Jump to content

Recommended Posts

I started my own curing because commercial (supermarket) bacon was expensive, and yet spewed forth horrible white foam in the presence of heat, while shrinking to nearly nothing and tasting of nothing at all.

Twenty years ago, I didn't find any useful information about the seemingly mysterious proprietary curing mixtures (Prague / Instacure) and no one (then) was worried about a link between nitrates and cancer, and I settled on some very old recipes that used saltpetre (alone) in conjunction with common salt. The formula that stuck with me was Jane Grigson's (in Charcuterie & French Pork Cooking, 1967) that mixed saltpetre at the rate of 1 oz to 2 1/2 lbs common salt (1:40 or 2.5%), saying that such a quantity would cure 12 lbs of meat.

The method I have followed for years and years has been to rub quite generous amounts of such a mixture (including sugar and spices) over the surface of either belly or loin in a small food-grade polythene box (ie not vacpacked), and to allow the salts to draw moisture from the meat (lots of it, particularly for the first 3/4 days), and to pour off that liquid and renew the salt with more. Over 7 days, I use between 25-35% of the starting weight of the meat (!) and then the meat is rinsed, dried for several days, smoked and later sliced. I tend to vacpac the sliced bacon, to avoid oxidation, and it emerges dry, NOT too salty (although I do like well-seasoned food) and with a sheen that is very, well, bacon-like. I don't eat much of it: it's an occasional treat, but it's good bacon.

I recently did a review of recipes available online (in places like this forum) circulating between curing enthusiasts, and find that such an approach horrifies. Instead, meat is vacpacked with the same proportion of curing salt that I would use in sausage-making: 2-3%, with a relatively tiny quantity of nitrite and no nitrate at all. I don't doubt that such curing produces safe meat, but can't see how it deals with all that unwanted liquid, nor why I read 'eat within 2-3 weeks, or freeze' recommendations. Bacon used to hang, all winter, from a hook in the larder and keep perfectly for months...

Is there a middle way? Steven Lamb, in the River Cottage Curing Book adopts a similar basic technique to mine (but doesn't use nitrites/nitrates, at all), but his basic cure calls for 500 g common salt + 500 g sugar + spices for 2 kg meat: rubbed on, poured off and repeated. HIs is a 'modern' recipe, but an old-fashioned technique. Obviously, only a tiny proportion of all this salt is being actually absorbed in the meat or it would be impossible to eat (and it isn't) - and yet the basic approach seems to be completely rejected by most curers.

I wondered about trying a hybrid technique: dosing the meat with plenty of salt/sugar (no additives) for a couple of days, first, to draw out all that excessive moisture, and THEN applying a small quantity of cure (perhaps made up with Instacure #1) in a sealed pouch for the remainder of the curing duration, to control the total salt absorption, and to avoid excessive amounts of nitrites. Any thoughts, either on that proposition, specifically, or the general gulf between the two basic approaches?

Edited by CliveUK
  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi Clive and welcome to the forum

On 2/26/2021 at 8:24 AM, CliveUK said:

I started my own curing because commercial (supermarket) bacon was expensive, and yet spewed forth horrible white foam in the presence of heat, while shrinking to nearly nothing and tasting of nothing at all.

I think your experiences are very similar to many of us who go on to make our own bacon. The reason why most commercial bacon produces the white foam is that it is injection cured and ~10% of additional water is added to the meat as the cure is injected. When the bacon is then cooked the additional water is driven out of the meat, along with meat proteins, and it is the proteins denaturing that forms the white foam. When cooking a lot of bacon in a single pan so much water is released from the meat that you end up boiling the bacon slices before the water has had time to evaporate and the bacon starts to fry. Once this has happened the protein starts to also fry and then burn before the meat has fully cooked.

On 2/26/2021 at 8:24 AM, CliveUK said:

Twenty years ago, I didn't find any useful information about the seemingly mysterious proprietary curing mixtures (Prague / Instacure) and no one (then) was worried about a link between nitrates and cancer, and I settled on some very old recipes that used saltpetre (alone) in conjunction with common salt. The formula that stuck with me was Jane Grigson's (in Charcuterie & French Pork Cooking, 1967) that mixed saltpetre at the rate of 1 oz to 2 1/2 lbs common salt (1:40 or 2.5%), saying that such a quantity would cure 12 lbs of meat.

