Can I Cure Meat Without Nitrates/Nitrites (Pink Curing Salt)

Over the years I’ve done a lot of meat curing using sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. Another name for these is pink curing salt. A question that comes up a lot around here, is whether you need to use them to make cured meats.

Curing meat also has a wide meaning, whether it’s dry cured or smoked/cooked (hot smoking). So it’s dependent on what the meat curing project is as well.

I must have bought I first pink curing salt like 15 years ago, and boy it does last a long time. Although, these days for certain project I tend to use it less.

My general answer in summary to this question would be.

Not Using Pink Curing Salt to cure meat is an option. Generally speaking, it is used to lessen the risk of Botulism, and add a pink color. The application is a personal choice, the other factors of meat curing need to be strictly adhered to if pink curing salt is not used.

There are a few other names that pink curing salt is called:

  • Prague Powder
  • Instacure
  • Quick Cure
  • Tinted Curing Mix
Many varieties nearly 200 pounds or 100 kg of salami!

There are many other names around the global meat curing community, which I have been a part of for some time!

The majority of meat curing I do is at home using some form of nitrate or nitrite @ 0.25% equilibrium cure.

So that means, 0.25% of the weight of the meat is 1000gram to 2.5g of pink curing salt.

It’s pretty much a must for any commercial producer of cured meats, and also for other types of processed meats due to many regulations across the Western World.

These regulation help the risk management perspective for commercial products.

Botulism is the reason why. You find more about Botulism on this below.

I do not use pink curing salt often for whole muscle meat curing and for making my dry-cured bacon. But I’ve also had nearly 2 decades of experience.

This is based on the research that pink curing salt has the potential when cooked at high heat over 350°F or 180°C to turn into nitrosamines and could form carcinogens. Carcinogens are associated with the risk of cancer.

So, when I want something to be crispy or cooked over 180°C/350 F, it will be without pink curing salt.

Curing Meat Without Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite

My main concern is adding nitrites and nitrates to cured meats and cooking it over 350°F/180°C as mentioned.

So, I do not add them to my dry cured cold smoked bacon, since I like my bacon crispy!

If I’m cooking Italian with dry-cured pancetta which is pork belly that’s been dry salt-cured and then dried out to either be eaten or cooked with. Spaghetti Carbonara is traditionally made with pancetta which is fried, so I don’t use pink curing salts.

I’ve been making a type of Hungarian dry-cured salami which is cold smoked for three sessions over three days.

It’s an odd product because it has just enough salt in it to be cured. It is fried up like a fresh sausage (around the 1.8-2% total salt equilibrium cured).

Cold Smoking Salami
Cold Smoking Hungarian Salami

Traditionally this is a cold-smoked salami/sausage that is cooked, and because of this, I don’t use pink curing salt. These are sheep casing diameter-type salamis so they only take 4 to 6 weeks to dry out (they are thin).

For long-term dry-cured salami that takes 3 to 6 months to make, I have been using pink curing salt no. 2 for experiments with and without it. I feel my technique is refined enough now to not have any risk issues around botulism with this.

What Does Pink Curing Salt Do to the Meat?

Main reason why pink curing salt is used, it inhibits and reduces the chance of botulism.

It also tends to produce a pinkish color to the meat that is cooked or smoked. This is why the dry-cured smoked bacon you buy in supermarkets is always pink, and without the presence of sodium nitrite, it would possibly be greyish.

Grey is not a marketable color for meat, like, for example, grey deli ham! (Note! Some salts carry some form of natural nitrate, they could create the pink color, too.)

Can’t say this is true – but some believe pink curing salt creates more of the porky flavor.

The Definition of Curing & How it Relates

Curing is using salt for water binding and diffusion – whether this is done using a dry salt curing mix or a wet brine curing mix.

Pink curing salt is generally 90% salt, and the remaining amount of no. 1 or no. 2 is sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. If you want to read more about these different types of pink curing salts here is a link I wrote.

What are Nitrates or Nitrites?

A quick summary about it…

Pink curing salt no. 1 is generally used for under 30 days meat curing projects. It only contains sodium nitrite and salt.

Pink curing salt no. 2 is used for over 30 days meat curing, most commonly whole muscle dry-cured long-term projects and dry-cured salami. This will take 2 months up to 8 months or years to develop (5 years for Jamon/ Iberian Ham!)

