A close-up of sliced cured meat exhibiting a rich, deep red color with a marbled texture, indicative of the main ingredients in high-quality charcuterie.

Getting to Know the Main Ingredients for Curing Meat

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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.

The main ingredients for curing meats vary between the styles and methods, but one ingredient is always sea salt. I love all the different styles I have discovered for cured meat and use rivals in them at home.

I’ve savored many years making recipes and using the craft of cold smoking, hot smoking, low & slow to dry curing meats.

That one ingredient that unifies, salt specifically sea salt or kosher salt (nothing with additives or anti-caking agents – not iodized table salt ideally).

But it’s not so much the ingredients, I believe it more comes down to the craft and process.

So let me introduce some of these methods below, you will get hooked too!

You also get some types of curing mixtures I’ll touch on.

dry cured meat
Dry Cured Rolled Lamb-cetta – a unique cured meat – I made at home

What are the Main Ingredients for Curing Meat?

Salt is in all meat curing, spices, herbs, and other ingredients can be used. Sweeteners are another main ingredient. Nitrates/nitrites are optional also.

For the above ‘dry curing ‘ cured meat like lonza, prosciutto, pancetta, dry-cured salami & coppa. Curing meat (history of cured meat I wrote about) has quite a wide definition; some people think it’s only charcuterie or salumi.

I like to think of it like any project which involves salting or brining the food and not always for preserving like hot smoking. If you want to check out the mega world of cured meats, I wrote a post researching 50 different kinds, if you want to see the list check it out here.

Pastrami, prosciutto or bacon – these are made very different, the main ingredient in all of them is salt.

So I’ll break down the different curing and smoking projects and some of the main ingredients I use as an overview.

Dry Cured Meat

Dry Cured Beef Braesola with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil & quality Parmesan

Probably one of my favorite types of curing, definitely can be done at home quite easily. Once I got into it for a few years I decided to build myself a DIY curing chamber so that I could have a controlled environment to dry cure meet long-term.

In the most basic definition, dry curing meat involve salting and then drying the meat. Once the meat has dried to 65% of its starting weight it basically has become a type of jerky and you can eat dried meat without cooking. Remember this is a craft and art – so it does involve a decent level of understanding.

In saying that I have been doing it for over 20 years, and I can I have probably less then a dozen ‘outcome’ that were desirable, mostly due to rushing the process and forgetting this is the definition of slow food.

Main Ingredients for Different Meat Curing

Sea Salt

This gets its own section since it really does the work for most meat curing. Depending on the desired outcome it inhibits meat, holds moisture or removes it.

It also helps form the dry pellicle protein layer on the outside of the meat so smoke gas/vapor can adhere to it more easily, is there anything salt can’t do!

Salt is anti-fungal, kills lots of bad bacteria.

Dry Cured Meat Penicillin White Mold
Good Bacteria (Natural Penicillin) on Cured Meat

You know that white growth on salami’s and other dry cured meat? That is good bacteria, penicillin. It protects the meat and lives a happy life, of course, penicillin is used widely in the medical arenas also (Halo-tolerant, can handle the good bacteria).

CURING salts are different, since often these are a mixture of salt, nitrates/nitrities – (you will see more about this below the table).

Many of these variations have DIFFERENT AMOUNTS/RATIOS of nitrates/nitrites, please make sure you have a sound idea of what you are doing with these products.

Curing Salt TypeCountry of Origin
Prague Powder #1United States
Prague Powder #2United States
Sel rose de l’HimalayaFrance
Saltpeter (Potassium Nitrate)Various
InstaCure #1United States
InstaCure #2United States
Sal de nitroMexico
Nitrite SaltVarious
Celery Juice PowderVarious
Fleur de selFrance
Bay SaltUnited Kingdom
Sal de ToscanaItaly
Táble Salt (Sodium Chloride)Various
Pink Curing Salt #1Various
Pink Curing Salt #2Various

Please note that the use of curing salts in food preparation and preservation may have regulatory restrictions in some countries, and their composition can vary. It’s essential to use curing salts in accordance with local food safety guidelines and regulations.

The choice of curing salt may depend on the specific requirements of the recipe and methodology. This is not regular cooking, this is meat curing (link to charcuterie/dry cured meats category list on this site).

I will elaborate on the 2 main used types in the Western World (USA, Oceania, UK).

Pink Curing Salt No. 1

This is salt with the little tiny bit of sodium nitrite.

This just makes sure the meat doesn’t grow bad bacteria. It’s a common ingredient in bacon you buy in the store. The Equilibrium Curing guidelines are to use 0.25% pink curing salt to the total weight of the meat that is being cured (per 2 pounds/1 kg of meat use 2.5 grams).

So as you can imagine, you’re dealing sometimes with less than a few grams depending on how much meat you curing. So accurate scales that get down to 1 or 2 decimal place, is what I find most useful.

Pink-curing salt goes by many names due to all the different marketing involved with it. These include instant cure, prague powder & color quick. Quite a few others too.

Examples of Pink Curing salt No. 1 uses:

  • bacon
  • pastrami
  • jerky
  • corned beef

(Curing projects generally under 30 days, and projects like bacon that will be cooked)

Pink Curing Salt No. 2

No. 2 is used for long-term over 30 days dry curing projects which also includes salami. It has the addition of sodium nitrates over time it’s broken down into sodium nitrite. It works the same way to keep the meat safe from bad bacteria.

