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Nitrates and Nitrites

nitrates

Blame this post on some Twitter friends that assured me it would be interesting.

When you cure meat you have to learn a thing or two about ingredients that don’t come up much in regular cooking. I don’t know about you, but I never cooked much with dry milk powder, dextrose, or peculiar sections of beef intestines. I can say without a doubt that I never dealt with nitrites/nitrates before making moldy meat in my garage.

So I thought it might be kinda fun, in a food history geeky kind of way, to look at why nitrites/nitrates are used in meat curing, the effects and benefits they have, their health implications, and natural sources of nitrites. We will talk a bit about botulism poisoning too, just for giggles.

Nitrates have been used for a heck of a long time in meat curing. Early on people might not have known what helped meat keep its color, and last longer, but it was down to naturally occurring nitrates, an impurity in some salts. Slowly over the years knowledge developed along with food science, and today we know what we are dealing with.

What do Nitrites do in meat curing?

  1. Give cured meats an appealing even pink/red color
  2. Give that sharp “cured meat’s taste”
  3. Prevent botulism poisoning

Nitrates and Nitrites – what’s the difference?

When we talk about nitrites/nitrates, we are normally talking about Sodium Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate. There are other sources however (Potassium Nitrate, or Saltpetre) and we will talk about those later.

In short, quite a lot but also not that much. It is technically nitrITES that do the work. By “do the work” I mean give cured meat that lovely pink color, and sharp cured taste. Nitrite is also the delightful compound that helps prevent Cl. botulinum developing spores that gives us botulism poisoning – the most deadliest poisoning known to man.

So what do nitrATES do, and why do we use them? Well, consider nitrates to be a “slow release” form of nitrites. Bacteria in meat after a while will react with nitrate and create nitrITE. Since nitrite gets used up during the curing process, it is important to use some nitrates for meat curing that takes a while – like salami.

However, since it can take a while for the bacteria to start reacting with sodium nitrate, we should make sure that for meat curing, which can take many months, we use BOTH nitrite and nitrate to properly color the meat, give the tenderizing and taste effect, and also most importantly provide the required protection against botulism poisoning.

Wait.. did you say Botulism poisoning, that is serious right?

Yep. Sure is. I wouldn’t want to get it and I wouldn’t want anyone I know to get it either. Thankfully the chances of getting food borne botulism is extremely slim. From 1990 to 2000 only 263 people got effected by botulism, caused by 160 food borne events (source: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/489058_3).

If left untreated, botulism is most likely going to be fatal. Symptoms include difficulty swallowing, talking, breathing and double vision.

C. Botulinum spores are found in soil and water sediments all over the world. These spores are not dangerous until they germinate – which is when they produce the fatal toxin, Botulism.

For the spores to germinate they require the following conditions:

  1. mildly acidic environment
  2. an environment absent of oxygen
  3. moisture
  4. warmth (40-15oF)

Now if we think about it, those are the EXACT conditions exhibited inside a sausage. Mildly acidic, thanks to the latic acid forming bacteria – no oxygen is available inside the salami. The meat mix is very moist, and we have added liquid to it too. We also ferment and air dry meat within the ideal temperature range for spores to germinate.

Given the information above, in my mind you would have to be somewhat crazy to cure salami at home without using some protection against botulism. YES, the chance of you catching botulism is extremely rare, however with something as serious as this, why take the risk?

Nitrites, in the correct quantities, prevent the formation of toxins from the germentation of the bacteria spores. USE THEM for all home cured salami products.

Incidentally, nitrates aren’t strictly required for curing whole muscle cuts. The bacteria can only exist on the exterior of the meat. This happens to be an oxygen rich environment, so there can be no development of the fatal toxin. If you take that meat with botulism on the exterior of it, grind it up, and stuff it tightly in to a casing, then those bacteria are now on the inside, in an airless environment. Best get out them nitrates.

Most food borne cases of botulism have either been caused by badly canned goods, or foods that have been incorrectly stored. There have been incidents where foods have been stored in air-tight containers and then not kept at a low enough temperature (remember, botulism likes 40-150F – so regular fridge temps of 36F are OK). There has been cases of botulism poisoning from the restaurant practice of storing chopped garlic (garlic can be a source of botulism) in olive oil. The olive oil creates that air free environment. I personally have stored chopped garlic this way, but always in the fridge.

OK, OK, you have sold me on nitrates.. where can I get the gear?

So, here is the thing. Nitrites and nitrates can be fatal when used in too high of a dose. Just 1/3 teaspoon of nitrITE could be fatal. You would need 1 teaspoon, perhaps more of nitrATE to have a similarly fatal effect.

