Thursday, April 7, 2011

Natural curing experiment is a success!

As you may recall, a while ago we experimented with truly natural ham and bacon curing.  Before I get to the news, lets review a bit:

There are currently four ways to purchase "cured" cuts of pork. Each is explained here.

1. Conventional curing - sodium nitrate: This is how the hams and bacon on the shelves today are predominately processed. Sodium nitrate (along with some other flavorings) is injected into the meat, allowed to sit for some period of time, and then smoked at low temperatures. The resulting product has the common "pink" color and taste of hams, bacon, lunch meats, hot dogs, etc.  Sodium nitrate reduces the chances of botulism bacteria growing during storage, improving the shelf life. Critics state evidence that sodium nitrates changes into cancer causing chemicals during cooking and body metabolism and increases the chance for many cancers. The government does not support this claim.

2. Natural Nitrate curing - also called nitrate free curing, celery cure, etc: This method is fairly new and little understood by most people. Instead of the chemical sodium nitrate,  the meat is injected with condensed celery juice or reconstituted celery juice, mixed with other flavors and salts. The effect on the meat (if done properly) is identical to conventional nitrate curing. In fact, it is the exact same chemical process that utilizes nitrates to perform the magic of curing. Celery happens to be high in nitrates occurring naturally. Using a high concentration of celery juice in one form or another is a source of sodium nitrate.  The benefits of this approach is that the nitrates are at least naturally occurring, instead of being chemically produced pure. Celery juice carries with the nitrates all the vitamins and minerals of celery, which proponents say counteract the cancer causing effects of the nitrates, making it a safe alternative. These products are NOT usually clearly labeled, and the only way to tell for sure if your "no nitrate" product has celery based nitrates is to look at the ingredients. the list will often include "celery juice or powder". The package will often say "no nitrates added (except those naturally occurring)". This is because celery juice itself is a flavor not a additive according to government rules, so it is treated differently on labeling.

3. Natural or Traditional Curing :  This method is totally different from the nitrate cures of #1 and #2. In this method salt and sugar are the only preservatives in the meat. Spices are added to impart flavor but the operative ingredient is plain salt. This is how people have preserved meat for ages.Salt slows bacteria growth when in high enough concentrations. Natural curing means salt, sugar, and spices are injected into the meat and it sits for some time, then smoked just like above. (smoking itself is a bit of a preservative, since smoke also contains natural nitrates in small quantities).  The resulting product is truly NO NITRATE (except for hte tiny amount added in the outer layer by smoke) and hence is not truly "cured", does not have the "pink" color nor true ham taste. The shelf life is also reduced (more on this later). The flavors of this type of meat are endless, as any combination of spices can be added to produce a distinctive flavor.  These meats are also often aged for long periods of time, producing a bit of "fermentation" internal and adding further flavor.

4. Fresh or Uncured: This represents truly untouched meat, sold fresh just like a pork chop or plain roast would be. It has no specific flavor other than that of pure pork, and no coloring at all other than that of pure pork. When cooked this way without further processing the end result is the flavor of pork chops or roasts with no flavor. The shelf life of this meat is identical to any raw pork.

So that's the options today for hams and bacon (along with lunch meats and hot dogs). Anytime you see meat with a red color, and tastes like ham instead of pork chops, be assured it probably has been treated with nitrates in one form or another. If it has no color, and tastes like plain pork chops or roasts, it is probably truly fresh, and it if has other exotic flavors, it is probably salt and sugar cured.

A word about meat shelf life: In the distant past, this was a very important aspect. A large animal was butchered and if it could not be consumed within a day or two, the meat would go bad, just like raw meat left out on the counter today. With no refrigeration, there were few options to preserve the meat. That is when salt and sugar cures (along with fermentation) was introduced, specifically to preserve meats for later consumption without refrigeration. Fast forward to today and the question is... do we need a long shelf life at room temperature? Kept frozen, raw meat as a seemingly indefinite shelf life (months to years). So the original reason for curing no longer exists. Today, the only reason for sodium nitrate curing is the flavor, color, texture of ham. I suppose one could make the argument that the food delivery system has an interest in preserving meat for sale much later, but that's a scary thought in itself.

So, with the background done.. here is our news!

Our experiment in natural curing (salt and sugar based) is a huge success! We produced four types of cures, all of which can be offered through little sprouts  as well as conventional curing:

1. Celery and Honey cure: This recipe uses celery juice and honey as the primary flavor and curing agent, producing a flavor just like conventional hams and bacon, without the chemical nitrates.

2. Mustard and Spice Cure: This is a completely natural nitrate free cure, relying on salt, sugar, and spices. The predominate flavor is that of mustard seed mixed with onion, garlic, and other spices. It is a slightly salty, slightly sweet, slight mustard seed flavor that produces a well balanced and appetizing flavor. It is my personal favorite!

3. Holiday Ham: This is also a completely nitrate free salt and sugar cure relying on cloves and holiday type spices to produce a bright festive flavor. It is somewhat similar to the honey hams sold in stores without the strong sweetness. This ham would go well baked as a holiday ham in a sweet sauce to complete the flavor, but is absolutely delicious on it's own.

4. Molasses and Pepper: This is more for bacon than ham, but could apply to either, another completely natural nitrate free cure. It has the sweetest of the above flavors, but the sweetness comes from molasses not raw sugar, which fits well with the pepper and bacon flavor. Be careful when cooking as the sugar in the molasses will caramelize easily! Cooked right, this is a fabulous breakfast meat to wake up the pallet and start your day.

Little Sprouts Farm is proud to announce availability of these cures (plus the option to buy "fresh" and do it yourself) on future orders or pork. When placing your order just choose which cures you wish for which cuts of meat, and in a couple weeks you will have the most unique flavored hams and bacon available anywhere! Our recipes are our own secret and so will not be available anywhere else. We wish to keep these great cures matched to the extreme flavor of the Red Wattle Pork.

Hurray and place your order today! Supplies are some what limited, and not available elsewhere!

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