The meaning of cured meat seems like a pretty simple question, but due to the variations and different types of cured meat, I want to get into more detail.
For instance, some cured meats like dry cured meats are ready-to-eat like prosciutto or dry cured picante salami.
Then, on the other hand, you have dry cured cold smoked bacon which is of course, one of my cured meats that I make regularly. This is definitely cured meat, but it is cold smoked and dried. It’s cooked only before it’s eaten.
Let’s talk about all the variations of smoked ham which are cooked and smoked at the same time. Yes, we are just scratching the surface. Xmas Ham, Ham Hock, Pressed Ham, Deli Ham etc.
I’ve taken a lot of pleasure creating a useful resource on meat curing – my blog is about the worldwide variations of curing meat – it’s a fascinating area that is often confusing.
Along these lines, I have a pretty good idea of how to categorize different approaches. I’ll cover the main ingredients that give you different results you can achieve with meat curing.
First a simple answer, then I continue with other information below.
Curing meat means using salt to inhibit the meat and reduce the production of unwanted bacteria. Curing meat can be done for preservation and flavor. Or only flavor and no preservation.
For cured meats like pastrami, the cure is a wet brine of spices, water and salt with some acidity like vinegar or other variations! Then you smoke & cook it to a safe temperature to eat (this is often called hot smoking).
Pastrami is not preserved meat, the wet brine does give it a little bit more time to keep in the fridge, but it is not preserved like other forms of meat curing. Like dry-cured, where salt is applied first, then it is carefully dried until bacterial growth is minimized.
Salt also plays the role of holding the moisture in by using the process of water binding. This is why a wet brining solution is used to keep a xmas turkey moist (it’s cured but for no preservative effect).
It all comes down to the level of salt solution in the brine and also how long it’s in the brine. The more modern technique of equilibrium brining means you work out a percentage of salt to the weight plus the amount of water.
If you want to be the brining more precise, check out a meat curing and brining guide on this site.
On the other end of the spectrum of cured meat is dry-cured Prosciutto Parma ham. This type of cured meat has 2000 years of history since the Roman Times.
ucius Junius Moderatus Columella – wrote about ancient Roman empire agriculture around 50 AD
Doing some research I’ve found that this style of using it for a whole pig leg may have been done in China a long time ago, too – with salt of course. The Roman empire was prior to this, so I am unsure about the ‘truth’.
When Marco Polo arrived in China in the 13th century, he was there to pilfer. Impressed with the culture and customs he saw on his travels, he returned to Venice with Chinese porcelain, paper money, spices and silks to introduce to his home country. It was from his time in Jinhua, a city in eastern Zhejiang province, he found ham.https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2018/11/03/over-1000-years-ham-heres-where-it-all-began
Parma Ham is a strictly protected quality dry cured pork leg from around Parma, Italy. It is rubbed with salt, in other words, it is dry cured.
Parma Prosciutto Ham goes through controlled environments for 3 months, where humidity and temperature are changed to minimize bacterial growth and maximize the salt penetration into the meat.
This is followed by 9 months of hanging and drying at a reasonably ambient temperature.
I visited one of these Parma Ham factories which makes 85,000 Parma hams a year – this is considered a medium-sized operator in the region (Slega Parma Ham).
I’ve given you a few examples of cured meat, but of course, this is just the tip of the cured meat iceberg. There are other variations of ingredients and how it’s made. I’ll get into that.
How Does Meat Cure?
Primarily meat is cured using salt. The salt plays two roles:
- Water Binding
Water binding means the salt in the water is binding to the meat muscle cells. In other words, it has inhibited the meat.
Unwanted Bacteria does not like salty, acidic, smoky or colder (link to preserving meat I wrote) environments.
So this inhibition of salt is used to deter unwanted bacteria or slow down the growth.
Depending on quantity, the salt is also used to hold the moisture in. When the meat is cooked and smoked at the same time, such as smoked ham, it will have moisture, be safe to eat, and juicy (hopefully!).
The cooking and smoking I do is at lower temperatures to minimize the amount of drying out that meat. But sometimes say for young wild turkey or wild duck it’s better to have higher temperatures and removing before the meat loses the moisture (an art in itself).
Salt is definitely the primary force for cured meat. However, there are other ingredients – so let’s touch on these as well.
Curing and Ingredients that Vary Outcomes
- Mold Culture
- Nitrates/Nitrites (Pink Curing Salt)
- Cold Smoking
- Hot Smoking / Cooking
This is the main curing ingredient – salt is used in a dry or wet cure as mentioned.
There are also different ways for a dry curing like, they are all aimed toward the same outcome:
- Air Curing
- Salt Curing
- Salt Box Curing
- Saturation Curing
- Equilibrium Curing
For using a cure that has salt & water, other names are:
- Wet Brining
- Wet Curing
I’ve discovered over the years, there are properties associated with different spices.
Coarsely ground peppercorns have been used traditionally to cover dry cured meats for thousands of years.
Pepper has antibacterial and antifungal properties. So, as you can imagine, it is protecting the surface and the inside of the meat to some extent.
Hard and soft green herbs have different properties.
As well as other traditional herbs like fennel and cumin.
Different studies have concluded that the use of thyme increases stability and reduces lipid oxidation during the shelf-life period of foods (meat, meat products, milk, fish or fish products), which makes thyme a promising source of natural additiveshttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7464319/#:~:text=Different%20studies%20have%20concluded%20that,promising%20source%20of%20natural%20additives.
Garlic crushed could reduce the level percentage of beef fat and slowdown the increasing TBA values during storage at refrigerator temperature.Garlic Antioxidant (Allium Sativum L.) to Prevent Meat Rancidity
Vinegar is used traditionally in a South African cured meat called biltong. Vinegar actually has a similar effect to cooking which technically is called denaturing. The changes around the protein cells are in someway similar. Sorry, that’s about as technical as I can get.
