Buying brisket or pork butt, many people have the same problem—how do you make the meat tender without ruining the flavor?
Curing meat solves the problem surrounding leathery or durable cuts. You can keep your brisket tender and juicy without having to tenderize it for hours and it will keep it’s savory taste.
Let’s get into it and learn how to cure meat!
What is Meat Curing?
Meat curing is a technique for enhancing beef or pork flavors while preserving the cut. The point of meat curing is to remove as much moisture from the cut as possible.
By removing moisture, the cut of meat develops a different texture. A new texture seems like it would affect the flavor, right? Well, in reality, it helps create an environment that is not conducive to bacterial growth.
Creating environments where bacteria have a hard time developing allows you to preserve your meats for a longer time. Before refrigeration, cured meat was the only way to keep meat fresh for extended periods.
Meat curing also adds flavor to the meat. During the curing operation, you can add your favorite spices, like rosemary or thyme. Black pepper is essential in any meat cure. The seasoning you add will become more pronounced during the curing process, giving the flesh an intense flavor.
Ingredients Needed for Meat Curing
Meat curing doesn’t involve a ton of different additives. There are some necessities every cook needs in their kitchen if they decide to cure their meat, though.
Aside from the cut of flesh, the most vital ingredient in a cure is salt. Sodium chloride affects the cure in three main ways. First, it adds flavor to the flesh. Salt also has antimicrobial characteristics, because bacteria can’t survive in saline conditions.
The final reason you need to add sodium in the curing process is to increase the meat’s permeability. Salt allows spices to enter the cut and juices to escape from the cut. Essentially, the sodium creates highways for seasoning and other ingredients. The additives enter the cut, preserving and enhancing the flesh.
Nitrate or Nitrite
Nitrate or nitrite are chemicals you add to the cure to enhance flavor and give your beef or pork a desirable color. Nitrates give your pork or beef a reddish or pinkish tinge, which makes the meat more tempting.
Without nitrates, cured meats would taste salty instead of having that rich, savory taste. The nitrates or nitrites in the cure bring out the meaty flavor we all know and love.
Nitrates or nitrites perform one other action in the cuts. The chemicals are a natural antioxidant, meaning they prevent or slow the oxidizing process. Oxidation is one of the primary reasons meats go rancid. If you can ward off oxidization, you can give your cut an extended shelf-life.
Nitrates and nitrites are dangerous, though. They are toxic at high levels and can lead to severe injury or death. Since nitrates are harmful, you can find ready-made mixtures of sodium and nitrates. Sodium and nitrate mixtures do not have high enough concentrations of nitrates to cause you any harm.
When you’re shopping for your cure constituents, look for ‘pink salt’ or ‘curing salt.’ These products include nitrates or nitrites. If you purchase curing salt, you won’t have to worry about mixing potentially dangerous chemicals.
Sugar is the final essential ingredient in a cure. Sugar serves two functions in a cure—to increase flavor and add color. Sugar evens out the saltiness and gives a bit of sweetness, although that depends on how much you decide to put into the cure.
Sugar adds color because it will often cling to the outside of the meat. As the flesh ages, the sugar will darken, revealing a beautifully colored crust.
You can use either brown or refined sugar. The only difference you’ll notice between the two is mild flavor differences, but they act the same in every other regard.
Other than seasoning, which you should add to your taste, there are some optional ingredients that some cooks like to use.
One of the most common ingredients is ascorbates (sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate). These chemicals speed up the curing operation and add appetizing coloring to the flesh.
If you decide to do a brine, water is essential. The cut rests in the water and cure mixture. The meat will absorb the chemicals and flavors from the brine.
When you do a brine cure, you might also want to add phosphates. Phosphates help the meat retain water, which means more flavor from the brine enters the flesh. For that reason, phosphates shouldn’t be in any dry cures, since it keeps too much moisture in the cut.
Types of Meat Curing
When it comes to curing meat, there are a few points to consider before starting.
The vital point to consider is what type of curing you should try. Here are the two common types of meat curing:
A dry cure is a mix of salt, nitrates, sugar, and spices that you rub directly on the meat. Dry cures aren’t suited for novices, since bacteria can enter the meat easily, making it rancid or ruining the flavor.
If done correctly, dry cures coat the cut entirely, giving it a uniform flavor and protection from bacteria. The time it takes to dry cure depends on the cut of meat. Thin cuts, like pork belly, usually take a week, while large cuts, like ham, can take months.
When it comes to dry curing, you need to utilize your climate control. If the humidity or temperature is too high or low, bacteria will grow in the meat, ruining it.
Brines, sometimes known as ‘wet curing,’ is the technique of submerging the cut of meat in a mixture of water, salt, sugar, nitrates, and spices. Brines are best for beginners because the chance of bacterial growth is lower than dry cures.
