Curing: Why It’s a Necessity for Meat Preservation

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 27, 2022

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Curing is any of various food preservation and flavoring processes of foods such as meat, fish and vegetables, by the addition of a combination of salt, nitrates, nitrite or sugar. Many curing processes also involve smoking, the process of flavoring, or cooking. The use of food dehydration was the earliest form of food curing.

Curing is a method of food preservation that involves adding salt, sugar, and nitrates or nitrites to food products. This process draws moisture out of food and inhibits the growth of bacteria, prolonging the shelf life of the food.

In this guide, I’ll explain what curing is and share some useful tips for beginners.

What is curing food

Why Curing is a Popular Method for Preserving Foods

Curing is a process that involves the addition of salt, sugar, nitrite, and/or nitrate to food products, such as meat, fish, and vegetables. The aim of curing is to preserve the food and improve its flavor and color. The process of curing draws moisture out of the food through osmosis. Some publications distinguish the use of salt alone as salting, corning, or salt curing, and reserve the word curing for the use of salt with nitrates/nitrites.

The Chemical Action of Curing

The addition of salt, nitrite, and/or nitrate to food products affects the protein and fat in the food. The presence of these compounds produces a red color in fresh meat and helps to preserve it by inhibiting the growth of bacteria. The excess water in the meat is drawn out, which helps to prevent the growth of unwanted bacteria. The addition of sugar can improve the flavor of the meat and help to balance the saltiness.

What Happens to Meat When It’s Cured?

When meat is cured, it undergoes a process that removes moisture from the meat, making it dry and hard. This process is typically done by using a mixture of salt, sugars, and nitrates/nitrites, which work together to control the growth of harmful bacteria and preserve the meat’s shelf life. The following are the steps that take place during the curing process:

  • The meat is covered in a mixture of salt, sugar, and nitrates/nitrites, which draws out moisture from the meat through osmosis.
  • The meat is left to cure for a specific amount of time, typically several weeks, depending on the type of meat and the curing method used.
  • Some meats, like large pieces of pork, are hung in a smokehouse to begin the smoking process, which adds flavor to the meat and helps with preservation.
  • After the curing and smoking process is complete, the meat is ready to be sliced and enjoyed.

The Ingredients Used in Curing

The ingredients used in curing meat can vary depending on the type of meat being cured and the desired end product. However, the following ingredients are commonly used in the curing process:

  • Salt: Salt is the most important ingredient in the curing process, as it helps to draw out moisture from the meat and control the growth of harmful bacteria.
  • Sugar: Sugar is often added to the curing mixture to help balance out the saltiness and add flavor to the meat.
  • Nitrates/Nitrites: Nitrates and nitrites are added to the curing mixture to help with preservation and to give the meat a pink color. However, there is some controversy surrounding the use of nitrates and nitrites in food, as they have been linked to health issues when consumed in large quantities.
  • Black pepper: Black pepper is a popular ingredient in many curing mixtures, as it adds flavor to the meat.
  • Bay leaves: Bay leaves are often added to the curing mixture to add flavor to the meat.

Curing Meat at Home

Curing meat at home has become a trend in recent years, with many people interested in the traditional processes of preserving food. However, it’s important to note that curing meat at home can be dangerous if not done correctly. Here are some tips for curing meat at home:

  • Use a curing mixture that has been tested and proven to be safe.
  • Follow the instructions for the curing mixture carefully.
  • Use high-quality meats and ingredients.
  • Keep the meat at the correct temperature during the curing process.
  • Don’t smoke the meat at home unless you have experience with smoking and have the proper equipment.

The History of Curing Meat

Curing meat is a process that has been used for centuries by native peoples and early settlers. Smokehouses were commonly found on farms, and meat was salted and hung in the smokehouse to preserve it. Today, the art of curing meat has been revived in the form of charcuterie, and many people are interested in learning about the traditional processes of preserving food.

Why Curing is Essential for Food Preservation

• Curing is a method of preserving meat, fish, and vegetables by adding salt, sugar, nitrite, and/or nitrate.

  • The primary reason for curing is to preserve the food and extend its shelf life.
  • Curing prevents the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms that cause decomposition and spoilage.
  • The addition of salt and nitrites also changes the color of the meat, making it more visually appealing.

Flavor and Versatility

• Curing not only preserves the food, but it also adds flavor and variety.

  • The addition of sugar or maple syrup can add a sweet taste to the meat, while smoking the meat can add a smoky flavor.
  • Curing is an incredibly versatile method of food preservation, as it can be used on various types of foods, including beef, pork, fish, and vegetables.
  • The curing process can also be combined with other preservation methods, such as pickling or brining.

History and Popularity

• Curing has been used for centuries, dating back to ancient times when people needed to preserve food for long periods.

  • Today, curing is still a popular method of food preservation, as it allows for the storage of fresh meat for a longer period.
  • The biggest benefit of curing is that it significantly extends the shelf life of meat, making it easier to store and supply.
  • Curing is also a great way to add value to meat, as it can change the color, flavor, and texture of the meat.

The Wrong Methods

• While curing is an excellent method of food preservation, it is essential to follow the correct procedures to ensure safety.

  • The use of excess salt or nitrites can cause significant changes in the meat, making it unsafe to consume.
  • The speed of decomposition is also related to the ambient temperature, so untreated meat kept at room temperature will decompose rapidly.
  • The biggest mistake people make when curing meat is not using enough salt or not allowing enough time for the curing process to take effect.
  • It is also essential to store cured meat properly, as it can spoil if not kept in the right conditions.

The Science Behind Curing: Understanding the Chemical Actions

Curing is a process that involves the addition of various chemicals to meat products to preserve them, enhance their flavor, and give them a distinctive color. The primary chemicals used in curing are salt, sugar, nitrite, and nitrate. When these chemicals are added to meat, they create a highly concentrated solution that contributes to the preservation of the meat.

The Role of Salt in Curing

Salt is the primary chemical used in curing, and it plays a crucial role in the preservation of meat. When salt is added to meat, it creates a high concentration of soluble proteins that help to remove water from the meat. This removal of water prevents the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms that can cause spoilage.

The Importance of Nitrite and Nitrate

Nitrite and nitrate are two chemicals that are commonly used in curing. Nitrite is added to meat to prevent the growth of bacteria that can cause botulism, while nitrate is used to help preserve the meat over a longer period of time. When nitrate is added to meat, it is converted into nitrite, which then reacts with the iron in the meat to form a pink color.

The Formation of Nitrosamines

One of the potential risks associated with curing is the formation of nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic compounds that can be harmful to humans. Nitrosamines are formed when nitrites react with amino acids and other compounds in the meat. To prevent the formation of nitrosamines, it is important to control the concentration of nitrites and to remove them from the meat before it is eaten.

The Effects of Meat Preservation

Meat is a staple food in many cultures around the world. It is a highly valued source of protein and other essential nutrients. However, meat is also highly perishable and can spoil quickly if not preserved properly. Meat preservation is the process of adding certain compounds to meat to extend its shelf life and improve its flavor and color.


So, curing is a way of preserving food by using salt, sugar, and sometimes nitrites or nitrates. It’s a way of adding flavor and color to meat and fish, and it’s been around for centuries. It’s a great way to get rid of excess water and saltiness and it can be used with almost any food. So, don’t be afraid to try it yourself!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.