Salt, vinegar, and crushed coriander are the classic ingredients for making South African biltong – a rather unique delicious type of cured meat (jerky but sometimes less drying and sugar added).
I have made biltong many times with traditional and varied recipes. Biltong can loosely be called cured meat.
For ‘ceviche’, the seafood is soaked in lemon or lime juice to denature or “cook” without using heat. Sounds a bit crazy doesn’t it? Same as biltong, but for for immediate consumption!
I have caught fish many times suitable for ceviche. Ceviche is cooked with acidity and not heat!
For traditional salami as well as for the home charcuterie maker it is a common practice to use a mold starter culture to inoculate the meat. It is also used in Western cultures commercially.
Meat curers making traditional salami hundreds of years ago used the natural bio flora that was around the area.
Once it was established, it would naturally start occurring, popping up more and more. This was a case of hit and miss (crazy meat curing cowboys!).
Nowadays we use a laboratory-grown mold culture which I keep in the freezer. When I need it, I inoculate, spray or submerge the cured meat or dry cured salami ready to be hung in my DIY fridge.
As you have stuffed this meat mixture into salami casing, you have to increase the temperature and humidity depending on the recipe so the start of culture can flourish inside the meat.
The first starter culture (like Mold 600) is often used for create surface beneficial cultures, see that powdery white stuff on salami.
(This is the one that can sometimes bloom naturally…)
This is one of the many variations for creating an acidic environment inside the meat to protect it from bacteria, often a slight tangy flavor can come from this.
The main reason why this is done for curing salami meat is to change the pH level and make the environment more acidic.
The unwanted bacteria that spoil meat does not like an acidic environment, so starter cultures give you this protection (if done right, dry-cured salami falls into advanced meat curing).
I have not tested this but red wine may also have an impact & I could not find any evidence of it. I need to invest in the expensive pH meter!
Nitrates/Nitrites (Pink Curing Salt)
There is an ongoing debate about whether it’s the pink curing salt that’s actually the curing part of it. It makes sense, I suppose, when you read it in the curing descriptions. Pink curing salt has many other names. It is generally 90% or more salt.
But you should always use a minimal amount (0.25% of the TOTAL meat weight)
It is used to make sure there is no chance of botulism.
I have studied botulism cases and the actual number of cases is often more related to the traditional indigenous gathering of food like seal meat. Canning seems to produce a handful of cases but often there may be less than a few dozen cases per year in the United States.
Pink curing salt gives your deli ham that wonderful glow of pink and also gives your bacon that pinkness. Quite often if you’re using sea salt the color would be more greyish.
Guess, it’s a lot harder for a corporation to market grey food. What’s your favorite grey food?
Think about it – a well-done steak has a grey look to it. That is exactly what deli ham and bacon could, should or would look like without the nitrites.
There are natural forms of nitrates & nitrites in the salt used for prosciutto, you can see it because of the color after the drying is done (12 months or more usually).
There are only 2 ingredients in Parma Prosciutto Ham under the PGI and DOP regulations (European Food Protection Laws). These are strictly protected products, they are pork and salt.
A lot of people think that cured meats are always smoked, yes some are, but often they are not.
Dry cured cold smoked bacon, for instance, the cold smoke has antibacterial and antifungal properties.
My research into cured and smoked meats shows that they have been done thousands of years ago. For survival and sustenance motives originally.
In certain areas across Europe cold smoking was heavily applied to preserve the food and keep bugs away. Cold smoking has basically a certain amount of smoke around the meat after it has been properly cured. It’s dries out at the same time. Less moisture means unwanted bacteria that spoils it struggles.
For longer-term cold smoking high humidity is needed so the meat doesn’t dry out as much.
I’ve done 40 hours of cold smoking venison and, at a certain point, it could not take on any more smoke flavor. Cold smoking can also be applied to vegetables, spices, salt, eggs, cheese, and anything you would like to try really!
Read the whole guide on cold smoking – you can check that out here.
Hot Smoking / Cooking
Curing and hot smoking I often do with fish and wild turkey, for instance.
Instead of using the full amount of salt I use about half for my meat curing, mainly to hold the moisture inside the meat when I move on to hot smoking /cooking it.
This is a form of cured meat but is not preserved, it’s mainly for seasoning and making that finished outcome more enjoyable.
Here are the different ways we can use for cured meat and some examples of types of cured meat.
Pastrami is wet brined and hot smoked too.
Methods of Curing Meat
- Dry Cured or Air Cured Meat (With or Without Cold Smoking)
- Cured With a Wet Brine then Dry Cured
- Cured With a Wet Brine and Cooked/Hot Smoked
|Dry Cured||Wet Brined / Cold Smoked||Wet Brine / Hot Smoked|
|Prosciutto||Smoked Herrings||Smoked Ham|
|Braesola||Cold Smoked Salmon||Deli Ham|
|Dry Cured Salami|
Is Cured Meat Raw?
Some forms of cured meat are salt cured and then dried, they are not raw anymore.
Can Cured Meat be Eaten Without Cooking?
Dry cured meat can been eaten without cooking, since they have been preserved with salt and dried to a point where bacteria has been minimized.
Thanks for dropping by, I’ve been passionate about meat curing for around 20 years now. Having been lucky enough to learn inside fine dining kitchens through to backyard smoking sessions. From doing courses, trial & error and reading extensively – finally, I thought it was time to share my passion online.
My insatiable appetite and passion toward classic Italian dry-cured salumi and all forms of curing and smoking are what drives this website engine. All the best, Tom