An appetizing charcuterie board featuring an assortment of cured meats, olives, cheese, and crackers, artistically arranged on a rustic wooden platter.

Everything You Need to Know About Cured Meats

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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.

Cured meats come in many different formats and types, so it can be hard to categorize some types of cured meats.

This article covers some of the nuances and confusion commonly asked around this website, which is focused on cured meats.

From my teaching, experiences, and practice across all aspects of the art and craft of cured meats, I will give you the most accurate information to a newcomer or inquisitive person.

I will also reference official sites so it won’t just be my knowledge.

Cured meat can be in several categories, all include salt which is the curing process. Whole muscle and salami can be dry-cured types of meat like pancetta or prosciutto. Cured meats can also be cooked and smoked until the meat is at a safe-to-eat internal temperature such as pastrami or smoked ham.

Some confusion online is that nitrates are the aspect of curing since they are often labeled “pink curing salts” in the USA. This comes down to interpretation, however. You are curing meat with salt when not using nitates/nitrites.

Cured meat can be two different main categories:

  • Dry Cured or Wet Brined and Dried
  • Cured and Cooked With or Without Smoke for Flavoring

The first category, salt is used to preserve and flavor the meat before it is dried sometimes it is also cold smoked.

The second category, meat can be cured to hold the moisture on the surface of that meat-curing cooking, which also involves smoking.

This can also encourage drying the outside of the meat if the meat is to be cooked and hot smoked.

Examples of this would be hot smoking with direct heat or even salt wet brining turkey before baking/roasting it.

As mentioned, cured and cooked.

Because there are so many other ways of eating and cooking meat that is not just baking or using in direct low temperature with smoke, such as low and slow smoking. An evolution from early European settlers to America.

You also get cured meats like salami cooked using steam inside a chamber.

Here is a picture of a ‘steamed’ salami where I worked and toured a small, passionate Salami factory in Indianapolis called Smoking Goose.

Salami cotto steamed large
A Cured and Steam Cooked Salami – Salami Cotto, Smoking Goose Indianapolis – embedded with Fennel Seeds

Another type of cured cooked meat is mortadella, an emulsified sausage with a smooth texture that is often simmered or steamed at a low cooking temperature.

Cooked salami giant mortadella italy large
A very large Mortadella, hand-sliced at the supermarket wafer thin on demand, was encrusted with black truffle and pistachio. This was in Umbria, Italy.

The Salami cotto and steamed Mortadella are examples of salt curing which is cooked also (In America the commercial versions that aren’t pure in meat and spices are called bologna or baloney.

Not all cured meats (here is an article about which cured meats need refrigeration) are only salt-dry cured, then dried out.

Cured Meats

Now, we shall break down these categories of cured meats to gain helpful insight into understanding how they are categorized and which you’ve probably tried already.

Curing Meat Always Involves Salt

Whether the cured meat(some cured meats are cooked, more on that here) is dried and preserved. Or cooked and possibly smoked the curing always means there is salt involved which performs a specific task beyond seasoning.

Salt is able to slow down the water activity inside the meat for the dry-cured preserved style. When the water activity slows down, the unwanted bacteria that can spoil meat find the environment inhospitable.

The process is often labeled as binding and diffusion inside the meat.

For Cotto-cooked salami and Mortadella above, salt is used to assist the process of extracting myosin from the meat. This allows the meat to be transformed in binding and texture.

Common Types of Cured Meats

Salt Dry Cured or Wet Brined and Dried (Includes Cold Smoked)

Different cured sausages large
Top Left, Top Right, and Bottom Left represent Dry Cured (Raw Spreadable is a short-term project used in some German recipes, such as Mettwurst, Rohtwurst, or Teewurst). The bottom right shows the second category of cured and cooked.
  • Whole Muscle Dry Cured Meat
  • Salami Dry-Cured Meat
  • Dry Cured Bacon (Needs Cooking)

The outlier in the picture above to this category is the raw spreadable style mentioned, such as Mettwurst. These cured spreadable minced sausages often use salt, sometimes cold smoke, and acidification.

One of the most common and popular types of dry cured meats is Prosciutto de Parma, when made in Italy where it has many regulatory protections that have to be a minimum of 12 months which involves the salt curing phase, and then a careful drying phase.

You may have tried salamis before, but there are many variations available across the world.

Traditional Mediterranean dry-cured salami takes 3 to 10 months to make.

Some of the more mass-produced commercial salamis can be produced in only a few days through acidification rather than traditional drying techniques.

