HealthyLifestyle: The truth about SALTPETRE
Heather Little-White, PhD, Contributor
YOU MAY be old enough to remember your grandmother or mother using saltpetre (also known as sodium or potassium nitrite) to cure pork legs to make hams at home several weeks before Christmas.
As a strong oxidising agent, saltpetre is used for:
fertilisers due to the nitrates to make soil more fertile;
oxidisers in solid rocket propellants;
It is in the function of food curing that saltpetre could cause harm and even death. You could easily mistake saltpetre for table salt. It is transparent, colourless white powder or crystals of potassium nitrate (KNO3) found native in deposits. This is why curing salt is also known now as prague powder number one, a standard 6.25 per cent cure for any meat that requires cooking, smoking or canning.
Curing of meat is a traditional method of preserving, dating back many hundreds of years. It originated from the need to preserve meat over the winter when it was impossible to keep animals alive due to lack of winter feed. The practice was taken to Africa by the slave masters and was used to preserve meats to travel with slaves across the world. This explains how Jamaica's cuisine is heavily skewed to 'salt tings', like pig's tail, corned pork, pickled mackerel and salt beef.
By its very nature, meat curing is a chemical preservation method, which prevents harmful microorganisms from developing using saltpetre or sodium nitrite. During the curing process, naturally occurring bacteria convert this nitrate into the nitrite form. It is this nitrite which then reacts with the constituents of the meat, and cures the meat, producing the familiar pink colour to the ham and other meats. From at least mediaeval times, salt was mixed with saltpetre and other ingredients such as sugar, honey or juniper berries to carry out the process of preserving the pork www.graigfarm.co.uk).
Two curing methods developed - wet (or brine) curing and dry curing. In wet curing, the curing ingredients were mixed with boiling water to form a 'pickling' brine. In dry curing, the ingredients were simply massaged into the meat several times over the period of the cure.
Sodium nitrite is used to cure meats to achieve characteristic flavour, colour and stability of cured meat. Nitrate and nitrite are converted to nitric oxide by micro-organisms and combine with the meat pigment myoglobin to give the cured meat colour. However, more important, nitrite provides protection against the growth of botulism-producing organisms acts to retard rancidity and stabilises the flavour of the cured meat (National Center for Home Food Preservation).
When sodium nitrite is added to meats, extreme care should be taken to add just enough to the meat, as excessive portions can be toxic to humans. It is best to follow a recipe closely to get the amounts correct. A small amount goes a far way. In the United States, the Federal regulations permit a maximum addition of 2.75 ounces of sodium or potassium nitrite per 100 pounds of chopped meat, and 0.25 ounce sodium or potassium nitrite per 100 pounds of chopped meat. Potassium nitrite (saltpetre) was the salt historically used for curing. However, sodium nitrite alone, or in combination with nitrate, has largely replaced the straight nitrate cure.
Commercial premixed cures are available to reduce the excessive use of the nitrates. The premixes have been diluted with salt to reduce the possibility of serious error in handling pure nitrate or nitrite. It is recommended that the premixes be used as the salt in cooking and it will safely and simply supply the needed amount of nitrite (www.uga.edu/nchfp).
Reduce harmful bacteria
Food manufacturers have risen above the controversy on the use of nitrite as sausage products produced using nitrite have been shown to be free of the known carcinogens. The curing process carries with it some risk of contamination by harmful bacteria. The direct use of nitrite, which controls some of these harmful bacteria, reduces the risk of contamination, and specifically the dangers of botulism are removed. Nitrites are important to the curing process as meats processed without nitrite are more susceptible to bacterial spoilage and flavour changes and should be frozen until used.
Several consumers have moved away from using saltpetre for curing meats, and are using brine without chemicals to produce meat brown like any pot roasted meats with flavours that are not overly salty.
A good quality product can be produced without the direct use of nitrites. You can get creative and combine herbs, spices, some form of sugar, honey or syrup, salt and soy sauce. Pineapple juice adds a tropical spin to the brine you create.
Saltpetre has taken a bad rap in what is termed the saltpetre principle. It is claimed that saltpetre is secreted in coffee, tea, wine, scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes. This untruth originated in male recruits undergoing basic training to reduce their erections which came easily before boot camp. Saltpetre does not suppress sexual urges and it is dangerous if consumed without control.
The truth is that there is no saltpetre in the chow of military men but the rumour started to make the men feel that their failure at erections was due to the chemical additive to food and not from the rigours and exhaustion of military training. This rumour also circulates outside the ranks of service when young men are housed in institutions like boys' schools, colleges and prisons. This was to make the young men not feel badly when they could not be sexually aroused (www.snopes.com).
Saltpetre has been used in the curing of meats for ages but care must be taken in its use and label containers properly.
Sweet and savoury pork or poultry brine
This flavourful brine is perfect for pork, but it also works well on poultry. It has a sweet flavour in addition to all the herbs and spices.
3 cups water
1 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon mustard seed
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. Place with pork in a large container making sure that brine completely covers the pork. Cover and refrigerator for at least one day, but no more than four days.
Yield: Makes about five cups
Heather Little-White, PhD, is a nutrition and lifestyle consultant in Kingston. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or fax 922-6223.