In the 1960 the long term effect of Nitrates/Nitrites on human health were not as well known as they are today. Over the centuries many regional methods were developed for preserving meat and the use of saltpeter was very important. To begin with they would have had to use higher quantities of "saltpeter" as it was not a pure as the chemical grade saltpeter we have today. Also the long term effects of high doses would probably not have been particularly apparent as illness and death from other causes would probably have masked any risk from Nitrate poisoning.

Let us look at the math for the Jane Grigson recipe...

1 ounce of Saltpeter (Potassium Nitrate) = 28.3 grams = 28,300 mg
2.5 Pounds of Salt (Sodium Chloride) = 1.143 Kg
12 Pounds of meat = 5.4 Kg

We can ignore the salt in the calculation as this does not contribute to the amount of nitrate

If applying all of the cure to the whole 5.4 Kg of meat you would end up applying the Nitrate at a concentration of 28,300/5.4 = 5,241 mg/Kg (or ppm)

Bearing in mind that the levels of Nitrite/Nitrate that are considered safe in commercial bacon is 150 mg/Kg then this recipe is 35 times higher than the accepted safe concentration. This is high but when it is put into perspective, a single rasher of bacon weighs about 14 g and so would contain about 73 mg of Nitrate. The lethal dose is accepted to be between 4-50 grams and the toxic dose is between 2-5 grams. You would need to eat a lot of the bacon to reach these amounts. The bigger problem is that this bacon Nitrate would be additional to what you are eating in the rest of your diet. Babies/children are especially susceptible to levels of Nitrate and so this would certainly not be good to feed to them. This also only addresses the short term effect of the Nitrate and not the effects of the longer term exposure.

Bearing in mind that the ingoing Nitrate levels are already very high in this recipe there are further issues with how someone may interpret the phrase "such a quantity would cure 12 lbs of meat". If they interpreted it to mean that it would cure exactly 5.4 Kg of meat then the calculations above remain true - however if the interpreted it as this would  cure "UP TO" 5.4 Kg of meat - and the whole amount was used to cure, say, 2 Kg of meat then the levels would be even more toxic.

On 2/26/2021 at 8:24 AM, CliveUK said:

The method I have followed for years and years has been to rub quite generous amounts of such a mixture (including sugar and spices) over the surface of either belly or loin in a small food-grade polythene box (ie not vacpacked), and to allow the salts to draw moisture from the meat (lots of it, particularly for the first 3/4 days), and to pour off that liquid and renew the salt with more. Over 7 days, I use between 25-35% of the starting weight of the meat (!) and then the meat is rinsed, dried for several days, smoked and later sliced. I tend to vacpac the sliced bacon, to avoid oxidation, and it emerges dry, NOT too salty (although I do like well-seasoned food) and with a sheen that is very, well, bacon-like. I don't eat much of it: it's an occasional treat, but it's good bacon.

This method would certainly help to reduce the amount of Nitrate that enters the meat as much of it would dissolve in the water that is drawn from the meat by the salt and would be washed away. Unfortunately by then adding more of the cure mixture to the meat you introduce so many variables that you no way of knowing just how much Nitrate ends up in the final bacon without having it lab tested. Is it safe or isn't it? Depending on how much of it you eat, and over what period of time, it could end up as slow motion Russian Roulette.

On 2/26/2021 at 8:24 AM, CliveUK said:

I recently did a review of recipes available online (in places like this forum) circulating between curing enthusiasts, and find that such an approach horrifies. Instead, meat is vacpacked with the same proportion of curing salt that I would use in sausage-making: 2-3%, with a relatively tiny quantity of nitrite and no nitrate at all. I don't doubt that such curing produces safe meat, but can't see how it deals with all that unwanted liquid, nor why I read 'eat within 2-3 weeks, or freeze' recommendations. Bacon used to hang, all winter, from a hook in the larder and keep perfectly for months...

Do not confuse the amount of water that is in commercial injection cured bacon (that produces the froth) with the natural residual water that is in the recipes for dry cured bacon. When dry curing bacon you are not adding any additional water. The dry curing process with vac packing does result in water loss as the the salt does draw out moisture (which is released when the pack is opened) and the resting process and the smoking leads to further water loss. The main purpose of vac packing (or curing in a tight sealed plastic bag) is that you know for certain EXACTLY how much of the Nitrate/Nitrite you are adding to your meat. It is safer  and instills higher levels of confidence - especially for people starting out curing.

