There’s a lot of mystery surrounding home-cured meats, which is sad, because not only is it easy to do, for hundreds of years it was the de facto method of preserving and storing meats. It is an art lost in the surge of modern convenience of refrigeration, flash freezing and vacuum packing. Thankfully, it’s making a comeback.
Unlike the usual things you do in the kitchen such as sauteing or baking, curing requires one or two special items. The first is a curing salt, and the second is a smoker.
Chemically, a salt is the residue of a reaction between an acid and a base [an ionic compound from neutralizing an acid and a base]. We’re familiar with the ubiquitous sodium chloride, which is table salt. Curing salts have nitrogen and oxygen atoms instead of a chlorine atom, and depending on the number of oxygen atoms in the salt molecule, you have either nitrates (NaNO3) or nitrites (NaNO2).
The reason for using nitrates is simple: it prevents the growth of botulism, which can be fatal. It is also responsible for the familiar pink tinge that it gives corned beef and pastrami. Yes, too much nitrates or nitrites is harmful. So my advice is don’t eat nitrate-cured meats every meal for a month, follow the directions for using curing salts carefully, and you should be fine. Everything in moderation.
Curing Salt #1 combines regular salt with sodium nitrite. It’s used for products that have a short curing time. It is usually tinted pink so you don’t use it by accident in regular cooking.
Curing Salt #2, also known as Prague Powder #2 is the more common curing mix. It has sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite as well as regular salt. It is usually tinted pink so you don’t use it by accident in regular cooking.
As I mentioned above, these two salts are often tinted pink. Unfortunately, common commercial red food dye is made from cochineal. Which is a bug. So if it’s dyed pink it absolutely, positively needs kashruth certification [or you can buy it from me]. Let me know if you find one. Luckily, there are more easier to find kosher options than these two curing salts.
Morton’s Tender Quick has an OU hashgacha. It’s not favored by hardcore home curing enthusiasts. But it works fine. It also has much less nitrates/nitrites by volume. You can order a 2lb bag from overseas.
Saltpeter or potassium nitrate, (or sodium nitrate if it comes from South America, or calcium nitrate if it comes from Scandinavia). It it a white powder that’s more grainy than salt, and it clumps more. Saltpeter is a naturally occurring substance (called niter), but nowadays it is synthesized for commercial uses. It is used in gunpowder for its ability to provide oxygen to the reaction. It is used in fertilizer for providing potassium and nitrogen to growing plants (see nitrogen cycle if you’re bored). And, it is used in food preservation. Namely, wet and dry-cured meats. There are no additional additives, so it’s kosher without a hashgacha, and best of all, you can find it [somewhat] easily in Israel.
I should mention that salt-only curing is another option, but the amount of salt needed can be 10% of the total weight of the product, and it doesn’t provide the pathogen-blocking properties of nitrates.
When curing meats you can either use a dry cure or a brine.
Dry cures combine the curative properties of the curing salts with flavors from spices and seasoning. The piece of meat being cured is liberally coated and rubbed with the cure or incorporated directly into a mixture, then left to sit for varying amounts of time. The meat absorbs the curing salt, preserving it.
Brines and pump cures are liquids into which curing salts are dissolved and meat is left to soak in the solution until cured. If you inject (or pump) a cure into the meat (using an injection pump or hypodermic needle), it will have to sit less in the brine. A brine is lightly flavored, and common flavorings include garlic, bay leaves, allspice, mustard, black peppercorns, and hot peppers.
Cured meat is usually cooked after curing typically by boiling or smoking. The one’s we’re familiar with as Jews are of course, corned beef and pastrami.
Corned beef is a brine-cured beef brisket (#3) that is boiled after curing. It sits for up to three weeks in a brine until fully cured, then boiled until soft.
- Prep Time : 20 min
- Cook Time : 180 min
- Ready Time : 3 hour, 20 min
- 3 liters water
- 180 grams kosher salt
- 200 grams brown sugar
- 20 grams Pink Salt #1
- 2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 8 whole cloves
- 2 tablespoons allspice berries
- 12 whole juniper berries optional
- 5 whole bay leaves
- 6 whole garlic cloves
- 2.5 - 3 kilograms beef brisket
- In one liter of water, dissolve sugar, saltpeter and salt over medium heat. Set aside to cool.
- Roughly crush or smash seeds and garlic.
- Pour all of the water, seeds and bay leaves into a large zip-top bag.
- Add brisket and seal. Place flat in the refrigerator.
- Let cure for 10 days to two weeks, turning the brisket daily.
- After curing, remove the corned beef, rinse it off and place it in a pot large enough to hold it and fill the pot with water.
- Bring water to the boil then simmer it for 2.5 to 3 hours, until soft.
Pastrami is a dry-cured beef square-cut roast that is smoked after curing. You aren’t going to find any square-cut roast on my meat chart, because it’s sort of a Jewish-only cut. It comes from the beef plate, which is a #9 before it is cut into the thin segments we’re familiar with. Romanian pastrami is made from first-cut brisket.
- Prep Time : 20 min
- Cook Time : 240 min
- Ready Time : 4 hour, 20 min
- 5 tablespoons Morton's Tender Quick
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons coarse ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
- 2.5-3 kilograms square cut roast or brisket
- 3 tablespoons coarse ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons ground coriander
- Combine the ingredients for the cure in a small bowl.
- Liberally coat the pastrami with the cure.
- Place the pastrami in a zip-top bag and seal.
- Allow the pastrami to cure for 5 days, turning daily so the pastrami cures evenly.
- Before smoking, remove the pastrami from the plastic bag. Soak in cold water for one hour.
- Coat the pastrami liberally with the dry rub.
- Smoke the pastrami until it reaches an internal temperature of 82°C (180°F).