If you are passionate about meat and care about its processing, you have probably looked into curing it on your own. Curing your own meat is not difficult, but you must exercise caution and use safe, established practices.
There is something wonderful about smoking your own bacon, hams, or even whole turkeys. They are delicious and well worth the effort! A pound of smoked bacon is a fantastic gift for a good friend at Christmas or a smoked ham at Thanksgiving.
Curing, however, is a little different because it is about food preservation. That is where things get tricky. Sometimes you think, well, in the old days they did it, how difficult could it be?
And yes, they did it, but a lot of them died untimely deaths. Do a little reading about being a pioneer and food preservation. It wasn’t easy.
If you have ever done any canning, you know that heat, time, and pressure are all vitally important, lest you make someone sick. Some foods are harder to preserve than others (tomatoes come to mind). So, let’s think about curing.
A common starter project for many meat and curing enthusiasts is to smoke your own bacon.
However, you may have looked into this and seen a recipe that involves “curing salt,” which is probably not something you just have in your pantry. Let’s look at what curing salt is and why you might want to explore using an alternative.
What Is Traditional Curing Salt
Using salt to cure meat is a very old practice.
Basically, curing salt is composed of these ingredients: salt, or sodium chloride, propylene glycol. Then, there are the nitrates and nitrites. Nitrites help with the curing or preserving of the meat.
The nitrites stop bacteria and eventual botulism. This is an important part of the process, as you can imagine. The nitrite also turns meat that pinkish color.
We all associate that pink with cured meat. But what is the pink? It’s just dye – technically red dye, but yes, it’s pink. That is done so that it won’t be mistaken for regular salt. Curing salt is also commonly called “Prague Powder.”
To sum up: if you want to cure, you need to use something to inhibit bacteria.
What If You Have Concerns About Nitrites?
You may have noticed lunch meats or bacon in the store often tout the use of natural nitrites. These are marked as “uncured.” Have you ever wondered about that?
There is a discussion, and we must say here that it’s debated, and still somewhat unsettled, that nitrites (or nitrates) are harmful. They may be.
They may be fine, too, so long as you avoid large amounts. Some people claim that they get headaches after consuming cured meats. That may be from the high sodium.
The concern has arisen, though, about possible damage to human cells and possible cancer. We are not scientists; we are meat lovers, yet we are all concerned about our health.
If you wish to avoid the possibility of this potential health risk (and we encourage you to do your own reading on the subject), you may wish to try a natural inhibitor.
However, without it, you may go through a lot of work and be disappointed about the flavor of your meat. Our palates are used to the flavor of curing salt. That is where we come into the use of alternatives.
Best Substitutes For Curing Salt
Good old celery. It’s tasty with peanut butter, cream cheese, or some chicken. What a great vegetable! And: you can use its juice to cure meat naturally.
However, it still contains nitrites/nitrates. They are just naturally occurring, not synthetically made.
You can juice your own celery if you have a juicer, or you can buy it at most grocery stores. It’s not cheap, though, so if you have a juicer, that is a better route.
Celery powder is just what it sounds like, powdered celery. It’s not a bad thing to have around in your pantry, anyway, because it has a nice flavor, and you can add it to soup or a little extra flavor.
This is a little more convenient than using juice, and we think it adds a nice flavor to smoked meats.
Beet Juice Powder
You will find beet juice powder in many recipes, it’s usually used in conjunction with celery powder and/or salt. Beet juice gives that nice pink color we’re used to, and it is high in nitrite.
Unfortunately, you won’t find a lot of recipes for curing using beet juice powder only.
This is a very old method, but we feel that for safety, it is not recommended. Again: bacteria. Sure, your neighbor may have done it and had success, but it’s a risk, and again, not recommended.
Another great “starter” recipe for home smokers is to make your own beef jerky. But what if you don’t want to use the pink salt? Are there alternatives?
The answer is yes, but again, we are going to exercise caution. You must get the meat to 160 degrees, and you should keep the finished product in the refrigerator.
It’s not going to keep there for a long time, either, but it’s delicious, so it will likely get eaten very quickly. You will want to marinade the jerky for flavor and use meat that is lean, not fatty.
What it may come down to for you is this. If you are not eating a ton of cured meat, you are probably just safer using curing salt, at least if you are a beginner. Weigh what is scarier: Botulism or eating nitrites.
If you’d like to try an alternative, we recommend celery salt or juice, together with a little beet juice, for color. Follow the recipe instructions carefully, and use safe practices.