No. 2 has nitrates and nitrites and I believe that within a few months the nitrates breakdown into nitrites.

Where Are Nitrates Naturally Found?

80% of the nitrates we consume as humans are from vegetables. 5% in Europe is from cured meats. They do quite a lot of cured meats too!

Supposedly we have nitrates occurring naturally in our bodies and in the soil.

It’s the heat and reaction that seems to create issues, but of course moderation is important too.

Different Types of Meat Curing

Dry Curing or Wet Curing and then Cooking and Smoking

On my blog (eatcuredmeat.com) I categorize cured meat as hot smoking, that’s a simple cure for meat I plan to smoke/cook – like fish, I catch.

For wild turkey meat or pastrami I directly cook and smoke at a temperature of around 200°F or 100°C.

Examples of Hot Smoked Products

  • Pastrami
  • Deli Ham, Ham on the Bone or Off the Bone
  • Snack Sticks

Warm smoked products are another category that many are not familiar with. In Europe the meat is smoked in winter temperature around 0°C or 30°F.

I realize for meat being in this temperature (90-140°F/30-60°C)is called the danger zone.

What sometimes doesn’t get taken into account is the meat been salt-cured or wet brine-cured? At these temperatures, this will have a large impact on inhibiting or slowing bacterial growth, depending on the amount of salt.

Warm Smoked Products

  • Eastern European Sausages / Salamis
  • Certain Hams

Dry Curing Only without Cooking

My method is to dry cure meat just with salt and spices to create some of the Italian classics or Spanish styles.

Dry Cured Products

  • Dry Cured Whole Muscle -Prosciutto, Braesola, Pancetta
  • Dry Cured Salami – Soppresatta, Picante, Genoa,

Curing then Cooking/Smoking then Cooking Again

  • Hot Smoked Bacon
  • Deli Ham

This is a personal preference where people may cure meat without pink curing salt – or cure bacon and hot smoke it to a safe meat internal temperature.

Then they often freeze it up and cook it again to make it crispy. This is an area where it’s better without nitrites.

Research on Botulism Cases

For the 2017 Statistics On Botulism there were = 19 cases.

Here is how each one happened:

Food-borne botulism cases were reported from California (n=15) and Alaska (n=4). Among the 15 toxin type A food-borne botulism cases in California: 10 were from an outbreak linked to nacho cheese at a convenience store, two were from an outbreak linked to an herbal deer antler tea, one was from a suspected soup with bulging lid (no testing), and two were not linked to a known food source. (Table1) Among the four toxin type E food-borne botulism cases in Alaska: 3 were from an outbreak linked to seal blubber with seal oil, and one was linked to dried herring in seal oil (Table 2a). The median age of patients was 42 years (range: 14–85 years); 11 were men. 3 deaths were reported

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/botulism/surveillance.html

Looking back at 2017-2014 the statistics of the centers for Disease Control and Prevention show there are 100 to 200 botulism cases per year botulism cases in the United States. But if you read through the descriptions, Canning comes up the odd time for food-born botulism.

You will notice that it’s mainly issues around traditional indigenous preparation of seal meat that takes most of the statistics for food-borne botulism.

Dried fish came up once when I read back through some years, but I don’t know if this is related to adding any salt, dry curing and brining.

Amount of Nitrates & Nitirites Consumed

The key is always moderation, I know most of us like the convenient food of processed goodness from the deli. It’s a pity that so much food across the Western world is full of additives, preservatives, and, of course, nitrites.

Moderating the intake is one aspect. In my opinion, It is obvious there is no passion or care instilled for making cheap convenient food, but it’s part of feeding the masses!

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this information on meat curing. I am just starting the journey, so I am reading and learning all I can before raising the meat and buying the salt. Your insights are very helpful.

  2. Hello,

    I’m interested in your course. I have a problem though and I haven’t seen much information anywhere on how to solve it. I live in Japan and Sodium Nitrate and Potassium Nitrate are near impossible to get without a license that is only available to people in the food industry. Importing them is also strictly regulated, and illegal for average citizens as far as I can tell. If you know of a viable solution, I will buy your course. Thank you.

