Friday, August 26, 2011

Constructing the Language of Charcuterie

South African Salt Cured Beef (Biltong)

Cure and Curing

Cure A chemical agent [Emphasis mine] placed in or on meat or poultry for use in preservation, flavor, or color. (USDA

The USDA definition of cure seems reasonable until you examine some of the implicit assumptions made by the agency before its construction. For example, the language of the USDA implies that salt and sugar are not "chemicals"

Chemical Preservative Any chemical that, when added to a meat or meat food product, tends to prevent or retard deterioration thereof, but does not include common salt, sugars, vinegars, spices, or oils extracted from spices or substances added to meat and meat food products by exposure to wood smoke. (USDA)

By arbitrarily removing salt and sugar from their rightful place as chemical compounds, the USDA eliminates hundreds of products that are traditionally cured with one or both of these chemicals. So, in the obfuscating terminology of the USDA, an Iberico  ham that is so well-preserved with salt that it can hang for two years is not cured while one that has added nitrite but can't last a week in the open air (e.g. Virginia ham) is cured ham. 


And what about this definition of curing that states that only pork can be cured?

Curing  Curing is the addition of salt, sodium nitrate (or saltpeter), nitrites and sometimes sugars, seasonings, phosphates and ascorbates to pork for preservation, color development and flavor enhancement. (USDA

Add the same handful of chemicals to beef and it's not cured it's, what, seasoned? Given that the USDA's definition of cure allows it to be applied to "meat and poultry," the restriction to pork is probably the result of sloppy editing. Still, it's annoying and confusing. 

I  suspect that the USDA drew a dividing line between naturally occurring chemicals like salt and sugar to make a distinction between curing agents which are toxic only at very high doses (so high that no one would ingest food so treated) and  substances like nitrite which can cause serious damage in small  amounts (Nitrite in Meat). But really, for those of us who want to understand what curing is and how it occurs, this regulatory language is more shadow than light.

I think that those of us who practice the craft of charcuterie, while staying mindful of the law (and compliant if we produce commercially) will be better off thinking about cures and curing based on an understanding of what curative substances actually are and how they behave within and affect the foods into which they are introduced.

All of the substances that we use when we cure meat and other animal products (and plant products too, but we'll ignore them for now) have the following characteristics
  • They are water or fat or protein soluble or some combination thereof. In other words, they are chemicals that can pass thru cell membranes and dissolve in tissue.
  • They inhibit the growth of spoilage microbes limiting the bugs access to water (i.e. lowering the water activity on and in the food) or via intoxication (poisoning) or cell damage or some combination thereof.
  • In some applications they enhance water retention by the product cured
  • They alter the color of the cured product via chemical (nitrates) and physical (sugar) means
  • They change the taste and sometimes the aroma of the product

With these shared characteristics in mind, we can make a first rough draft of a new definition of cure) as in curing agent)

Any substance that is capable of dissolving in meat (or any comestible animal product) that has the effect preventing or limiting the occurrence of spoilage microbes and altering its flavor and color.

This definition seems to permit the full range of products that are used for curing to be accepted as curing agents. Salt, all the sugars, slaked lime (Calcium hydroxide, used to make cured Century Eggs) lye (Sodium hydroxide e.g. lutefisk), celery and cherry juice powder (both rich in nitrate) and synthetic nitrates and nitrites.



Jessica said...

Sounds a bit um, off to call it all "chemical agents". Curing and drying has been (the most?) efficient way of preserving food for centuries.
I live in Scandinavia where it was what people did. That and pickling. I know people that just adore lutfisk, me not so much. It gets a very odd consistency when it's reconstituted. But still, in terms of preservation it works.

If you consider salt etc., as "chemical agents", then I hate to read the language requierd to describe sugar substitutes, and that which is made to constitute low fat products.

Warner said...

I would change 'For example, salt and sugar are not "chemicals"" slightly to point to the USDA, I read it the first time as you saying it.

Bob del Grosso said...

Warner, Many thanks.

Linda/IdahoRocks said...

The salt and sugar not being chemicals made me want to laugh for a brief, initial moment. Then I immediately thought not only about how inane that was, but of the ramifications which, in turn, quickly filled my mind with throughts of corporate greed, re-constructing laws and language for individual benefit, and preventing others from sharing in the capital. Nice job, Bob!

Tags said...

The USDA should take a cue from Lindy Wildsmith in her book "Cured."

She breaks it down into seven chapters, Salted, Spiced & Marinated, Dried, Smoked, Potted, Pickled, and Raw. (although the Raw chapter uses the other six for the most part)

Peter Hertzmann said...

I think you're giving the USDA too much credit for using of science. These definitions usually involve lots of politics and history. They take years to evolve, and are often not to the point, or simply out of date, by the time they show up in the Federal Register.

Note the recent lower of acceptable temperature of cooked pork. The microbes haven't changed, only the politics.

It will be interesting to see if they ever come up with rules regarding celery powder, or at least demanding to control the amount of nitrite in it.

Bob del Grosso said...

Peter, I agree on all points and am just as puzzled as you are about the attitude of the feds regarding celery powder. Recently, I developed a hot dog recipe for a client who requested celery powder for cure and who is going to be making them under USDA inspection. If I had used simple sodium nitrite the USDA would have required that I specify ppm nitrite. But because I used celery powder (which has nitrate), I don't have to do it. I don't get it.

Ken Albala said...

This is right on target Bob. ANd I agree with you about the celery powder. It's so erratic. I've had whole batches go weird on me using it.

Natalie Sztern said...

I am beginning to miss reading your must be doing something interesting to tell us about?

Debra Joan said...

Here's the most recent info I've found regarding Cultured Celery Extract (most commonly used in "natural" cured meat products)