How to cure meat before smoking: the complete guide

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  April 30, 2022

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Smoking is one of the best ways to add delicious flavors to meat, but curing meat before smoking can do even more. 

Curing started as a centuries-old preserving technique, but there’s a reason why it’s still done today!

Curing allows the meat to hold more moisture, which lets it retain more flavor from the smoke later.

It’s a simple way to ensure you pull juicy, smoky, flavorful meat out of the smoker. 

How To Cure Meat Before Smoking: The Complete Guide

Curing isn’t a tricky process, but it will need time and patience. It can be done in two ways, dry or wet – which we’ll cover in this article. 

If you’re worried, relax – curing is relatively simple to do! You just need the correct tools, ingredients, and enough time.

With a little practice, you’ll be well on your way to curing and smoking just like the pros! 

Keep reading this article to learn how to cure meat before smoking, as well as why curing is so important in the first place! 

What does curing meat do? 

Curing meat before smoking allows the meat to obtain delicious flavors, tenderness, and taste within the smoker.

Curing can be done as a separate, longer-term process to create dry-cured meat. 

When meat is dry-cured, the meat is cured, folded into cheesecloth, then hung in a humidity and temperature-controlled setting for over eight weeks. 

This process removes as much moisture as possible from the meat, giving you a tasty cured delicacy, like salami or prosciutto. 

However, curing does several other things, including preserving the foods and enhancing flavors.

We’ll cover these in more detail below. 

Preservation

Curing and smoking have also been used to preserve food before the age of refrigeration

Here’s how curing and smoking work to preserve food.

Curing

Meat is coated with a dry rub that contains salt. Through osmosis, salt dries out excess moisture from the meat.

This process also means bacteria and fungi can’t thrive in the meat, as they wouldn’t survive in a salty setting.

The salty brine also tenderizes the meat, another way of making the meat an inhospitable environment for organisms and bacteria.

The brine needs to have over 20% salinity to be the most unfriendly setting for pathogens and bacteria. 

Smoking

Smoking also dehydrates the meat, which deters bacteria from growing on the meat.

Pathogens from food thrive better when a protein is wet and warm, which is why drying the meat out is necessary.

The smoke will also coat the meat with an acidic layer, which prevents bacteria from forming along with the dehydration process. 

Flavor enhancer

Curing and smoking were necessary to preserve food centuries ago, but now, these processes are more popular to improve the way food tastes.

You can choose various rubs and brines so the meat takes on different flavors. 

Brining increases the meat’s salinity, but it also makes the meat plump and juicy.

It also tenderizes it, allowing the meat to take on the flavors and spices it’s exposed to later. 

Think of meats like salami, biltong, prosciutto, and chorizo, and you will know why curing meat makes it special.

Their meat and spices combinations are classic and recognizable. Curing meats is part of many culinary traditions.

Healthier preparation method

Some individuals like to smoke meat as it adds flavor and a juicy texture without the calories, fat, and sodium from other preparation methods. 

You may believe that curing meat does add sodium, which can be hazardous, but the amount isn’t relatively that much. 

Cook’s Illustrated magazine sent brined food samples to a lab for analysis. They wanted to find out how much sodium was left behind after the process finished.

The results found that meats take on around 1% of the salt needed to cure or brine meat. 

To put this in perspective, a 6-ounce chicken breast kept just 270mg out of a cup of salt used for the brine.

This works out to 11% of the RDA of sodium for those under 51.  

Did you know lox is traditionally cured before smoking? It’s exactly what makes this type of smoked salmon so special.

Why is curing important before smoking? 

Why Is Curing Important Before Smoking? 

Other than avoiding bacteria and pathogens, curing prevents the meat from drying out in the smoker.

It also ensures that the meat is in optimum condition for seasoning and cooking. 

Curing meat is either done dry or wet. Both methods use salt as a base. Any flavors will come from a choice of herbs, spices, and sugar.

Common brine liquids include lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, apple cider, and beer (especially for poultry).

Whiskey is also popular as it pairs well with the smoky flavors from the smoker. 

Learn more about curing meats at home with Tom here:

A note about sodium nitrite

Sodium nitrate is a naturally-forming salt. It’s found within many plants that can prevent bacteria from developing in foods. 

Always use caution when using sodium nitrate in recipes, as it can be toxic in large amounts.

