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How is Cured Meat Made?

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.

(Last Updated On: May 8, 2023)

Cured meat can be made in many different ways, this article will go into quite a bit of detail about how cured meat is made, the different ways also the types of cured meats get produced.

I’ve produced every type and style of cured meats possible using salt, smoke, and acidity either in combination or individually.

You’ll likely be surprised about some aspects since it is a subject that isn’t very accurately discussed. It’s also open to many different interpretations across the world.

To summarize briefly:

A salt-based wet or dry cure is applied to the meat, often nitrates/nitrites are included in this mix. The cure absorbs into the meat, depending on the type and size of the meat, the length of time varies in the cure. It is then removed from the cure and either hot-smoked, cold-smoked, dried, or cooked depending on the cured meat recipe.

How is Cured Meat Made?

The meat is surrounded by a dry or wet cure, it’s then left to ‘cure’ in the mixture. A product such as Prosciutto de Parma (Whole Pork Leg that is traditionally dry cured), only has natural sea salt in the cure.

Umbrian Prosciutto Holder Slicing large
Prosciutto in Tuscany, Italy – with a slightly wild black pig, 18 months of drying. Some Cured meats can be made in days, others take years.

The only other physical ingredient is pork (this is legislated and strictly adhered to by Italian Law).

The meat is left in the cure, for a certain amount of time depending on the cured meat recipe.

Several different finishing steps can be used, depending on the desired outcome of the cured product.

Here are the steps in detail.

Steps of Curing Meat

  1. Salt, Spices Added to Meat (Dry or Wet)
  2. Optional – Nitrates or Nitrites (Synthetic or Natural)
  3. Left to Cure and Inhibit Meat
  4. Remove from Cure
  5. Smoke, Dry, or Cook

1. Salt, Spices Added to Meat (Dry or Wet)

2 Types:

  • Cure and Left in Cure for a Certain Time, Dried, Hot/Cold Smoked or Cooked
  • Cure Added to Mixture, Stuffed in Casing, Dried, Hot/Cold Smoked or Cooked

Cured and Left for a Certain Amount of Time

For whole muscled cured meat, hot smoked whole cured meat, or wet cured styles of hot smoked whole meats – these are salt-cured, then left in the cure for a certain amount of time.

Cure Added to Mixture and Stuffed in Casing

The other main kind of cured meat is mixed with salt cure and then stuffed into various types of sausage or salami casings. 

Salami, some are dried to finish them, others are cooked with smoke or steam. Lastly, another kind is simmered, it’s an emulsified salami/sausage such as mortadella or bologna.

For these types of cured meats recipes, the first step is to apply salt, spices, any other ingredient that’s part of the recipe.

The cured can be both dry and wet, for some dry cured salamis spices and wine are used. 

with a wet cure brine with a water-based cure, the ingredients are diluted as much as possible for uniform distribution when the meat is submerged in it.

There are methods that are more consistent when it comes to applying the salt at a level that has a uniform saltiness with the outcome of the meat, such as a method I use called Equilibrium Curing.

2. Optional – Nitrates or Nitrites (Synthetic or Natural)

For most commercial products the government regulations state that these nitrates and nitrates need to be added to the product.

Many people who make charcuterie at home or cure their own meats, choose not to add this into the spice mix.

Some commercial producers also do have not nitrate or nitrite derivatives.

Some research has been done that when nitrates are heated above 350F, they have a chemical reaction and turn into carcinogens, here is some more science on this.

Here are some links to other research in terms of the consumption of nitrates and nitrites in human Western diets, many of these substances exist inside our body as well as I can see you and with dark leafy vegetables.

3. Left in Cure and Inhibit Meat

Curing involves leaving the salt mixture to inhibit or penetrate the meat for a certain amount of time. Whether this is without stuffing in a casing or not, as mentioned above.

Small oily fish such as anchovy, when made commercially is placed into a very strong salt-wet brine, this brine can achieve full salt penetration within minutes.

Salting large prosciutto pork hind legs can often take 30 to 50 days inside the cure. Although the skin does slow the penetration of salt into the meat, as well as the fat which has less water in it.

4. Remove from Cure

Depending on the method when making cured meats, the cure is sometimes washed off with water or wine.

Depending on whether the meat is being smoked, an important step is forming a pellicle on the surface of the meat, this is done by drying it out in different ways.

Pellicle 

The binding of proteins on the surface of the meat, which means the smoke adheres to the meat more easily to create more flavor. If cold smoking it gives protective properties like antifungal and antibacterial, another reason why meat was cold smoking thousands of years ago in certain milder parts of the world.

5. Smoked, Dried, or Cooked

Cured Bacon Every Way large

As mentioned before you are either cooking the meat in various ways, such as steaming (Salami Cotto), baking, or poaching.

There are different types of dried cured meats which are very extreme dried products. Bonito flakes which have lots of salt added to the fish, are then left to sun dry in Japanese culture for extended periods of time.

The finished product is basically shaved like curls of dried wood.

Salt Fish, Salf Beef and Salt Pork can also be extremely preserved cured meat when fully saturated with salt and dried extensively.

Sometimes I will salt-cure trout or the fish that I catch, then I will form the pellicle and hot smoke the meat indirectly at a low temperature.

As mentioned above, this method of salt curing is used to protect the meat from drying out during the baking/hot-smoking process. 

Remembering certain classic Italian dry-cured meats can take 1 to 3 years before they are finished products such as the Parma Prosciutto mentioned, or certain Spanish Iberian Jamon Ham.

