Using Old Cure Recipes

Recently the subject of old curing recipes has come up on two occasions: once in relation to a recipe from a Jane Grigson book, and the other in respect of an American corned beef recipe. Neither person had any qualms about using the recipe; the questions they asked were unrelated to the advisability of using the cure. However, in using older cure recipes, there are a number of things that we need to consider.

old curing books

The first is the amount of curing salt used on the meat. In old recipes, this will generally be in the form of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), Chile saltpetre (sodium nitrate) or even Sal Prunella - a salt made by fusing saltpetre into balls, which produces minute quantities of potassium nitrite enabling the curing process to start more quickly. Many older recipes contain levels of these salts well above the levels considered safe nowadays.

In 2007, following the advice of some of the best meat scientists in the world, the EU introduced new regulations setting the maximum levels of the nitrite and nitrate curing salts permitted in meat. In the main, a maximum in-going amount of 150 mg per kilogram of meat was agreed, with the scientists expressing the opinion that 50 -100 mg/kg was sufficient for most items. Pressure from the meat trade meant that exceptions were given by EU politicians for some existing products. These exemptions are specifically for existing products. New cures, even those for the same types of product that have an exemption, will need to comply with the new lower levels of 150 mg/kg (Parts Per Million) for most types of product.

Some may see all of this as scaremongering; after all their grandparents ate meat cured with these recipes and lived to tell the tale. They would be happy to use the high levels of saltpetre that old recipes contain. Others will baulk at the use of saltpetre at all. One group of people fear that they'll get cancer from the nitrite or nitrate salts used to cure meat, the other that they'll die from botulism poisoning if they don't.

So where does all this leave us? Well, this is too short an article to discuss the question of the possible link between nitrosamines from nitrites and cancer. There are many scientific papers on the subject for those who want to research it further. What we do know is that vitamin C, usually by way of sodium ascorbate and sodium erythobate; and vitamin E (also known as tocopherol) reduce the chances of nitrosamine formation significantly, as does not overcooking or burning your bacon!

Whilst, with what the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service say about bacon in mind, we may want to take extra precautions when making things like bacon that will be cooked at high temperatures, the majority of our cooked products are unaffected: many won't be cooked at all, and others, such as hams, luncheon meats, hot-dogs etc will be cooked at temperatures of less than half those that caused nitrosamines to form.

As for botulism, although very rare, we ignore it at our peril; it can kill. It's worth noting that there have been very few occurrences of it in countries where the use of curing salts is common-place. However, statistics show that, when it has occurred, an average of 90% of all cases have been caused by 'home sourced' foodstuffs. We don't want to add to those statistics. There is no doubt that the use of nitrite is our best protection against botulism poisoning for the majority of cured meat products that we make. We should also be aware that botulism develops in anaerobic conditions, so vacuum-packed food is particularly susceptible; something to bear in mind if we use that method of storage.

With all of this in mind, it seems sensible to continue to use curing salts when revising old recipes. But to use the minimum amount possible rather than the generous amounts of the past. The EU scientists advise that it's nitrite which does the curing rather than nitrate, such as saltpetre, which only acts as a reserve for subsequent conversion to nitrite by bacteria in the meat. Given this we may choose to use the more modern nitrite cures rather than saltpetre unless we are curing the meat for longer periods of time. However, we need to be aware that a significant part of the flavour of the meat produced by these old meat cures came from the saltpetre that we're intent on reducing.

Believe it or not, there's also those who argue against any reduction in the amount of cure. They say that it's needed for a safe product. To my mind, these people are just in denial. The Danes have been curing meat for years with a lower maximum level of curing salts than the newest EU laws allow with no ill effect. These 'Luddites' may have a valid point if we still cured meat at ambient temperatures, but with modern day refrigeration higher levels of cure, are unjustified. Incidentally, I'm told that the reason that the US levels have much higher limits for nitrates, particularly for dry cured meats are because their rules have to accommodate their traditional 'country' hams that are aged without refrigeration for anything up to 2 - 3 years. On the other hand, the US has specific rules for bacon which prohibit the use of nitrate and have set lower in-going levels of nitrite in injected (pumped) and immersion cure bacon than the EU at 120mg/kg.

It's against this background that we have to look at any older recipes that we want to use. We want to learn from the guys who were producing cured meat in the past, but not ignore what modern science teaches us. We also need to take into account the very different reasons for curing meat in the past. We've already touched on the fact that preservation was a lot higher up the agenda; not only was the amount of saltpetre high, but the salt level was as well. Without long soaking these meats were unpalatable. If we can achieve the flavour of the past but have salt and cure levels appropriate to the types of storage we use today, then to my mind, we'll have succeeded.

So is the answer just to reduce the curing salt, and/or salt, to modern levels?
In my opinion no. And to explain why, we need to know something about how cure works. This isn't the time for too much detail, but put simply nitrite is very reactive and nitrate (saltpetre) isn't. To work saltpetre relies on reacting with bacteria in the meat: nitrite doesn't. In effect, Saltpetre (Nitrate) has to react with the meat to convert itself to nitrite before it can start work! For this reason, nitrite works quickly: saltpetre takes time. The majority of nitrite that you add to meat will react: the amount of saltpetre that reacts is variable - and when I say variable, I mean anything from very little, to nearly all.

On that basis, changing from nitrate to nitrite cures would appear to be the simplest thing to do. And it would be if it wasn't for one thing: saltpetre gives a distinctive and desirable taste to the meat. It's a characteristic of traditionally cured meat. Because of this, many home-curer's will continue to use just saltpetre. They may even continue to use more that the current commercial maximum. Some will choose the 300mg/kg level of the pre-2007 regulations as a good compromise. This level, although not compliant with current legislation, is likely to have residual levels of nitrate below those in many of the exempt products in the new regulations, particularly if cured and matured over longer time periods. Given that they make their decision in full possession of the facts, and are not subject to the laws that govern commercial curing, I have no issue with this. However, I feel that by using a combination of nitrite and nitrate we can have the best of both worlds - flavour from the nitrate and reliable curing from the nitrite.

My own method is to look at the old recipe as two separate elements: the flavourings and the cure. It's then a case of retaining the flavourings but modernising the cure, and adding saltpetre if required for flavour, or when curing for longer periods of time. I generally choose not to use nitrate in bacon or in projects when the total curing plus maturing time is less than 18 - 20 days.

To be more specific the next post analyses two old recipes for dry cures dry cures:

Old Cure Recipes - 2. Dry Cures, the Theory

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There are two comments


It is a little alarming that there are no comments over a month after this very usefull, indeed vital, view of food safety. I am aware there is an anti nanny state/ health and safety .body , but not to put too fine a point on it I wouldnt be fighting for breath with asbstos scars, gained as a 15 year laggers apprentice if the employers, who where fully aware of the dangers since 1915, had been made to put safety rather than profits to the fore. As someone new to dry/wet curing I really do need to know not only why incredibly small amounts are needed but the possible dangers to self and others if the “I,ve always done it using my common sense” rather than an accurate set of .01 scales. comes to the fore. Its too late when the culminative amount oversteps the safe limit. The experts dont always get it wrong, rather safe than sorry?

moggsy5744, - 21-08-’14 09:49

Thanks for your comment Moggsy. Commercial producers are/should be aware of the rules.

Ironically, it’s the very small farm-shop producers and home-curers, whose products are seen as more wholesome, who are likely to be the ones using far too much cure.

Phil, - 21-08-’14 16:04

I'm somewhat incapacitated at present so replies may take some time. Please post urgent enquiries at the forum.

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