|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.