A selection of various cured meats, including cut salami, at a market, with a sign indicating the brand "bertolotti.

Cured Meat vs. Processed Meat (Insights and Links)

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Writer / Enthusiast / Meat Curer / Forager / Harvester | About Tom

For decades, immersed in studying, working, learning, and teaching in the craft of meat curing, now sharing his passion with you through eat cured meat online resource.

Is there a difference between cured meat versus processed meat? Since this site is all about cured meats, I’ve dived in deep to what is the differences and some misinformation that exists around the interweb too.

Looking closer at how meat is prepared, you can begin to appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into the process.

It’s not like following a recipe, it’s a craft and a little magic…(I reckon)

Not only is the quality of meat important to its outcome and flavor but so is the way it is prepared. Curing meat and processing meat seem similar, but are they?

Cured Meat vs. Processed Meat? The main aspect is the traditional vs. commercial curation process. Which includes the ingredients that are added, time of the preparation process, flavor options, regional influences, and the quality of meat selected. Artisanal cured meats are closer to a traditional process.

Salami hanging at the deli large

Since there is a myriad of types of meat that fall under each category (cured or processed), it is hard to say which one you might prefer. 

But, there are clear delineations in the processes and ingredients that go into making these delicious options, and it is important to know both before choosing the type of meat you would like to offer to your friends and family. 

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between cured meat and processed meat.

Traditionally Cured Meat vs. Commercially Cured Meat

Both traditionally cured meat and commercially cured meat have their advantages, and both of these types of meat will satisfy your craving for a delicious meal, but how they are prepared is uniquely different and influences their flavor and overall quality.

It is important to note that traditionally cured and commercially cured meat are both considered to be processed, even though this might not be what you originally thought. 

The term “processed” is not exclusively tied to the commercialization of meat as many are inclined to believe.

Contrarily, meat that has been cured, cooked, smoked, or otherwise prepared is likely to be considered processed. 

“Unprocessed” meat, on the other hand, is found in the butcher or local deli as fresh meat that has no other ingredients added to it.

This could look like beef, chicken, bison, deer, turkey, or even beef if the beef has no ingredients added to it and has not been cured or cooked.

Basically any fresh meat.

Nevertheless, when examining “processed” meat, it is important to recognize that there are two distinct categories including traditionally cured meat and commercially cured meat. 

While commercially cured meat might be what you originally deem as “processed” meat, both commercially cured and traditionally cured meat are considered to be processed, but the techniques by which they are cured and prepared differ greatly. 

How Traditionally and Commercially Cured Meat is Made and Length of the Process

Looking more closely at how traditionally cured meat and commercially cured meat are cured (aka processed) will reveal to you the distinctive differences between the two types of meat. 

As there are many ranges in the types of meat that fall under each category, you can pay attention to these categories as the umbrella under which many selections of meat fall into.

Chartcuterie board home made 7 large
Salt, Meat and Spice – I’ve worked with this style of meat for decades.

Traditionally cured meat undergoes a curation process most typically involving salt (for a salt cure) and a few other natural herbs and spices. 

Additionally, this category of meat is prepared using culturally influenced ingredients and processed.

Think classic Italian or Spanish in this case.

Some traditionally cured meats even require a high-quality selection of a particular breed of animal from a certain region, although this classification is not always required.

ie. Parma Ham – very strict about what breed, what pig is fed, type of salt, and conditions of curing/drying (inspecting monthly).

During the curation process, traditionally cured meat is most often given several months to cure and is aerated in an appropriately arranged setting. 

This includes having a fixed temperature range, exposure to natural elements (such as natural air as opposed to an indoor setting) and then follows the preparation of a skilled artisan who gets the meat ready to be sold, bought, and consumed.

Consequently, traditionally cured meat takes longer to cure than commercially cured meat as the preservatives that are used are natural (salt) and require the natural processes of curation to take place over a more prolonged period.

On the other hand, commercially cured meat might have salt and other natural herbs and spices included in the recipe, but this is not the only component that is added in the curation process of this category of meat. 

Alternatively, commercially cured meat relies on additives and preservatives to cure the meat in a much more efficient manner.

They influence the speed of ‘curing’, especially in terms of salami by increasing the acidity quickly with additives (lowering pH).

This means that commercially cured meat will include ingredients that are not found in nature, but there are chemical agents that advance the manner in which this category of meat will undergo the preparation process and be ready to be sold at the local market.

For me, this is ‘processed’ meat – and often the artisanal or home production of cured meat is clumped together with this processed commercial ‘made for profit at all costs’ type of product.

(Challenge, try and find a product in a mainstream supermarket in the Western world, that has passion for the food, not passion for the profit) – often I find this hard.)

