Curing (food preservation)
Curing is any of various food preservation and flavoring processes of foods such as meat, fish and vegetables, by the addition of a combination of salt, nitrates, nitrite or sugar. Many curing processes also involve smoking, the process of flavoring, or cooking. The use of food dehydration was the earliest form of food curing.
Food curing dates back to ancient times, both in the form of smoked meat and as salt-cured meat. The Plains Indians hung their meat at the top of their tipis to increase the amount of smoke coming into contact with the food. It was discovered in the 1800s that salt mixed with nitrates (saltpeter) would color meats red, rather than grey, and consumers at that time then strongly preferred red-colored meat.
Table salt (sodium chloride) is the primary ingredient used in meat curing. Removal of water and addition of salt to meat creates a solute-rich environment where osmotic pressure draws water out of microorganisms, slowing down their growth. Doing this requires a concentration of salt of nearly 20%. In addition, salt causes the soluble meat proteins to come to the surface of the meat particles within sausages. These proteins coagulate when the sausage is heated, helping to hold the sausage together. Finally, salt slows the oxidation process, effectively preventing the meat from going rancid.
The sugar added to meat for the purpose of curing it comes in many forms, including honey, corn syrup solids, and maple syrup. However, with the exception of bacon, it does not contribute much to the flavor, but it does alleviate the harsh flavor of the salt. Sugar also contributes to the growth of beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus by feeding them.
Nitrates and nitrites
Nitrates and nitrites not only help kill bacteria, but also produce a characteristic flavor and give meat a pink or red color. Nitrate (NO3−), generally supplied by sodium nitrite or potassium nitrate, is used as a source for nitrite (NO2−). The nitrite further breaks down in the meat into nitric oxide (NO), which then binds to the iron atom in the center of myoglobin's heme group, reducing oxidation and causing a reddish-brown color (nitrosomyoglobin) when raw, and the characteristic cooked-ham pink color (nitrosohemochrome or nitrosyl-heme) when cooked. The addition of ascorbate to cured meat reduces formation of nitrosamines, but increases the nitrosylation of iron.
The use of nitrates in food preservation is controversial. This is due to the potential for the formation of nitrosamines when nitrates are present in high concentrations and the product is cooked at high temperatures. The effect is seen for red or processed meat, but not for white meat or fish. The production of carcinogenic nitrosamines can be potently inhibited by the use of the antioxidants Vitamin C and the alpha-tocopherol form of Vitamin E during curing. Under simulated gastric conditions, nitroso thiols rather than nitrosamines are the main nitroso species being formed. The usage of either compound is therefore regulated; for example, in the United States, the concentration of nitrates and nitrites is generally limited to 200 ppm or lower. They are considered irreplaceable in the prevention of botulinum poisoning from consumption of cured dry sausages by preventing spore germination.
Meat can also be preserved by "smoking", which means exposing it to smoke from burning or smoldering plant materials, usually wood. If the smoke is hot enough to slow-cook the meat, it will also keep it tender. One method of smoking calls for a smokehouse with damp wood chips or sawdust. In North America, hardwoods such as hickory, mesquite and maple are commonly used for smoking, as are the wood from fruit trees such as apple, cherry, and plum, and even corncobs.
Smoking helps seal the outer layer of the food being cured, making it more difficult for bacteria to enter. It can be done in combination with other curing methods such as salting. Common smoking styles include hot smoking, smoke roasting (pit barbecuing) and cold smoking. Smoke roasting and hot smoking cook the meat while cold smoking does not. If the meat is cold smoked, it should be dried quickly to limit bacterial growth during the critical period where the meat is not yet dry. This can be achieved, as with jerky, by slicing the meat thinly.
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