You’ll be familiar with saladis such as Milano, Sweet Italian, Lap Chong, Pepperoni, or Felinoi. Generally speaking, they all have many variations in quality.

The larger scale production often degrades quality (often due to profiteering motivation over passion).

Small operators with passion often will have quality products in my experience.

How You Can Cook with Dry Cured Meats

Most of the dry cured meats that you see below in the list such as prosciutto, braesola, pancetta, and cullatello – are sliced wafer thin and enjoyed on a meeting cheese platter and antipasti or charcuterie board.

This is also due to the salt preservation amount, the thin slices balance the salty aspects.

The larger fat-to-meat ratio dry cured classic Italian meats, such as pancetta or guanciale are often used for a base of rich flavor in classic Italian pasta.

Such as Spaghetti Carbonara and Bucatini all’Amatriciana

Another common way to use prosciutto or possibly pancetta when it is wafer-thin sliced is to wrap it around the cantaloupe, honeydew, or rock melon, as part of an appetizer or entrée.

The sweetness offsets the salty cured meat.

Umbrian prosciutto holder
Classic Umbrian Proscuitto from the Black Pig of Europe, Spoleto, Italy

Cured Cooked/Hot Smoked

  • Hot Smoked Salami
  • Poached/Steamed Salami/Emulisifed Meats
Cured and hot smoked bacon 3 large
Cured and Hot Smoked Bacon
Hot smoked and cured bacon large
It’s hot smoked and cooked, the fat hasn’t fully rendered, and will be refried. A very common type of homemade cured meat in America. Bacon can also be dry cured, cold smoked and air dried.

Cooked and hot smoked cured meat can come in many different forms, whether it’s whole muscle, type of cooked salami, or a cooked emulsified uniform textured sausage salami.

You can also put in this category hotdogs or frankfurters which are emulsified sausages, emulsification simply put, means water has been binded to the meat. It’s been mixed and ground to the point where the meat and fat are uniform.

In a similar way but slightly different, a large mortadella sausage or salami is often sliced very thinly and can be 1 ft or 300 mm wide, like the large-diameter picture at the start of the article.

It’s a similar process to a hot dog with frankfurter, an emulsified cooked type of cured meat sausage, sometimes with smoke, either hot (whilst cooking) or cold, depending on the recipe.

Some large corporations use emulsified sausage, like hot dogs, to add ingredients that are not meat.

The goals are sometimes for holding water (more profitable), preserving (longer shelf life) or flavor enhancers (taste).

It’s easier to hide what is inside the emulsified sausage like a hot dog since it has a paste-smooth texture.

Often though you’ll find many additives, preservatives, and additional binding agents inside a hot dog.

Whilst, many Italian mortadella emulsified meats will only have meat, salt, and spices.

Preparing Cooked/Hot Smoked Cured Meats

Common ways cooked/hot smoked cured meat is used:

  • Pastrami Sandwich: like the Reuben with Pastrami, with Rye Sourdough
  • Hot Dogs: in a bun with tomato and mustard sauce or on a stick
  • Ham and Cheese Sandwich: Slices of cured ham, such as Virginia ham or Black Forest ham, with cheese, lettuce, and often accompanied by mustard or mayonnaise.
  • Mortadella Sandwich: with cheese and sometimes olives.
  • Linguica Sandwich: Portuguese sausage, often served in a bun with onions, peppers, and various condiments.
  • Kielbasa and Sauerkraut: Roasted kielbasa (Polish sausage) served with sauerkraut and sometimes mustard.
  • Andouille Sausage Po’ Boy: A Louisiana-style sandwich made with spicy andouille sausage, often served with Creole mustard and coleslaw.

These are just a few examples of the thousands of ways cooked/hot smoked cured meats are used.

Popular Cured Meats and What They Are

Dry Cured:

Cured MeatOriginDescription
Black Forest HamGermanyDry-cured ham, similar to prosciutto but with a distinct flavor from acorn-fed pigs, is more common than Ibérico
ProsciuttoItalyClassic Dry-cured ham, usually sliced thin and enjoyed as a delicacy. Parma De Prosciutto ingredients – Salt and Pork Only
ChorizoSpain and PortugalFermented sausage made from pork and flavored with paprika. Can be a fresh raw sausage to be cooked also
Dry Cured SalamiItalyVarious types of air-dried sausages, often made with beef and pork. ie. picante, milano, felino, soppressata (can be cooked ver. too)
BresaolaItalyDry Cured, Air-dried beef, typically sliced thinly and served as an appetizer.
Capicola (Coppa)ItalyDry-cured Italian cold cut made from the upper neck, pork shoulder.
Jamón Serrano SpainA premium dry cured meat made from Iberian pigs, aged for exceptional flavor, specific diets, barley, chestnuts, olives, and acorns
Jamón IbéricoSpainCalabrian spreadable dry cured minced meat, very spicy, and soft. Pepperocinco chili from Calabria gives it a unique flavor.
PancettaItalyItalian is typically used in pasta sauces and on charcuterie boards.
LukankaBulgariaA dried, fermented sausage with a slightly sweet and tangy flavor.
NdujaItaly Calabrian spreadable dry cured minced meat, very spicy and soft. Pepperocinco chili from Calabria gives it a unique flavor.