Although you might find commercially sold products that carry the label “uncured”, this is usually followed by an asterisk that includes that there were natural ingredients like celery powder used in the process of curation. (Packaging law failure – since these ‘natural’ concentrated powders are full of the same nitrates/nitrites).

Your body has a ton of nitrates in it all the time by the way and you get tons of nitrates from eating many vegetables.

Here is a scientific paper if you want to go down that rabbit hole.

Vege’s and nitrate info here.

This means that there were no artificial ingredients added (as celery powder is, in fact, natural), but these types of ingredients are not typically used in traditionally cured meat that relies mainly on a salt cure ie. Parma Ham has Salt and Pork – that’s it.

Thus, commercially cured meat undergoes a much more speedy timeline of curation so that commercial producers can “get more for their money” and place more meat on the shelves resulting in higher rates of profit. 

However, their ingredient list is generally much more lengthy because of the speed in which they would like the meat to be cured and ready to be sold.

Ingredients, Flavors, and Regional Influence in Traditionally Cured vs. Commercially Cured Meat.

As mentioned, the process by which meat is cured traditionally versus commercially generally comes down to the ingredients added to preserve the meat. 

Although each process allows the meat to be preserved from the effects of harmful bacteria that would otherwise render the meat unsafe to consume, the ingredients used are far different in each process.

In traditionally cured meat, the simple (natural) ingredients used to cure the meat include a minimal list of salt and a few other natural herbs and spices. 

However, the salt is the real curing agent in this method and the other natural herbs and spices are typically added by artisans for their various flavor components.

Though I am aware certain spices like peppercorns carry antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.

Chilli and many other spices/herbs hold other benefits not often discussed in the mainstream.

On the other hand, commercially cured meat has a much longer ingredient list due to the artificially made additives and preservatives that are used to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. 

Salt and other spices are generally used alongside artificial agents like phosphates added to help the meat retain its moisture once packaged. 

The list is quite prolonged on commercially cured meat, but this is why you will generally find that commercially cured meat has a consistent flavor, texture, and appearance compared to traditionally cured meat which maintains much more natural variety.

I wrote an article post about additives in salami here if you are interested.

The flavor options that come with traditionally cured meat are generally related to the regional or cultural preference of the artisan preparing the meat. 

While commercial producers use a standard recipe, artisans use a traditional recipe but can add in various spices and ingredients to create a unique blend of flavors for a particular batch of traditionally cured meat. 

On the contrary, commercial producers use ingredients like maltodextrin to ensure that every bite of their meat tastes the same. 

While this will likely mean that you will not have a less flavorful bite of commercially cured meat, there is something to be said about the richness that comes from a variety of textures and flavors found in traditionally cured meat. 

Normally with a lot more passion behind it as well.

Now if you want to try making something yourself, check out this intro beginner post I wrote.

Quality of Meat

When looking at traditionally cured meat versus commercially cured meat, you will almost always find that traditionally cured meat uses higher quality meat. 

Commercially cured meat is used to turn the quickest profit, so it is more important that a decent selection be made in an efficient time than it is to use high-quality meat that might take longer to produce.

While this is not always the case, it is a pretty apparent rule of thumb to recognize. Traditionally cured meats rely on the higher quality of meat to enrich the flavor that is produced alongside the spices and natural salt cure. 

Example- Hot Dogs Ingredients

If you look closely at the ingredients in a hot dog, you can begin to more clearly understand the difference between commercially cured (processed) meat and traditionally cured meat. 

Hot dogs, for example, use sodium nitrite, phosphates, enhanced (artificial) flavoring, soy protein concentrates, sugar, corn syrup, maltodextrin, and other ingredients. 

These are used to preserve and flavor the meat so that each hot dog that is commercially produced will mirror (more than just resemble) the other hot dogs that are in the pack next to it.

This is what I would call ‘processed meat’.

Example- Parma Ham (DOP) Ingredients

Parma ham tom 4 large
Parma in Parma and Me

Alternatively, Parma ham DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) uses a traditional cure of the sole ingredient salt, although many artisans use natural spices and herbs to add various flavor varieties. 

Along with the minimal ingredient list of this traditionally cured meat, you will find that only a select breed of pigs can be used to be classified for this type of meat, and they must be from a particular region (Tuscany and Florence). 

This indicates the high quality of the meat as well as the minimal ingredients used in the cure. 

The traditional cure of Parma ham uses minimal ingredients, natural elements, and a prolonged period of cure to get the meat just right and enhance the flavor of this delicacy. 

While it takes more time to produce, the flavor is well worth the wait.

Yes, it’s an investment, these types of things should be valued and appreciated in my opinion. There are still producers like Parma Ham factories that are large-scale but still hold a passion for quality.

Resources and Study I’ve done about the topic has been my involvement in meat curing for decades both domestically and commercially

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