Because of this it is incredibly hard for the general public to buy pure nitrite and nitrate. Large commercial curing plants mix up their own curing salts from salt and pure nitrites, but at home most people do not have scales accurate enough (or perhaps the math and food science knowledge) to do this safely.

Instead, us home curer’s can buy premade “curing salts”. These are certain pre-defined mixes that include regular salt, nitrite and nitrate. There are two different mixes available – CURE 1 and CURE 2.

CURE 1: A mix of 1oz of sodium nitrite (6.25%) to 1lb of salt. This is primarily used for curing products that are to be smoked – like bacon. Nitrate cannot be legally used in the craft of bacon making since when cooked at high temperature it can form cancer causing compounds. Since nitrite gets used up relatively quickly in the curing process, it is inadvisable to use nitrite only cures, like cure1, in long-term curing projects like salami.

CURE2: A mix of 1oz sodium nitrite (6.25%), 0.64oz sodium nitrate (4%) to 1lb of salt. This provides fast acting protection (nitrite) against botulism, and the slower release sodium nitrate to give longer lasting protection. This should be used in all dry cured salami that are to be cured over a long time, and can be used in whole muscle cuts for curing as well (mainly for color and flavor enhancement)

If we look at those percentages you would have to consume a lot of cure 1 or cure 2 to have a fatal effect – since the proportion of nitrite/nitrate is so low. You would literally have to be tied down, and have the stuff poured down your throat for a long time. Even still, it is incredibly important to store these ingredients high up on shelves, in tightly locked containers – way out of the reach of children.

Cure 1 and Cure 2, along with other meat curing supplies can be ordered from the following online retailers:

Butcher and Packer (http://www.butcher-packer.com/)

Sausage Maker (http://www.sausagemaker.com/)

Wait.. I heard that Nitrates aren’t safe – what’s the deal?

There has been some research done that show that when nitrates are subjected to high temperatures (600F or so) they can lead to the formation of nitrosamines which were cancer causing in lab animals. Because of that nitrates have been banned in the production of bacon – since most people fry those suckers at high temperatures till they are crisp.

A lot of studies have been done, and a lot of money has been spent on trying to see if nitrates and nitrites cause any health effects. The National Academy of Sciences have found nitrite does not directly harm us.

In fact, the amount nitrates/nitrites in meat is considerably tiny compared to those found in vegetables – especially those farmed using nitrate based fertilizers. Chances are also that if you grow vegetables at home in the soil, and your neighbor isn’t as organic as you – you are going to be eating a lot more nitrates. Especially also if you get your drinking water from a shallow well – like a lot of rural communities do in the USA.

You would likely consume more nitrate in a meal with a nice “healthy” helping of spinach than you would if you ate 1/4lb of smoked sausage.

Further to this, in 2008 a British study (British.. so it must be correct!) showed that consuming nitrate rich vegetables might be a good way to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.

How much nitrite is dangerous? Stanley Marianski calculated that one would have to consume 14.3lbs of salami, in one sitting to consume a dangerous amount of nitrite. This doesn’t even take in to account that nitrite is used up (converted to inert nitric oxide) during the curing process, so most likely you would have to consume even more nitrite than that. Now, I love salami, but not so much to eat that much cured meat in one go.

I am a hippy and I want to cure meat naturally. Are there natural sources of nitrate I can use?

I can get with that too. Food grown without chemicals and pesticides are important to me, and I spend a good deal of my paycheck every month getting said produce from local farmers I know and trust.

The most widely used natural source of nitrates for meat curing is celery powder.

DON’T USE IT.

There, I said it. Here is the problem with it. There are absolutely no regulations or standards as to the amount of nitrate it contains. Even if you use the same amount in every salami you make, you could quite easily be adding too much or too little nitrate to your cured meats. Too little, and you might as well not bother. Too much can be dangerous.

Sodium Nitrate is a very simple compound (NaNO3 for you chemistry buffs) and the natural version, or lab made version is the same. No additional elements. Nitrate is nitrate.

Buy the proper cures for curing meat. Measure out your curing salts accurately, using a high precision scale. Don’t mess around celery powder.

The same incidentally goes for “saltpetre” or Potassium Nitrate as it is also known. This is one element in gun powder, but has also been used to cure meat for a long time (it was that impurity in some salt mines). The problem with saltpetre again is that it can contain a slightly varying amount of nitrate in it, and because it is used in gun powder, can be hard to get. Most people have now stopped using saltpetre in favor of sodium nitrate/nitrite based cures (Cure 1 and Cure 2).

If you are interested in learning more about the science behind meat curing, and the products involved – I highly recommend this book: (A fair portion of the information you see here was thanks to the great knowledge provided in its pages)

The Art of Making Fermented Sausages by Stanley Marianski

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28 Responses to “Nitrates and Nitrites”

  1. Kyle says:

    … you didn’t mention the potentially lucrative side-business that could emerge from the production of botulism for all those Botox parties so popular in Hollywood… lol

  2. Janna says:

    Great post and research, Matt.