Cooked/Hot Smoked:

Cured MeatOriginDescription
PastramiUSA (Jewish)Wet Cured/Brined and often smoked beef used in sandwiches.
Corned Beef (or other Meat)VariousWet Brined/Pickled, popular in sandwiches. Commercialised heavily.
MortadellaItalyWet Brined/Pickled, popular in sandwiches. Commercialized heavily.
LinguiçaPortugalA spicy, hot smoked sausage often used in Portuguese and Brazilian dishes. Many variations
KielbasaPolandA type of hot smoked Polish sausage, often grilled or roasted.
CervelatSwitzerlandA Swiss sausage made from a mixture of beef and pork. Emulsified like mortadella or frankfurters

History of Cured Meat

After extensively studying history for other articles and books, I’ve seen the development of coarse techniques used tens of thousands of years ago.

For thousands of years prior, it was preservation which was the main reason meat was cured with salt, to last longer through the cold months.

In Tropical and humid areas of the world, you do not find a history of salt curing, its often more focused on sun drying for preservation.

Through refinement during Roman times, dry-cured meats became more like the prosciutto and dry-cured salami that we are familiar with.

History of Cured Meat – an article I wrote

Natural and Synthetic Nitrates

Many of these variations of cured meats have natural or synthetic nitrates, whether the nitrate is derived from a natural form like beetroot or celery, it still has the same effects.

“UnCured” Packaging Explained in the United States

If companies use ‘natural’ forms of nitrates, such as celery or beetroot powder, then

Some of the latest scientific research in the United Kingdom since 2018, has highlighted it is unnecessary to use nitrates.

The motivation for using them commercially has often been to speed up the curing time of the meat and change the pork color when cooked to a more appealing pink rather than the grey color that can sometimes be presented.

https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/mar/23/nitrites-ham-bacon-cancer-risk-additives-meat-industry-confidential–report

Essential and Most Popular Cured Meats

Prosciutto de Parma is the most widely known dry-cured meat

Curing is also picking or wet cure brining; one of the most well-known popular wet-cured meats is Pastrami, which is traditionally a curd beef meat.

The most popular cured meats from different continents of the world below:

  • Europe:
    • Prosciutto (Italy): A dry-cured ham, often sliced thin and enjoyed as an appetizer or in sandwiches.
    • Dy Cured Chorizo (Spain): A spicy sausage made from pork, paprika, and garlic, often used in Spanish and Portuguese cuisine.
    • Dry Cured Salami (Italy): A type of fermented and air-dried sausage that comes in various regional variations.
  • South America:
    • Cecina (Peru): Thinly sliced and salted dried meat, often made from beef or alpaca, served as a snack or appetizer.
  • Asia:
    • Biltong (South Africa): Air-dried and seasoned meat strips, similar to jerky.
    • Lap Cheong (China): A Chinese sausage made from pork and seasonings, often used in stir-fried dishes or as a topping for rice.
    • Himono (Japan): Wet Brine Cured and Dried Fish
  • England:

Links to Official Sites on Meat Curing and Preservation

For technical and studying purposes, here are links to official government departments relating to meat curing.

USDA

National Centre for Home Food Preservation

American Meat Science Association 

Comparing American & Europe Cured Meat

Centre for Food Safety – Hong Kong

How Long Will Cured Meat Stay Safe?

Dry Dry-cured meat is preserved like Proscuitto and tends just to dry out more.

The meat I’ve stored and also made, which is dry cured, has been vacuum packed in a refrigerated environment. It has begun to deteriorate in quality after 3-4 years in the fridge.

Video Links to Dry-Cured Meat

Here is a video I produced that related to the category of dry cured meats.

Other Cited and Referenced Resources:

https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/mar/23/nitrites-ham-bacon-cancer-risk-additives-meat-industry-confidential–report

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curing_(food_preservation)#cite_note-Doward-6


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