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How to Salt Meats for Preservation and Flavor
There are several processes that have been developed for the preservation of meats over the centuries.
- Beef jerky is a dried form of meat that is salted in various ways before it is dried.
- Hams are also salted as part of the curing process.
- Corned beef is made from brisket that is soaked for about a week in a pickling brine which can have several different recipe variations.
- Sausage-making is also dependent on salts as a part of the curing and preservation process, as are sandwich meats.
Here, I discuss these processes and talk about the basics of preserving meats with salt. I describe several specific methods for preparing dried meats and meats seasoned in pickling solutions to provide you with the means of making your own.
Salt Preservation Basics
What kind of salt should I use to preserve meats?
There are several salts that are used to cure, or preserve, meat. Sodium chloride, ordinary table salt, is the primary ingredient, helping create an environment where bacteria cannot grow and removing moisture within. But other salts are needed to complete meat preservation. These salts are nitrates and nitrites. If nitrates and/or nitrite salts aren't used, then the fats within the tissue will oxidize, or become rancid. Thus, it is important that nitrites are used. And, they are used in very small amounts in curing salt mixtures.
What does the salt do to the meat?
Obviously, in addition to preservation, these salts add flavor. The table salt flavor would be plain if the nitrates and nitrites were not present. These preservatives also make the meat turn pink to red and also contribute to flavor. They are the reason corned beef is red. Various forms of sugar are also frequently added to enhance flavor, and sometimes ascorbates are added to pickling brines to speed up the curing process and stabilize the color given by the nitrates and nitrites.
Why does salt preserve meat?
As salt levels increase in a solution, the growth potential and survivability of microorganisms like fungi and bacteria decreases. At the recommended levels for dry salting and pickling, microbial growth doesn't occur. It is well known that proper salt preservation prevents contamination by Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that causes the fatal disease known as botulism.
How to Prepare Meat to Be Salt-Cured
Use lean meat.
Before you get started in any of the processes mentioned below, make note that you need to use cuts of meat that have very little internal and external fat. The reason that you need to use lean cuts is to limit the amount of fat, which cannot be penetrated by the salt solution. So, fat in non-lean cuts will oxidize, or become rancid.
Which cuts of meat are best for curing?
- Beef. Cuts of beef that are lean enough to be used include the brisket and round.
- Pork. Cuts of pork that are used normally include the ham, shoulders and belly, and sometimes, the loin and white jowl.
Always allow meat to cool before salt curing.
Cooling the meat down to 32-35 degrees Fahrenheit before going through the salting helps prevents deterioration processes from beginning in the meat.
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What temperature is best for curing meat?
The optimum temperature will vary according to the type of curing you are doing.
- Large cuts: For large cuts of meat, like roasts, hams and shoulders, a temperature range of 35 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended (for external salt cures).
- Corning beef: For corning beef, refrigerator temperatures are needed.
- For jerky: For drying beef cut into strips, the temperature for smokers is given below. If drying is done in the sun or over a fire, warm, dry temperatures can dry the meat in a matter of hours. Humid outdoor environments are not recommended for drying, regardless of the temperature.
How to Cure Meat With Salt or Brine Solutions
There are two ways to use salt for curing of meat: by using a brine solution or rubbing the salt on the surface. And you can either dry it in the sun or in a smoker. These methods are described below, with step-by-step instructions.
How to Dry-Cure Brined Meat in the Sun
- Prepare a 14% solution of pickling salt. If you wish to add sugar for flavor, use 11% salt and 3% brown sugar.
- Cut lean meat into strips that are about half an inch thick.
- Soak them in the brine solution for five minutes. This brine solution can be re-used during the curing process for one day.
- Place the soaked strips in a colander and allow to drain.
- Suspend the meat strips on a line using either S-shaped hooks made of stiff wire, by tying up one end with twine or by use of metal clips.
- Drying takes from 2-3 days in a dry, sunny climate. Ideal drying conditions are at 30% or less relative humidity and with a flow of warm air that stays about the same temperature through the process. Screened cages are recommended to ward off insects.
How to Use a Smoker to Dry Cure Meat
A smoker is the preferred way to dry the meat in humid climates. Follow steps 1-4 above and then place the meat on the grill surface of the smoker. Heat the smoker to between 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit. The process takes from 12-24 hours.
How to Dry-Cure Meat by Rubbing It With Salt
This method is good for hams, shoulders and roasts. Pickling salt is rubbed on the meat to facilitate curing, but sometimes spices are added to enhance the flavor, like cracked peppercorns, mustard seeds or fresh herbs like rosemary, basil or sage. These spices are first rubbed onto the surface of the meat and then the salt is applied.
The amount of salt that is needed is 1 1/2 cups per pound of meat, with half of it applied at the beginning of the process. The meat is hung in a room having temperatures between 35 and 50 degrees F. (protected from insects) and 4-5 days later the rest of the salt is rubbed onto the surface. It takes about five days for each inch thickness of the cut of meat to cure if it has no bone. For meat containing bones, add two more days to the curing time for a total of seven days per inch.
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My Recipe for Homemade Corned Beef
Corned beef is made in a pickling solution, and the recipe is simple enough that anyone can do it. If you have the space in your refrigerator to store it while in the process of pickling, you can do it. Here are the steps you need to follow.
- Buy a 4-lb cut of brisket and cut off any excess fat.
- Make the brine solution. A half gallon of the solution consists of 1 cups of pickling salt (or a mixture of Kosher salt and saltpeter described above, 1 1/2 teaspoons of pickling spices (crushed to release the flavors) and quarter a cup of packed brown sugar. To the spices, you may want to also add a little powdered or fresh ginger and/or a little cinnamon, depending on your taste preferences. See the suggestion below, also.
- Boil the brine/spice solution briefly and let it cool to refrigerator temperature.
- Place the brisket in a plastic container or a large freezer bag and add the brine/spice solution. Put it in the refrigerator and turn the meat or the freezer bag over every day. The meat will be ready after 7 days of brine treatment.
- Remove the meat from the bag or plastic container and wash off the brine and spices before you cook it.
You can substitute some of the water in the pickling solution with beer if you wish. Just make sure that the volume of liquid remains the same.