  3. Heath Putnam says:

    The no-nitrite, no-nitrate products mislead consumers trying to avoid nitrosamines.

    http://woolypigs.blogspot.com/2008/01/austrian-guy-on-no-nitrite-bacon.html

  4. Andre says:

    Hey Matt, What’s going on ? We now have a shortage of freeze dried cultures for our fermented sausages, any suggestions ?
    By the way the Pancetta came out gorgeous and very delicious. I don’t believe I will buy commercially made Pancetta again . Thanks as always for sharing what you do.

  5. nick says:

    fun reading. thanks again. Hey, i played with some meat and i have a Lomo Curado-pork loin hanging in my curing fridge right now… i cured it with nitrite, knowing it would be drying for longer and knowing i should be using nitrate but wanted to see what came of it. any idea of this would be safe or not? I figured that once it was firm and ready, i would figure out if it was edible as soon as i cut a few slices…. thanks Matt

  6. So, apart from home curing meat, which I’m not currently doing … do I need to keep buying the nitrate free hot dogs for the toddler?

  7. matt says:

    Kyle – I totally should have mentioned that.
    Janna – thanks!
    Heath – interesting stuff, thanks.
    Andre – no idea mate, I just procured some TSPX last week from Butcher Packer no problem.
    Nick – I have emailed you mate. There is no “health” reason to cure whole muscles like that with nitrate/nitrite. It is your choice whether it is safe or not.
    Kate – There is no reason for nitrite in fresh sausage, only either cured or smoked. I would personally get nitrate free hotdogs. My take on it is that if I don’t need nitrate, I am not going to add it to anything.

  8. Scott says:

    Good stuff, sir. Nice post.

  9. hank says:

    Thanks you for coming down on my side on this — I get static all the time when I use nitrite in my charcuterie, and I find myself going through all the same points you make here. Now I can just point people to this and move on.

    Excuse me, I now need to go eat 14.3 pounds of salami…

    ;-)

  10. matt says:

    Hank – I totally agree, I get concerned when so many people want to cure using either no nitrates or celery powder. I cannot imagine eating 14.3lb of salami.. something tells me you are more likely to have complications from salt intake way before you hit nitrate problems!

  11. Andre says:

    Butcher Packer is out of the Bactoferm 600 for now. Any suggestions for a replacement which works as well ? I would be more confident if I had the “good mold” outside of my products. I have seen how ugly the black and green molds can be. Thanks

  12. Andre says:

    Matt, my food bible of the moment is “The art of making fermented sausages” and I have read it twice ! It is the best guide for sausage making today as long as one does follow the rules of food safety and sanitation during the process. I am having a great time with what I call Charcuterie 2 and coming up with new recipes. Hunting season will be here before we know it, so look out for new things to do in the curing chamber and the wine room of the local winery.

  13. mattwright says:

    Andre – I have no idea on a replacement, sorry. Have you tried other sites for the bactoferm? My only other suggestion would be to scrape some of the mold off an existing sausage, mix with a little water, and spray on to new salami.

    I love that book, it’s and absolute must for anyone wanting to make salami at home.

  14. Jennifer says:

    Dear Matt, I have been following your blog since I heard you on KCRW’s GoodFood. Your pictures are stunning but I love the content, in lay-person’s terms, even more. This article about nitrates/nitrites was surprising interesting. Keep up the good work!

  15. Demetri says:

    Matt, great research, way to point out the key risks and benefits to this stuff in a way that the masses could understand.

    My friend and I have been making our own home cured sausages for some time now and the recipe we use (a very ancient one from my ancestral village in Greece) calls for a lot of leek.

    At the time we got started I did a little research as to whether or not we should use cure 1/cure 2 in our efforts.

    When I learned that leeks and other leafy greens contain a lot of naturally occurring nitrates I decided that it would be best not to double up the amounts of the stuff in our recipe. Myriad batches later we’ve achieved a tasty result every time.

    My point is, that people making home made sausages can get the protection of “all natural” NaNO3 without having to go with an unregulated/relatively understudied product like celery powder IF their recipe calls for a healthy amount of veggies like leek or onion.

    Best,

    Demetri T

  16. Houston Carl says:

    I’ve seen cured sausages made with celery juice & a starter that works with the nitrates in the celery…they claim their products have “no added nitrates” LOL

  17. Hi Matt!

    Wow! I love your blog. this is amazing. I found you by googling “best dslr camera for food photography” and up came your post from last year on all the goods. Great job! I’m a newbie and, like you, my passion for cooking and photography (and writing) have collided and here I am. Your photos are great, your writing is witty, fun, informative and intresting. Who knew one could giggle while reading about meat curing! So anyways, I am putting you on my blog roll for sure. If you don’t mind, could you come by my blog and put in some pointers about my photos?

