Many meat-fermenting products that are sold as food throughout Western Europe and North America use a process called ‘meat cure’ or ‘pickle’ to improve the flavor, encourage deep red colors (or inhibit brown discoloration) and extend shelf life. The specific methods used for this commercially available product vary depending on the producer, but it is possible to identify four key stages of production;
The first stage is plumping with either plain water or brine solution. This increases the moisture content of the meat, making up to 50% more than its pre-cure weight.
The second stage is salting—this helps kill surface bacteria and draws moisture out of the meat. This is then followed by a stage where any excess salt is rinsed off before it is left for an optional period of time to allow some other flavor compounds to be absorbed into the meat.
After this, sugar may be added as a preservative and as an additional source of food for the starter culture—this will help speed up fermentation and generate lactic acid, which gives cured meats their desired characteristics.
The final stage is smoking or cooking—this drives off any remaining moisture from the product, helps kill all remaining surface bacteria with heat, and generates desirable flavor compounds with the help of smoke particles.
Meat curer produces custom products with specific properties that can be used across a range of different products—these are usually made with sodium nitrate. The product is then normally packaged in water to stop bacterial growth or placed into brine if it needs to be stored for longer periods of time.
The reaction that occurs between meat and the cure is called ‘nitrosylation’. This reaction combines nitrite (NO) with myoglobin pigment in the muscle tissue, giving cured meats their pink color. Nitrite also prevents Clostridium botulinum from growing, which causes botulism poisoning when these toxins are not destroyed by cooking beforehand.
Meat curing has been linked to beneficial changes in the fatty acid composition of livestock meats, including beef, pork, lamb, and poultry. In some cases, the CLA content can be increased by up to 300%, and the stearic acid content can be decreased by up to 50%. These changes are due to the inhibition of enzymes that are responsible for the breakdown of fats, as well as the production of new fatty acids during fermentation.
Overall, meat cure produces a product that is safe to eat, has a longer shelf life, and improved flavour profile when compared to fresh meat. It is an important step in transforming raw agricultural products into a portion of ready-to-eat food.