Yes very high levels of Nitrate/Nitrite will help extend the storage - however it also increases human toxicity. Over time the additional air drying as the meat hangs also contributes to its preservation. Unless you have a cool cellar or an old fashioned larder, it is much harder to develop the same conditions in a modern house. Trying to store it in a modern centrally heated house with low humidity would not be equivalent to what you are suggesting.

On 2/26/2021 at 8:24 AM, CliveUK said:

Is there a middle way? Steven Lamb, in the River Cottage Curing Book adopts a similar basic technique to mine (but doesn't use nitrites/nitrates, at all), but his basic cure calls for 500 g common salt + 500 g sugar + spices for 2 kg meat: rubbed on, poured off and repeated. HIs is a 'modern' recipe, but an old-fashioned technique. Obviously, only a tiny proportion of all this salt is being actually absorbed in the meat or it would be impossible to eat (and it isn't) - and yet the basic approach seems to be completely rejected by most curers.

I have tried the River Cottage curing recipe and to compensate for the lack of Nitrite they use very high quantities of salt (25%). This, and the high amount of sugar, helps to reduce the amount of free water in the meat and therefore inhibit bacterial growth. The sugar is also there to disguise the amount of salt when it is eaten. Such high amounts of sugar in the recipe also results in the bacon burning much quicker when it is being fried. My experience with this recipe is that, even though a relatively small amount of salt is absorbed, it still makes the bacon exceedingly salty - to the point where I could not eat it and ended up using it as lardons. Everyone's salt tolerances are different and from your comment yours appears to be high.

On 2/26/2021 at 8:24 AM, CliveUK said:

I wondered about trying a hybrid technique: dosing the meat with plenty of salt/sugar (no additives) for a couple of days, first, to draw out all that excessive moisture, and THEN applying a small quantity of cure (perhaps made up with Instacure #1) in a sealed pouch for the remainder of the curing duration, to control the total salt absorption, and to avoid excessive amounts of nitrites. Any thoughts, either on that proposition, specifically, or the general gulf between the two basic approaches?

There is no single right way to cure and everyone develops their own variations. The important thing though is to understand exactly what you are doing, or if not follow a recipe that others have previously validated. The safety of any curing method on the forum is governed by our general food safety advice https://www.woodsmokeforum.uk/topic/36-about-woodsmoke-forum-food-safety-advice/. Unfortunately, these days the Jane Grigson method would no longer be considered as being a safe method. 

Unfortunately there are no legal guidelines for home curing (as there are for commercial curing) and, in effect, you are free to eat what you produce. You would get into difficulty though if what you produced at home was unsafe and you had given it to others and it had caused them to become unwell. You certainly would not be able to sell it without your method being proven to the satisfaction of Environmental Health.

It is good that you are thinking laterally and trying to explore different curing options. Unfortunately from experience, and from a legal liability perspective, most curing forums, including this one, would not be able to condone the Jane Grigson method. 

Discussion is great and I think you for your contribution :thumb1:

 

 

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you for your detailed and helpful reply.

A couple of things:

2 hours ago, Wade said:

I have tried the River Cottage curing recipe and to compensate for the lack of Nitrite they use very high quantities of salt (25%).

I don't think that's really fair to the method. Lamb (River Cottage) is against using either nitrate or nitrite additives in principle (if I understand him correctly) and he has plenty of recipes where the salt content is in the 3-5% range, and there's no suggestion that you need 25% in bacon - and it plainly is mostly poured away, again, as salt-saturated brine. It's a method/technique that predates his own recipe and there are plenty of examples to be found, although most of them use saltpetre in conjunction with common salt.

I wouldn't use salt to sugar at 1:1, but the use of sugar to counteract the hardening effect of the salt is also a well-known technique. It interests me that Grigson's recipe only has 1 oz sugar (exactly the same ratio as salt to saltpetre (40:1), and most published recipes suggest a quantity somewhere in between. I use 2:1 - a nice 'sweet cure'.