    1. Author

      For whole muscle dry curing, I don’t use nitrate or nitrite, that is my choice, it’s worked out very well for decades! Cheers Tom

    2. I live in Guatemala and have the same problem but I’ve made a couple hundred types of salami with adding red wine and garlic that I let let out over night use fresh meat and clean your area I’ve never had an issue

  3. Thank you so much for the informative article. Your course sounds awesome.

    Is it possible to cure meat with Himalayan salt? We’ve been curing sausage (summer sausage, ground hot sausage, breakfast sausage, salami, brats, polish, and snack sticks) for years and we’d really like to get away from the nitrates/nitrites. Hopefully this isn’t too stupid of a question. 😬

    Thank you!

    1. Author

      Hey thanks for that.
      I’ve used Himalayan Pink Salt for dry curing and smoked meats also – all come out great! However, there seems to be alot of trace elements in Himalayan Salt, so I prefer to use pure sea salt with no additives.
      But it’s salt with trace minerals, I haven’t seen nitrates/nitrites in it. And yeah it’s not Pink Curing Salt!

      Here is another article I wrote about it:
      https://eatcuredmeat.com/is-himalayan-pink-salt-good-for-curing-meat/
      All the best,
      Tom

  4. Thank you for the wonderful article, and I am definitely interested in your course and will be looking into it once my new years diet fails or works and finishes lol. In the mean time, I am wondering on if there are other resources you like on the topic of the curing salts. It’s Soprressata time for me again, and we have never used curing salts, only plenty of regular salt. I am trying to figure out how at risk we are, if the recipe has changed or had the curing salts lost from it, or if we are just fine the way it is.

    1. Author

      Hey there, I can’t say or tell you which way to go. The purpose of nitrates/nitrites is to reduce the risk of botulism – personally, I’ve done quite a bit of research on statistics of botulism and how it happens. Dry curing meat does not appear to dominate.
      The quality of the meat (freshness and how it was handled before and after death), hygiene, the process I think will of course all factor into it.
      For certain traditional Eastern European salami recipes, I do not use nitrates/nitrites. They are cold smoked for 15-20 hours (3 sessions) And have salt, garlic, cumin, paprika. As you may know, many spices also carry beneficial properties to meat curing. As well as cold smoke has antifungal and antibacterial properties.
      Cheers Tom

  5. I left a comment, but neglected to say thank you again to Tom for the wonderful article, and thank you if he takes the time to read it and/or respond. My deepest apologies. Thank you much, and thank you Tom.

  6. Thank You
    Terrific guidance. With your assistance and inspiration I have decided to give it a try. Starting with pork loin and beef round. Both are curing in sea salt only NO NITRATES OR NITRITES !
    I will all 3 days per pound to cure, rinse and hand to dry age in my fridge to the loss of 35% of its weight.
    Wishing me luck 👍

    Thank you again for the guided article above.

    Gary

  7. Hey tom, amazing article, thank you!

    For fresh pork sausages without curing salt, do you know if there’s a safe cooking temperature that would kill the botulism bacteria?

    Thank you!

  8. Hi Tom,
    Firstly, thank you for such an informative blog post. It’s really helpful for people like me, starting out on their meat curing journey.
    I’ve just purchased a meat grinder, and am hoping to make some cured sausages, both cooked/smoked, and also dried (salamis, etc). If I’ve understood you correctly, I should be able to get away with curing sausages without curing salts (but only with natural sea salt), especially if they’re hot smoked – is that right? Can I also check if 2% salt is sufficient (when not using curing salts), or if I should increase that to 3%? I do not add sugar to my curing mix though, so I’m not sure if 3% salt would be too salty.

    Also, if I were to attempt salamis without curing salts, what other factors of meat curing should I adhere to, to ensure safety for consumption?

    My short experience (a few weeks) with curing meats has so far has been with cured bacon (excess salt method, when I didn’t know any better, then dry cured EQ, but I’ve found the bacon to turn out too dry, and I’m now wet curing bacon with the EQ method), and ham (excess salt wet brined, but at the moment wet brined EQ), both without curing salts.

    Really excited to learn more and make more! Thanks again for your blog – I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts, and am learning heaps!

    1. Author

      Heya, cheers for the passionate comment! I could spend all day writing a reply about salami, but you are right 2% for salami is good, some do 3% that’s too salty for me.
      pink curing salts and all the names it goes by is primarily to target botulism.
      pack salami tight, make sure you are clean and just above freezing temp when dealing with minced meat. I am finishing off my bacon course, but salami course would probably take me half a year to put together to be honest its got alot of nuances!

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