If you are creating a dry rub at home, ensure your recipe is from a trustworthy source to avoid problems later. 

You can find sodium nitrite in premixed curing salts found in specialty stores or online.  

How to cure meat before smoking

Now you know more about curing meat, we can get into the process itself! As mentioned above, curing meat can be done in two ways; dry or wet. 

Dry curing meat method

Dry curing meat involves a salt-based rub. This includes flavorful spices and ingredients that the meat will take on as the mixture is rubbed into it.

From beginning to the end, this process will take anywhere from 7-10 days, so plan accordingly. 

Dry curing steps

  • Step 1: Trim any extra fat or unsightly bits from the meat. Make sure you leave some layers, as this will defend the meat from damage as it dries. 
  • Step 2: If the meat has a thick fat layer, stab it with a fork. This will make extra entry holes so the meat can absorb the dry rub better. 
  • Step 3: Now we’ll add the rub. Use your hands to rub the curing mix over the meat. Next, sprinkle the rub onto a lined baking tray, then place the meat over it. Add some more of the rub on top. 
  • Step 4: Add another layer of parchment and a baking tray on top of the meat to weigh it down. This will press the rub further into the meat. 
  • Step 5: Leave the meat in the refrigerator for no more than 10 days. 
  • Step 6: Take the meat out of the refrigerator and rinse it under cool water.
  • Step 7: Use a paper towel to gently pat the meat down, removing any excess moisture. 
  • Step 8: The meat is now ready for the smoker. 

Best meats to dry cure

Some meats are better than others for dry curing. You should look for bone-in meats with fat layers.

The fat will be trimmed later, but the thick layer lets spices and smoke penetrate the meat.

Fat also keeps the meat moist and juicy as it is curing. 

Examples of good dry curing meats include:

  • pork loin
  • strip loin
  • ribeye
  • brisket

Wet curing meat method

The wet curing method uses a salt-water solution called brine. The time for this varies, but every pound of meat will need to brine for 12 hours. 

Wet curing steps

  • Step 1: After you’ve mixed your chosen brine, trim the meat to remove excess fat and unsightly pieces.
  • Step 2: Place the meat in a brining bag, freezer bag, or a sealable container. This should be large enough to hold the brine and the meat, but it shouldn’t leave too much room in the container.
  • Step 3: Pour your brine into your bag or container, on top of the meat.
  • Step 4: Place the brined meat in the refrigerator. For every pound of meat you have, leave it in the fridge for 12 hours.
  • Step 5: Turn the container over every day, as this lets the meat evenly soak up the brine.
  • Step 6: If you’re soaking the meat for over a week, change the brine and place the bag back in the refrigerator. 
  • Step 7: When you’re ready, take the brined meat out of the refrigerator. Repeatedly rinse the meat with cool water to remove the salt. 
  • Step 8: Pat the meat dry with a paper towel, then place the meat back in the refrigerator, either wrapped in cheesecloth or on a cooling rack. If necessary, this can be stored for several days before smoking.
  • Step 9: You can now start smoking your meat. 

Best meats to wet cure

Wet curing, also called brining, pickle curing, or immersion curing is great for meats like fish and poultry, and pork cuts like ham and bacon.

Pre-mixing brine

Brine recipes are simple! Their base consists of three things: sugar, water, and salt. 

Find a trustworthy source for a brine recipe, as this will give you the correct salt-to-water ratio. 

You can add various ingredients to your brine depending on the flavors you want your meat to take on. 

Common ingredients include honey, ginger, fresh herbs, whiskey, and beer. 

Most importantly, your brine needs to have a 20% salinity to avoid bacteria and harmful pathogens forming. 

If you don’t know how to calculate the salinity of your brine, you can buy salinometers that will do this for you. 

Conclusion

Now you know how to cure meat! Whether you choose to cure wet or dry, curing is a wonderful way to infuse your meat with delicious flavors.

You also know other reasons why curing is so popular, including creating cured meats and acting as a preservative. 

Always remember, that if you are using a brine, it needs to have 20% salinity to prevent bacteria from forming on the meat, so always double-check your ratios.  

There are endless spice and ingredient combinations to try within your dry rubs and brines, so have fun experimenting!

Next, try this perfect smoked lamb shoulder & rub recipe you can make 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.