But I remain troubled by suggestions (widely duplicated across lots of 'modern' recipes) that bacon doesn't keep. Ship's bacon would keep 2 years or more (but was probably almost unbearably salty) and a cottager's bacon would certainly last six months. I'm currently eating a drycured ham and some bresaola that were already a month old at for Christmas and they are both still fabulous. I keep my cured meats in a fridge at 12C, so I'm not suggesting the conditions of a modern centrally heated house, but you said:

2 hours ago, Wade said:

... very high levels of Nitrate/Nitrite will help extend the storage - however it also increases human toxicity. Over time the additional air drying as the meat hangs also contributes to its preservation. Unless you have a cool cellar or an old fashioned larder, it is much harder to develop the same conditions in a modern house.

Which I take to endorse the idea that bacon has a shelf life of 2-3 weeks. Some premium hams are cured and matured for several years before anyone cuts into them (and they're not stored under refrigeration, nor, to be fair, in a centrally heated house) and no one thinks that odd. To play Devil's Advocate: if 'modern' bacon only keeps 3 weeks, it hasn't been fully cured. Nitrites aside, it probably doesn't have enough salt content (and probably too high a water content) to be safe [after 2-3 weeks of refrigeration]. But perhaps I misunderstand?

For my own purposes, I cure and smoke meat for flavour and texture, and not for long-term preservation; but given the time it takes to cure, air-dry, smoke and mature my bacon or salume, I want the product to last a decent while. I don't want to be needing to eat it up before it goes off, nor to waste my efforts by resorting to freezing with the inevitable loss of quality resulting from the freezing process. It seems an odd thing to advocate.

Again, thanks for the opportunity to discuss these issues.

Edited by CliveUK
[Clarification]
Link to post
Share on other sites

 

On 2/26/2021 at 8:24 AM, CliveUK said:

Is there a middle way? Steven Lamb, in the River Cottage Curing Book adopts a similar basic technique to mine (but doesn't use nitrites/nitrates, at all), but his basic cure calls for 500 g common salt + 500 g sugar + spices for 2 kg meat: rubbed on, poured off and repeated. HIs is a 'modern' recipe, but an old-fashioned technique. Obviously, only a tiny proportion of all this salt is being actually absorbed in the meat or it would be impossible to eat (and it isn't) - and yet the basic approach seems to be completely rejected by most curers.

On your first point I was responding to the recipe that you quoted where he was calling for 500 g of salt per 2 Kg of meat - that is 25%. Yes, a lot of the salt will be lost with the run off of the resulting brine - but it would be hard to reproduce between batches and the results (for me anyway) were still WAY too salty. The positive thing about this method is that there is no possibility of there being an excess of Nitrate/Nitrite.

3 hours ago, CliveUK said:

But I remain troubled by suggestions (widely duplicated across lots of 'modern' recipes) that bacon doesn't keep. Ship's bacon would keep 2 years or more (but was probably almost unbearably salty) and a cottager's bacon would certainly last six months. I'm currently eating a drycured ham and some bresaola that were already a month old at for Christmas and they are both still fabulous. I keep my cured meats in a fridge at 12C, so I'm not suggesting the conditions of a modern centrally heated house.

The length of time that "meat" will keep is dependent on several things - and is usually a combination of several. There is also some clarity of meaning needed when we refer to the words we use to describe the types of bacon/meat we are making. Generally the label "dry-cure" in bacon is different to the process used to produce something like Bresaola. Both start with a similar process to introduce the cure into the meat - but generally "dry cure" bacon is only taken as far as the initial curing stage. It still has a relatively high water content (a water activity of ~0.92-0.96) and so is relying totally on the cure and salt to inhibit bacterial growth and prevent the fat from going rancid.
To then get it to the "bacon" that you are referring to that lasts for 2 years in a ship then you have to take the process beyond what most people class as "dry cure" for bacon. It is then being further "air dried" slowly in a humidity controlled environment. This allows for longer term preservation by reducing the water activity 0.9 and below. I have not tasted the type of 2 year old ship bacon to with you refer but I expect it would taste incredibly salty and its low moisture content would give it a texture more similar to jerky.