For wet cures, you need to keep the liquid chilled. Cool water protects the cut from bacteria by keeping the whole thing cool. Cool water also helps the salt, sugar, chemicals, and spices dissolve uniformly in the liquid.
Brines take slightly more observation than dry cures. You need to stir the water regularly so the chemicals don’t rest on the container’s bottom. Wet cures can take as little as a day for small cuts, but large cuts still take weeks.
How to Cure Meat Safely
So far, I described some of the knowledge you’ll need before you start curing meat. In this section, I’ll describe a dry cure technique using the equilibrium method.
The equilibrium method uses the weight of the meat to determine how much sodium and nitrate to use. For calculations like these, we feel using the metric system (grams) is more accurate. The more precise you are, the better the end product.
1. Prepare Your Workspace and Ingredients
When I work with cured meat, having a sanitized, prepared workspace is one of the most vital steps. I always run my cookware through the dishwasher on the heavy cycle before embarking on a cure.
Most home cooks don’t have enough space in their home for a special room dedicated to curing meat. For this guide, all you need is your space in your refrigerator.
After you sanitize your workspace, you need to measure your additives. The amount of salt, sugar, nitrates, and spices depends on the weight of your cut. For simplicity, this guide will follow a 200-gram cut of brisket.
For an equilibrium dry cure, you should use salt equal to 2.5% of the meat’s weight. So, for a 200-gram cut of beef, measure 5 grams of sea salt. If you have trouble with conversions, here’s a helpful site.
After you’ve measured your sea salt, you need to measure your curing salt. Curing salt should be equal to 10% of the weight of the salt. This means measuring 0.5 grams of curing salt.
The amount of sugar and seasoning you need varies depending on the recipe. For best practices, you want to use one part of sugar for every two parts of salt. In the case of this cure, use 2.5 grams. Cured meat only needs a few sprigs of fresh herbs, but that’s up to you!
2. Massage the Cure into the Meat
Although this step may seem simple, it’s easy to mess up and it will have dramatic consequences on the quality of the cure. Mix the two salts, sugar, and spices until you’re left with a uniform mixture. Make sure there aren’t any clumps of sugar or salt.
Once you’ve mixed the cure, you need to evenly coat your entire cut. I find using a large ceramic mixing bowl helps. Put the mixture in the bowl and carefully massage the mixture into the meat. Ideally, you won’t have any cure mixture left once you coat the entire cut.
3. Allow to Rest
After you coat the meat in the cure, you need to let it rest on a pan for about 15 minutes before putting it in a bag. Allowing a slight amount of oxidation speeds up the curing process without causing any adverse effects.
4. Remove Oxygen and Refrigerate
There are two common methods for removing oxygen from the curing process. You can either use a normal Ziploc bag or you can use a vacuum-sealed bag. As long as you close the Ziploc bag and remove all of the air, a vacuum-sealed bag isn’t a necessity.
After you put the meat in an air-tight bag, all you need to do is store it in the refrigerator and wait! The temperature in your refrigerator should be no higher than 50ºF with less than 25% humidity for ideal results. For a 200 gram cut, it should only take about 6 days for the salt to work its magic. Larger cuts will take more time.
5. Rinse your Cut
After the cure works its way into the meat, you need to rinse off the remaining salt, sugar, and spices. Rinse with water, but some people enjoy rinsing with wine or beer for the extra flavor. After you rinse the cut, you can put more spices on the meat, the most common being black pepper.
6. Weigh and Hang the Meat for Drying
You need to know the weight of your meat after you rinse it. We recommend letting the meat dry on a paper towel or clean rag before trying to weigh it. You need to remember the weights because they will help you determine when the meat has finished curing.
Next, you need to find a spot to hang the cuts in your refrigerator. You can clear out the bottom shelf of your refrigerator and use string to hang the cut from the second shelf’s support.
You need to hang your meat because it will speed up the drying mechanism. By doing this in the refrigerator, you’re also making sure bacteria has a harder time growing.
7. Knowing When Your Meat is Finished
You’ll know the meat has cured when its weight has reduced by 35 to 40%. That’s why it’s so vital that you remember the meat’s weight before the drying process. Once you’ve reached that target weight, your dry-cured meat is ready for you to eat!
Meat Curing Safety Tips
Here are some of the most important safety tips:
- After curing, keep the meat in the refrigerator
- Use meat that you know how has production quality
- White powdery mold is acceptable during the drying process
- White fuzzy mold or blue/green molds are toxic
- Ground meat is at high risk for contamination, so if you’re making cured sausages, be extra vigilant
- If you’re unsure about the safety of eating cured meat, don’t risk it!
As you can see, this is a real hands-on activity. Take your time. Be mindful of safety first.
Now that you know how to cure meat, you can safely get to work in your kitchen. Follow the instructions in this article and you’ll have cured meat in no time. We are sure you’ll enjoy it.