Thoughts on Food Safety and Science: Nitrates


Well Known Rokslider
Aug 30, 2012
Albuquerque NM
I have been toiling over this for a few weeks. One of the reasons I consider myself a subsistence hunter is because I want to get away from all the crap that passes for food here, while enjoying God's creation. Nitrates and Nitrites have taken a beating over the years, and I work in a very liberal environment that is anti-gun, anti-hunting, and loves natural food. The local market has "uncured" meats.

Where do you guys stand on using curing salts in you game meats/sausages?

I started by doing my homework, and it seems that Nitrates/Nitrites are victims modern media. Used for centuries, curing salts have been preserving for a long, long time. They are acknowledged carcinogens. They are essential to good charcuterie.

Nitrites and Nitrates are salts that release Nitrous Oxide into meat to preserve it. Several chemical changes take place, which makes the meat a less hospitable environment for potentially lethal food borne bacteria. Some of those chemical changes produce the color, texture and flavor that we look forward to in cured meats. Cut the leg off of a pig. Roast it. You get roast pork. Take the same leg, smoke it, and you get smoked pork, independent of any salt and sugar brines that you use. Take the same leg, add a few hundred parts per million of curing salts, smoke it, and you get ham. Very different results in terms of color, flavor, and texture. Now there are plenty of hams for example that are simply salt cured, or sugar cured, and dried. Depending on the drying environment, curing salts may not be necessary. The home sausage maker would be ill advised to do away with curing salts.

Not only do specific flavors and colors come from curing salts, they have an important anti-bacterial action. Every few years we hear about how a church picnic is ruined by food poisoning. Commercial processors, with regular government inspections and entire staffs dedicated to cleanliness have to recall products because of contamination. And one of the worst food poisonings of all is botulism. A protein produced by a bacterium leads to paralysis and death, often within days. 60% of botulism cases are fatal if not treated. Survival rate, of those receiving treatment with artificial respirators, are claimed with lowering the fatality rate to about 4%. Several attempts have been made to produce a chemical preservative for meat that was effective against botulism, but none have been nearly as successful as the curing salts. Pressure canning helps, but many meat products are not cooked, so pressure cooking/canning does nothing for us here. Currently Nitrates and Nitrites are the best course of action for curing meats.

Not all meats need them. Cooking fresh sausage or hot smoking them to correct temp (135 degree F for whole cuts of meat, 152-160 degrees F for sausages. Don't go over 160 degrees f for the sake of the texture of your product) will preclude the use of nitrites. This falls into the realm of most hunters. Dry cured, cold smoked, or fermented products are not cooked in the traditional sense, and thus can be havens for bacteria, requiring Nitrites. Several of my cooking school textbooks is unequivocal in that statement. Most food safety texts say that ground meats need to go to 165 degrees F, but my Sausage text from the Culinary Institute of America lists 150 degrees F provided you are grinding the sausage fresh, storing it properly, and using it within 3 days. The longer the cure time the more likely you will move from nitrites, to nitrates, which are the longer acting form of the salt. Properly dry cured nitrate containing sausages don't require refrigeration during processing or storage, a boon for the hunter that wants to vary his diet.

Curing salts are toxic. Instructions need to be followed in their use. They need to be evenly distributed through the product. Studies have linked them to cancer (actually it was nitrosamines, a byproduct). Here is what you need to know about that: The science was week. Most evidence was gained from a 1970s study at MIT were rats were fed nitrites until they got cancer. Human studies were not done, so this can show a correlation, but not a cause. The methodology was dodgy, as each rat had to eat the equivalent of 400 pounds of bacon a day. Since the 1920s, and tightened again in the 80s, level of residual nitrate had been industry standardized and governmentally approved at the rate of 125 parts per million to 200 parts per million, depending on the type of salt (sodium nitrite or potassium nitrite) and the type of meat. The processing limit is 624 parts per million of Sodium Nitrite,as the nitrites deplete during processing and deplete further while cooking. Prague powders are pre-mixed curing salts, Prague Powder 1 is one oz of sodium nitrite in 1 pound of salt. You tend to use four ounces per 100 pounds of meat, four level teaspoons equals one ounce, or the amount of Prague Powder you would use for a 20 pound batch of sausage. Prague powder 2 contains nitrates, and is added to cold smoked or dried meats except bacon. Even though bacon tends to be cold smoked, Praque powder 1 is the powder of choice. Follow your recipes.

Guess what. Nitrites are naturally occurring chemicals. If you drink beer, you are consuming nitrites. If you are being cool and going paleo, you are consuming nitrates in your vegetables. Fresh beets have over 2700 ppm of nitrite, celery 1100-1600. Nitrogen in food equals nitrite. All of the "uncured" meat products at the store usually taste just like their cured cousins. The ingredient list will usually mention celery juice. Nitrites, just a different application. Even nitrited food you get in the store has only about a quarter the nitrites that it started processing with, and it is further reduced by cooking.

I love charcuterie. I will be playing with nitrites and nitrates, both sodium and potassium, in my game sausages.


p.s. You can google all this stuff, or just ask and I will supply my bibliography materials, surprisingly enough, most of which are books.