3 hours ago, CliveUK said:

Which I take to endorse the idea that bacon has a shelf life of 2-3 weeks. Some premium hams are cured and matured for several years before anyone cuts into them (and they're not stored under refrigeration, nor, to be fair, in a centrally heated house) and no one thinks that odd. To play Devil's Advocate: if 'modern' bacon only keeps 3 weeks, it hasn't been fully cured. Nitrites aside, it probably doesn't have enough salt content (and probably too high a water content) to be safe [after 2-3 weeks of refrigeration]. But perhaps I misunderstand?

For my own purposes, I cure and smoke meat for flavour and texture, and not for long-term preservation; but given the time it takes to cure, air-dry, smoke and mature my bacon or salume, I want the product to last a decent while. I don't want to be needing to eat it up before it goes off, nor to waste my efforts by resorting to freezing with the inevitable loss of quality resulting from the freezing process. It seems an odd thing to advocate.

Again, thanks for the opportunity to discuss these issues.

We are taking crossed purposes here. I think that you are trying to mix what people usually call "dry-cured bacon" with air dried meats like Parma ham or Country Ham. Yes the curing process begins in a similar way but the Parma-style hams have to be taken a lot further. If you bought a commercial pack of "dry cured" bacon from a butcher or supermarket you would not get it to last for more than a few weeks in the fridge before it noticeably deteriorated.

Shelf life is also determined by legislation and this is driven by individual producers having to prove to the Environmental Health that their product is safe - usually through lab testing. The relatively high water content of what most people call "bacon" means that the maximum shelf life is about 6-8 weeks (at 4C) before you get signs of spoilage. Take the meat to the point where most people would call it Charcuterie, Bresaola or Country ham etc. then, yes it will last for many months/years.

It is great to discuss the process of curing and the more awareness people have the more informed and confident they become. I am sure that your post has raised questions that others have thought about but have not had the confidence to ask. :thumb1:

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you for taking the trouble to reply further.

Yes, I guess we are really talking about two different things: I don't want my bacon to share any characteristics with the general commercial product. I'm sure it must be possible to buy good bacon produced commercially, but I've no ready access to any, and I doubt I'd want to pay the asking price, when it's so easy to make.

So when I use the term dry-cure, I only do so to differentiate it (by method) from brine-cured bacon (and commercial 'injection' cures are really a species of that latter family, I guess). Typically, my finished bacon (at the point I slice and vac pac it) is at 80-85% of the meat's starting weight, and I won't smoke it until it is. I'm prepared to believe that the white foaming substance that comes from the commercial product is mostly added water, but modern pork production produces 'wetter' meat than in times past anyway, and I want to reduce the water content of the meat significantly. The use of 'abundant' salt, turning that water to brine and then tipping it away, achieves that aim nicely, and while I accept that it is something of a lottery as to just how much salt you end up with in the finished bacon, it certainly isn't the whole 2 1/2 lbs to 12 lbs of meat (along with the 1 oz of saltpetre), because a very high proportion of it is tipped away. So I can say with confidence (but without being able to measure it), that I don't have 35x the permitted level of nitrates when I follow Grigson's recipe, but I cheerfully accept that I probably have a level which would not be permitted in a commercial product.

I haven't tasted 'ship's bacon' either, but within my own lifetime, I know of smallholders that would kill a pig in late Autumn, and keep their own flitches of bacon on hooks in the larder until at least early Summer. It's dry, yes, but it isn't desiccated to the point of being unpalatable - quite the reverse. It has a depth of flavour and a texture that makes you smile from ear to ear. 

To be honest, I can't see any point in producing a facsimile of commercial bacon, needing to be eaten in 2-3 weeks. If the only thing I'm saving is the 10% added water (and about half the direct cost), I just wouldn't bother. It seems to me that what most modern recipes describe as bacon is really petit sale - which I also make myself. I cure slices of pork belly (just the ordinary inexpensive supermarket ones) with a mixture of aromatized salt with saltpetre, using salt at the rate of 5% of the weight of meat. I seal the mixture in a vac pac and put it in the bottom of the fridge for 2-3 weeks. It would be too salty for my taste at 5%, but is simmered in a generous amount of water (changed for fresh after it has first boiled and no longer producing scum) and then cooked for 60 minutes or so. What emerges is full of flavour and not excessively salt, but I wouldn't fry or grill it: it's far too wet. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

×
×
  • Create New...