    I’m working with a point and shoot right now. I use only natural light and am working on that whole white board thing… I feel like I have a good eye, cause I’m an artist at heart, but it’s just figuring out how to get the picture I see in my head. Anyways, thank you for your wonderful blog. I’m so excited to see future posts!

    Cheers!
    Lauren

  18. tgrogg says:

    I have had success making salami without a starter culture. I do use cure #2 in the meat mix. I live at the beach in CA and am wondering if the humidity here has enabled to mold growth on the casing. Am I running a risk not using starter culture?

  19. Adele says:

    Only problem I have with nitrates is they are a migraine trigger and I end up in severe pain when I eat them. I can’t eat lunchmeats because of this and do get the nitrate free or natural nitrate bacon. I would love to find a way to cure meats without nitrates because of this, hard to eat an Easter ham when you can’t eat ham because it is a trigger. It is one of the many additives doctors recommend getting away from including MSG and anything with soy in it (not soy oil, just soy protein). I found all this out the hard way and would really like to eat ham and other cured meat products again. Any help would be appreciated. It also appears to be mostly sodium nitrate that causes the migraines, the natural occurring ones in the bacon I buy don’t bother me.

  20. mattwright says:

    Adele – it is entirely possible to cure meat without nitrates. Just be aware of the risks of leaving it out. You can try the “natural” sources – like celery powder too – but personally I would stay away from those.

  21. mattwright says:

    Adele – there is also some sea salts that have natural nitrates in them – you could look in to that.

  22. Andre says:

    Hi Matt, what a summer this has been ! I am now making five kinds of charcuterie from coppa to salami to saucisson and then some. Thanks to you for getting me started. Everybody loves and this might have an unexpected twist, you know the “be careful what you wish kind”. It is all good and so much fun. Someone asked me to make 50 Tuscan style salami to give away as Xmas present to his clients ! I am on it big time. I just want to offer a tip from a local German sausage maker: instead of using culture in the meat paste he uses buttermilk ! I just finished a batch of Spanish style Chorizo and used the buttermilk instead of the culture. The ration is 100 grams per 1800 grams of meat paste. I will report on the success (or failure) of this economic idea.

  23. Aaron says:

    Thanks, this was very informative. I have been making pork sausage with my grandpa. It has been passed down for generations originating in the Tuscany region of Italy. It is very good and I have been experimenting with a smoked version. I have been concerned about the cancer risk that nitrates might cause and I wanted a natural source ie. celery. Looks like I’m safer using my Mortons.

  24. JJ says:

    Thanks for this info! I am just getting into some very basic curing.

    I was at the grocery store looking at the salamis. There is one chorizo from Spain that advertises no nitrites or nitrates. The ingredients listed are “pork, salt, pimenton, seasoning (dextrin, dextrose), garlic, oregano, and olive oil. beef collagen casing.” I have photos. How can this be? Shouldn’t this be unsafe?

  25. mattwright says:

    not necessarily unsafe. I have bought nitrate free chorizo before, imported from Spain. I don’t know enough about how the nitrate works to protect against botulism. The only thing I can think of is that the product is dried far enough for any potential botulism to die, due to lack of available moisture.

    The other thing of course is that a lot of European countries don’t cure with nitrates at all. I know a French butcher who never uses it, and says that the quality of his pigs, their feed, how the animal is slaughtered means that there is no risk of botulism. He might have something there, who knows. Personally, I add nitrates because I don’t like taking a risk. YES, the risk is really bloody tiny, but holy heck is it serious.

  26. Andrew says:

    Matt,
    Just discovered your blog and I love all the information you have. I’m a newbie to the world of charcuterie (aside from eating it) and I have a couple questions you may be able to answer.
    1. How is it that producers can offer nitrite free bacon that has been cold smoked? Doesn’t that run the risk of botulism?
    2. If you use nitrate/ite in a sausage does that make it safe to cold smoke without the risk of botulism?
    I’ve been having trouble finding answers to these issues. I grew up on a fantastic summer sausage made by the same family butcher shop for over 100 years. Sadly they are no longer in business. I do know that it was cold smoked and shelf stable. I always liked to pick a nice dry one off the hook. The flavor was unmatched and I would like to recreated it if possible.

  27. mattwright says:

    Andrew – “nitrate free” is actually total bullshit. They use celery powder or something like that, so there is nitrates/ites in there. Its a shitty marketting scam that is allowed by the governing bodies.
    2 – yes. nitrate/ite in the correct amounts will give the required protection against botulism.