages.
- Curing salt #2. Also known as “Prague powder #2” or “Insta Cure #2,” it is a combination of sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, and sodium chloride. The sodium nitrates break down over time into sodium nitrites, which is why they are used in products that are cured over a long period of time, like jamón, prosciutto, speck, and dry-cured sausages. You can use Cure #1 as a substitute for Cure #2, but you should not use Cure #2 as a substitute for Cure #1.
Then there are vegetable powders that contain sodium nitrites derived from plants. Plants like celery are juiced and then fermented to transform some of their nitrates to nitrite. After the juice is fermented, it is dried, and then its nitrite content is measured. Once the nitrite content is determined, the powder is standardized by adding sodium chloride to it. You can find this sold as celery powder (not to be confused with celery salt) or Veg Stable 504 (sometimes listed as Veg Cure 504 or Veg Powder 504). Plant-derived sodium nitrites can be used as a substitute for both Cure #1 and Cure #2.
Are Curing Salts Safe?
There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about the use of sodium nitrites and a sense that sodium nitrates and nitrates are a harmful, unnecessary additive to meat. To be clear: salt with nitrites in it has been used to cure meat for over a millennium. Anthropological evidence tells us that originally people used saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, for curing meats. In the last century, most people switched to sodium nitrite because it is more consistent in its results than potassium nitrate. Sodium nitrites are a naturally occurring compound that are found in greens like spinach, kale, chard, and celery. There is evidence that sodium nitrites are a carcinogen when consumed in large quantities, but that risk is negligible in a well-balanced, normal diet.
You can buy bacon, ham, salami, and other meats that are labeled “uncured” or “no nitrites added.” However, these products do still have nitrites added to them; the nitrites are just in the form of a dehydrated vegetable like celery. This only adds to the confusion of consumers, unfortunately. Whether the nitrites come from a naturally occurring source like vegetables or are produced in a lab like pink salt, the USDA will not allow processors to produce cured meats without the presence of sodium nitrites.
When weighing the benefits of including nitrites in smoked and cured meats versus the potential risks of not using them, I side on including them. For me, the risk of botulism and spoiled meat outweighs the relatively low risk of heart disease and cancer. That said, I do prefer using naturally occurring nitrites derived from vegetables like celery, chard, or kale, simply out of a preference to use natural ingredients (though there is no conclusive evidence these nitrites are less harmful than those that are synthetically produced). In my own smoking and curing, I use Veg Stable 504.
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Cover Courtesy of Storey Publishing
Excerpted from The Smokehouse Handbook by © Jake Levin. Photography by © Keller + Keller Photography. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.