What is Cured Meat?

An accurate definition of cured meats would be,

Meat that has had salt added to either hold moisture or inhibit Water Activity (Aw) in the meat. Curing meat is to reach the goal of holding moisture for cooking/smoking or slowing unwanted bacteria for preserving and drying the meat (dry curing), ie. prosciutto.

Cured vs Uncured – Confusion in the Definition

There is a very wide interpretation of what cured meats are since there was some legislation passed in America which defined what cured and uncured meats are.

It was a mistake since it really changed the meaning of cured meats to something it’s not.

I provide some links, basically, it redefined cured meats as having a sodium nitrate or sodium nitrate and nitrite component inside of it, but uncured was able to use ‘natural’ nitrates. The tricky part came when you can use a natural derivative of nitrates and call it uncured!

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-uncured-bacon-illusion-its-actually-cured-and-its-not-better-for-you/2019/04/19/0c89630c-608c-11e9-9ff2-abc984dc9eec_story.html

This article is just blatantly WRONG about cured vs uncured – https://tiredtexanbbq.com/blog/cured-vs-uncured-ham/

In America, they call a sodium nitrate nitrite mix pink curing salt which basically means the majority of it is salt and there’s a little bit of nitrate and nitrite.

In the simplest terms, nitrates and nitrites are common in commercially made cured meats to protect the meat from botulism. Also, the color changes to the appealing pink shade that you are very familiar with and ham or bacon. An effective branding/marketing move from the industry many years ago.

There has been recent confusion around the cured versus uncured types of meat that you can get.

I’ve been curing meat for quite a long time, and I’ve noticed this confusion about uncured label packaging on meat as well as the packaging on meat as well which I’ll drive into dive into.

Cured meat in America will mean that nitrates/nitrites have been added which are synthetic.

Uncured meat in America will mean that the nitrates and nitrites are from natural ingredients such as salary or beetroot powder, but they still have nitrates/nitrites.

In terms of the actual effects and differences between these two derivatives of nitrates/nitrites, there isn’t any difference. Nitrates are Nitrates, Nitrites are Nitrites. Actually, there is a conversion process, however, this is out of the scope.

Here are some resources which I like scientifically.

Natural and Synthetic Nitrates – MDPI – (Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute) is a publisher of open-access scientific journals.)

The challenge for the meat industry is to search for strategies to reduce supplemented and residual nitrite in cured meat in order to minimize the nitrite intake. There is a considerable interest toward the development of alternatives from natural sources and other preservation techniques that are considered to be comparatively healthier. This interest is further accelerated by the pressure generated from consumer demand for salt- and nitrite-reduced meat products.

Science Direct – Alternatives to nitrite in processed meat: Up to date
Salt Cured Meat

A more effective definition of cured meat would be:

A dry or wet salt cure has applied to meat to either, hold moisture on the exterior of the meat or inhibit water activity before cold smoking and/or drying the meat. Sodium Nitrites and Nitrates may be added to this salt cure.

Cured as Classified by the USDA

Here is a quote from the USDA in terms of the classification of cured and cured Meats, I’ll leave it at that. 

Non-instant meat products made using fresh (frozen) meat of livestock as the main
ingredient, with other auxiliary materials added and by processing with such techniques as
preserving, drying (or sun- or air-drying) and smoking (or no smoking), etc.

Different Types of Cured Meat – How They Are Made

Dry Salt Cured

Comparing Cured Hams
Hams not 3 different ways, dry cured left, middle wet brined cooked/smoked, right is wet brined cooked/smoked in forced shape

Dry salt cured Meats that I make, have bought or studied are:

  • Prosciutto
  • Pancetta
  • Cold-smoked dry-cured bacon 
  • Dry-cured salami such as Picante, Felino, Milano etc.

A dry-style salt cure (although sometimes wine is part of this) is used to inhibit the meat, slowing the water activity, and is primarily used to preserve and flavor the meat.

All the above dry-cured products are made using this technique.

The major commercializing of salami has meant instead of traditionally using salt and a length of time to dry. They have created a shortcut where they use acidity to low pH quickly over a few days, to make the meat bacteria-free for quick profit and revenue.

Personally, I think this should not be defined as salami, instead, it should be artificially acidified salami.

Wet Salt Cured

Many smoked pork hams and types of bacon are wet-brine cured.

A common commercial process is using needles to inject the salt water-based cure into the meat and then using a tumbling spinning device to rapidly inhibit the meat with the salt, it also holds the water inside the meat.

Curing and Cooked/Smoked vs. Curing and Drying (Dry Curing)

I have used curing for wild turkey, ham, or bacon specifically to hold the moisture in before I hot smoke or and indirectly cook the meat.

The process is complete once an acceptable cooked internal temperature has been reached.

This is a type of curing that is specifically about avoiding drying the product out, which can happen, especially when cooking/smoking lean meats.

Curing and Drying

The other type of salt curing involves full penetration of the salt into the meat whether it’s using a dry salt mixture or wet salt brine style.

The meat can be dried for preservation as well as flavor. When doing this type of dry curing, prosciutto is the classic example of it.

This type of traditional approach can take 1 month to 3 years until a project is complete.

The meat is often consumed very thinly sliced because it does have a higher level of salt throughout the meat, often the meat has lost 30 to 50% of its original starting meat weight.

Most red meat has approximately 70% water content while fresh, hard fat from red meat has significantly less water content.

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.

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