Cured meats are the result of a centuries-old practice of food preservation and a star ingredient in the culinary world. These versatile meats are featured in all types of recipes – from sandwiches to salads and signature pasta dishes. They’re also a must-have when building a charcuterie board for a party or small get-together with friends.
What Is Cured Meat?
Cured meat is made via processes that remove moisture from the meat through osmosis which in turn draws out potentially harmful bacteria. Most processes call for a mixture of salt and natural or synthetically derived nitrates that work to regulate moisture loss and preserve qualities such as color, flavor, and longevity.
When Was Cured Meat Invented?
Curing meats is an ancient art that dates all the way back to 3000 B.C. Historians have found evidence of ancient people living in Mesopotamia preserving meat and fish in sesame oil and salt. This technique provided them with a source of protein during colder months when food was scarce and proved vital to their survival.
By 200 BC, meat curing was widely practiced in European countries and had transitioned from a means of survival to a refined culinary process. Once well established in France, it did not take long for the invention of the charcuterie board to emerge. Cured meat became a popular delicacy enjoyed by kings and other nobles of high stature and still remains one of the most popular premium snacking options centuries later.
Methods For Curing Meats
When it comes to the process of curing meat, each method falls into two categories: wet or dry. The main difference between the two is that wet curing involves a liquid brine while dry curing does not. No matter the method, all processes for curing meat require the salt-based solution to penetrate through the entire piece of meat to ensure it is safe to eat. The other variables like time, humidity, temperature, and spices all aid in the flavor development of the specific delicacy being made.
Natural vs. Synthetic Nitrates
Nitrates (NO3) and nitrites (NO2) are compounds that occur naturally in the human body and in certain foods. In meat, nitrites turn into nitric oxide which reacts with proteins in the meat, changing its color and helping to preserve it for safe consumption.
There are two different types of nitrates that can be used during the meat curing process which are natural or synthetic nitrates. The difference is that “natural” or “organic” products derive the nitrates from food sources rather than synthetic ones. Nitrates are naturally present in many foods, most notably in vegetables. In fact, celery juice is one of the most common non-synthetic nitrate used for curing.
Types of Cured Meat
If you’ve ever been to an Italian restaurant, tapas bar, or local deli, then you’ve most likely encountered a few different types of cured meats. The most popular varieties are salami and prosciutto but it is important to note that every culture in the world has its own signature cured meats – meaning there are thousands of varieties to get to know.
The main factors that set different types of cured meats apart are the type of meat, cut of meat, curing method, and spices used for flavoring. Prosciutto, for example, is a slow-cured ham that is salted and aged for several months. Similar to prosciutto, bresaola is also dry-cured, but beef eye of round is used instead of pork and, due to its smaller size, it is aged only about three months to maintain its delicate texture.
Here’s a list of our favorite types of cured meats:
Bresaola – Dry-cured salted lean beef eye of round, aged about three months.
Chorizo – Coarsely ground fatty pork sausage seasoned with pimentón (hot paprika), garlic and salt.
Coppa – Spice-rubbed dry-cured pork neck.
Culatello – Dry-cured, slow aged select boneless cut of ham.
Genoa – A popular salami known for its firm texture and strong notes of garlic and black pepper
Finocchiona – Pork shoulder and cheek dry-cured salami spiced with fennel, black pepper and garlic.
Guanciale – Cured, dried spice-rubbed fatty pork cheeks.
Jamón Serrano – Dry-cured ham, salted, aged for several months, and then lightly heated for 4 weeks.
Mortadella -A slow-roasted, mildly flavored pork sausage lightly seasoned with garlic and black pepper, and sometimes studded with pistachios.
‘Nduja – Spreadable fermented pork sausage heavily spiced with chili peppers.
Pancetta – Italian-style bacon made from pork belly that is massaged with spices, rolled and slow cured.
Pepperoni – A classic dry or semi-dry cured salami spiced with smoked paprika and toasted fennel seed.
Prosciutto – Slow-cured ham, salted, and aged for several months.
Sopressata – Coarsely ground salami with a mild flavor of fresh garlic and cracked black pepper.
Speck – Dry-cured boneless ham that is slowly smoked.
Is Cured Meat Safe to Eat?
We understand how the idea of curing meat by leaving it out at room temperature for long periods of time may not sound the most appealing, let alone safe. Unlike that chicken breast that you took out of the fridge a few days ago, cured meat is safe to eat as long as proper safety guidelines are followed.
The main component that sets rancid and cured meats apart is moisture. A steak that sits out in the sun all day will grow harmful bacteria which can make you sick. When a curing mixture of salt, sugar, and other spices are introduced to a piece of meat by either coating or injecting, the moisture is drawn out and eventually evaporates through a process called osmosis. The absence of water creates an environment that prevents bacteria from growing and therefore makes cured meats perfectly safe and delicious to consume.
How Long Will Cured Meat Stay Fresh?
The amount of salt used in the preparation of cured meat helps it to stay fresh for long periods of time. According to The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), most whole cured meats can be sealed and kept fresh for many months. If you have opened the package, it is recommended to consume within one week.
Different Ways to Enjoy Cured Meats
There are many different ways to enjoy cured meats. You can use them as ingredients in a recipe, spread them across a charcuterie board, create delicious pairings, or enjoy them right out of the package. We’ve compiled a plethora of different recipes, pairing suggestions, and charcuterie board ideas to ease you into the vast world of cured meats. Feel free to browse our collection for some inspiration!
Curing meat can be a complicated and often lengthy process, but the result makes it all worthwhile. This time-honored process has provided a variety of creative new ways to enjoy different types of meat. Once you’ve tried a bite, it’s hard to resist the craving that is sure to follow. We hope this information will get you excited to try cured meats in new ways and to share the experience with some of your close friends and family. After all, one of the best pairings is cured meat and good company.