Examples for Pink Curing Salt No. 2

  • prosciutto
  • pancetta
  • bresaola
  • lonza/Lonzino
  • pepperoni dry cured salami or picante salami
  • dry cured salami in general (though I don’t for homemade)

Both these curing salts are pink, very bright pink so they don’t get confused with normal salt because they could make you very sick and should be kept well out of reach and a very safe place home.

If you want to check out more information about the difference between pink curing salt No. 1 and No. 2, check it out here.

Pepper & Lard/Fat

Traditionally ingredients are used to cover exposed meat when making prosciutto or parma ham, this seals the exposed meat to prevent any bad bacteria and insects from inhibiting the meat.

Cold Smoked Meat

Cold Smoked Bacon – properly dried

Cold-smoking meat is all about fully curing the meat and then drying it out with smoke in a conducive environment to a point where it is preserved.

I didn’t do cold-smoking meats until I learned a lot about it since many people have concerns about the bacteria growth. Cold smoking dairy products like cream is easy and can be done in an hour, and same with cold-smoking cheese.

Cold Smoking vegetables can also add some crazy flavor angles, I love smoking beetroot and eggplant.

In Europe and the UK, cold smoking is very established both commercially and at home and there doesn’t seem to be the issues that some people have in the United States, like anything it’s just a process to learn. If you want to read a bit more about cold smoking, check it out here.

So definitely salt is the main ingredient for cold smoking (information I created on cold smoking).

Dry Cured Salami

Again of course salt is the main ingredient but dry-cured salami has a few other interesting bits and pieces.

What I have learned is to use a bacteria inoculation one common brand is bactoferm. It comes in a variety of flavors, I think cold smoking dry cured salami is something that you should try once you have done other simple curing projects.

Pink curing salt No. 2 is used because generally speaking a salami will be drying for more than 30 days. The meat is minced which exposes it to the environment with all the invisible things floating around.

Which means there is a slightly higher risk. So inoculating meat and using nitrates & nitrites is common commercials, it protects from botulism. That is why salami-making is considered an advanced meat-curing project.

Low & Slow Hot Smoking

In some States is all about just salt and pepper, but in contrast, there are secret recipes for lathering a brisket or pork butt with stickiness and then coating in sweet spices to produce the almighty bark.

Low & slow has become a massive category in meat smoking and it does overlap a bit with curing since some pitmasters swear by using brine injections or wet brine soaks before the slow smoking is done.

If you making hot smoked bacon, you generally use salt, sugar, and optionally pink curing salt No. 1. Which is basically Low & Slow also.

When I make hot smoked chicken, for instance, I will also be using salt and sugar (sugar approximately half the salt amount).

Fast Hot Smoking

Fast Hot Smoked Fish – yum

So I define this as using direct heat to cook the meat, with wood in between for smoking. There is a rack that keeps the meat and wood apart slightly. Here is my portable smoker in action, great for camping and fishing also.

With the under-an-inch fish fillets above, they took only 4 hours brining, and 1 hour to form a pellicle from hot smoking for just 12 minutes.

Again salt being the main ingredient, I like to run this wee smoker at between 110-140°C/230-285°F for a quick smoking session

Quick Meat Curing – Jerky & Biltong

Some of my favorite protein snacks involved a little bit of meat curing.

When you look at something like jerky or South African biltong which is very similar. It is a super healthy high-protein very low carbohydrate, low salt & low sugar (definitely commercial brands will vary greatly, also USA loves sweetness). Well, it should be low sugar, but a lot of commercial jerky does contain quite a bit of sugar.

For the simplest version of South African-style biltong which is incredibly tasty all you need is sea salt, malt vinegar, and coriander seeds.

Acidity is part of the preservation and flavor of Biltong, not jerky. Often jerky is low-temperature cooked, whilst Biltong is only air dried.

If you want a quick rundown on making simple jerky and biltong, check out this post here.

Other ingredients for Curing Meat

Just thought I’d mention some of the ingredients that match certain cured meats that are favorites other than salt and sugar.

Cured Pork

Pork always goes with sweetness so adding some maple syrup to things like bacon does help enhance flavor.

Of done some experimenting with Asian style spices like allspice or this classic five-spice blend.

It’s amazing what can work, I did a whiskey dry cured cold smoked bacon which turned out good for a hunting trip.

Cured Fish

Gravlax (lox and many other names for similar product) is a classic cured meat dish, with salmon, its origins are in Scandinavia. But all you do is put the salmon and a tray of salt using the salt box method. Dill is the classic spice that’s used also.

You leave it for 24 hours take it out, then slice and try it to check saltiness. You can easily just soak it in fresh water for 30 minutes if it’s too salty.

Thinly slice and enjoy, there is also a popular beetroot-style gravlax that rocks.

Cured Venison/Beef

Juniper berries, garlic, Rosemary, and toasted black pepper are probably some of my favorite flavors to peer up with Didn’t red meat

Cured Jerky/Biltong

When it comes to jerky or biltong other flavors from the classic I like to use are smoked paprika, Chile, cumin, and garlic.

Related Questions

What is Meat Cure Made Of?

Meat cure can mean several things. Generally, pink curing salt is included and for meat cure, there are two types one for short-term under 30 days of curing, and this is for cured bacon. The other main meat cure is designed to limit microbes so the meat can be cured for longer than 30 days.

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