What is cured meat, and what is the difference between uncured vs. cured meat? Use this guide to learn the definition, history, and more.
What Is Cured Meat?
Cured meat is meat that’s had the moisture removed from the meat through a process which is called osmosis. This process also draws off any potentially harmful bacteria. Learning to cure meat will help you increase your food’s shelf life while preserving the natural, delicious flavor of the meat.
Most curing recipes call for a mixture of salt and nitrates to remove moisture while preserving the meat’s natural flavor and color. Curing meat can occur by aging, drying, salting, canning and smoking meat.
What are the Types of Cured Meat?
Cured meat products are commonly found in delis and have become a must in the popular trend of charcuterie boards. Types of cured meat include prosciutto, bacon, salami, pepperoni, bacon, pancetta, pastrami, bologna and pastrami.
History of Cured Meat
Preserving meat is one of the world’s oldest food preservation methods. It dates back to 3000 BC when ancient people groups preserved meat and fish in oil and salt. This technique provided them with protein that was safe to eat during the winter months.
By 200 BC, salt curing was standard throughout Greece and the Roman Empire.
Ancient peoples discovered that meat goes bad quickly, even when kept cold. Salt was the answer to keeping bacteria away from the meat, significantly slowing decay.
Salt pulls water from the meat; without moisture, bacteria has a tough time getting into the meat. It doesn’t last forever but the meat will last much longer.
In 850 BC, nitrates were added to the curing process to help preserve the color and flavor of the meat. Saltpeter was the nitrate used during this time to keep the meat pink.
The Romans would cut up their meat, leaving the bone in, salt it and leave it to dry. The salt would pull the water from the meat. After a time, they would sprinkle it with more salt and place the meat in containers, being careful that the pieces don’t touch.
They covered the meat in wine and straw and placed it in a cool, dry place. When they wanted to eat the meat, they would boil it in milk and then boil it in water. Boiling the meat would help to remove some of the salt. Another method was to store the meat wholly covered in honey.
What is French Charcuterie?
French charcuterie began sometime in the 15th century. Charcuterie means “cooked flesh.” The French were not allowed to sell uncooked pork then, but they could sell cured pork, so they hung the meats in the windows to cure and draw in customers.
Is Smoked Meat Considered Cured?
Yes, smoking meat is a form of curing. Early settlers used a smokehouse to cure large pieces of meat like hams. The meat hung in the house for several weeks above a fire with a lot of smoke. The process would begin after butchering season, which was typically in November.
Then the cured salted meat would last through the following summer.
Native Americans also used the smoking method to cure meat because salt was often hard to come by. They used smokehouses to dry fish, bison, and other native meat.
Methods for Curing Meat
There are five methods for curing meat, but they all fall into two categories: dry curing, and wet curing.
All curing methods use a curing agent like salt in conjunction with spices, herbs and sugar.
What is Dry Curing?
In dry curing, you create a mixture of salt, sodium nitrate, spices and sugar and run the mix onto the meat. The meat is left to hang or placed in a tub for some time, depending on the cut and desired texture.
Dry curing is most commonly used to make dry-cured pork products such as hams, bacon and small cuts of meat.
What is Wet Curing?
Wet curing is also called brining. Place the meat into a salty solution containing water, salt, nitrates, sugar and possibly other flavors. Wet curing works best for smaller cuts of meat. It would take a large ham upwards of six weeks to cure in a brine completely.
Smoke Curing Meat
Smoking is a process that uses low temperatures and long cook times to expose meat to smoke. Smoke meat using smoldering wood or other organic materials.
The process gives the meat a beautifully smokey flavor. Smoking was first used to preserve food, but now it’s most commonly used to enhance the taste of meat.
Combination curing is when you apply dry rub to the meat, and inject the meat with a brine solution. Use this method to shorten the curing time for hams. It speeds the process up because the curing occurs on the outside and inside.
Cure sausage by mixing curing salts with ground meat. The mix sits in the refrigerator, is slowly cured, and the meat is cooked and then eaten.
Is Cured Meat Unhealthy?
Some sodium nitrate and nitrite are linked to cancer. The good news is that the amount of nitrates or nitrites in cured foods tends to be reasonably low. Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are also found naturally in healthy foods, including spinach, beets, pink Himalayan salt, celery, and even in your saliva!
Since curing involves preserving the food by adding a lot of salt, cured meats are high in sodium, however, if you’re using a high-quality sea salt, this shouldn’t be of much concern.
The American Heart Association recommends keeping sodium levels at no more than 1,500 milligrams a day. High sodium levels are linked to hypertension, stroke and cardiovascular disease.
Why Curing Your Own Meat is Important
The health concerns mentioned above are why learning to cure your own meat is so important! During the process, many colorants, additives, and excess sugars are added to all mass-produced cured meats to keep them shelf stable. When you learn to make your own, you take control of what goes into your food.
The home meat curer is free to omit nitrates from home curing altogether since the curing process will kill any botulism anyway. On the home scale, this allows you to create a product with a purity that you cannot find when buying food from the grocery store.
When you make dry-cured pork at home, you can use ingredients that your grandmother would be proud of, like homegrown pork belly, salt, demerara sugar, bay leaves, freshly ground black pepper and juniper berries.
How to Cure Meat at Home
Curing meat at home can be fun, and it’s also an excellent way to experiment with different spices and seasonings to find what you love. Knowing how to cure meat can be intimidating, but the School of Traditional Skills has expert Brandon Sheard to show you step-by-step how to do it correctly and safely.
When you sign up for a risk-free membership, you will have access to Brandon’s class and many more classes led by trusted instructors passionate about the art of homesteading. New classes are added monthly, and each class is designed to build your confidence to master skills without the overwhelm.
With an additional option to cancel anytime, you can confidently enroll with our “See It to Believe It” guarantee. Your journey to learning new skills that highly benefit your family begins today.