For the love of bacon. Part 2

written by

Mike Jones

posted on

January 25, 2021

Why to we cure meats?

In my previous blog post I mentioned that we have been curing and smoking(drying) meats since around 7000BC. We did this mainly as a preservation process. When we apply a salt like Sodium Nitrite and then heat or smoke the meat we not only drive out all the moisture where bacteria might grow we also kill any bacteria present. So the long and the short of it is we cure and smoke meats and have been doing for 9000 years to stay healthy. By using this technology we have made our food supply safer. You need to keep in mind that large scale refrigeration was only wide spread in the last century. Over the years we have developed a taste for this "safe" meat. Today I will discuss a bit of the science behind curing and smoking. Next week we will talk about which of these option we use here at TVF and why.

What are the methods of curing bacon?

There are two primary methods of curing bacon: pumping and dry curing. Although less frequently used, Some processors still use immersion-cured bacon. "Pumped" bacon has curing ingredients that are injected directly into the meat to speed up the curing process. This type of bacon is held for curing for 6 to 24 hours before being heated or smoked. "Dry-cured" bacon has a premeasured amount of cure mixture applied or rubbed onto the bacon belly surfaces, completely covering them. Additional cure may be rubbed in over a number of days, but the amount of added sodium nitrite cannot exceed 200 parts per million (ppm). After the curing phase, the bacon may be left to hang for up to 2 weeks in order for the moisture to be drawn out. Less time is needed if it is going to be smoked. Because of the lengthy processing time and labor required, dry-cured bacon is more expensive than the more mass-produced, pumped bacon. "Immersion-cured" bacon is placed in a brine solution containing salt, nitrite, and flavoring material or in a container with salt, nitrite, and flavoring material for 2 to 3 days. Sugar, honey, or maple syrup may be added to the brine. The meat must then be left to hang until it is cured.

Can bacon be home cured?

Yes, you can make bacon at home. For instructions, contact your local Extension Office or visit: 

How is cooked bacon made shelf stable?

To make bacon safe to store at room temperature (shelf stable), it is precooked in the plant to have a water activity at or below 0.85 to control Staphylococcus aureus. The cooked yield is 40% of the raw weight.

Is bacon "red" meat?

"Bacon" can only be made from pork bellies, which are red meat by definition. Pork is classified as "livestock," and all livestock are considered "red meat." Bacon can also be made from other species of livestock (e.g., beef) and poultry (e.g., turkey). These types of bacon products require a descriptive name such as, "Beef Bacon-Cured and Smoked Beef Plate" and "Turkey Bacon-Cured Turkey Thigh Meat."

Is "salt pork" the same as bacon?

Salt pork is not bacon. Although it is salted, it is much fattier, and, unlike bacon, it is not smoked. It is generally cut from the hog's belly or side. Because salt pork is so salty, cooks often blanch or soak it to extract some of the salt before using.

Does bacon contain additives?

Yes. Bacon is made with salt as a curing agent, and nitrite (but not nitrate) is the other most frequently used additive. Bacon may also contain other additives such as sugars, maple sugar, wood smoke, flavorings, and spices. Pumped bacon (see above) must also contain either ascorbate or sodium erythorbate (isoascorbate), which greatly reduces the formation of nitrosamines by accelerating the reaction of nitrite with the meat.

At certain levels, salt prevents the growth of some types of bacteria that spoil meat. Salt prevents bacterial growth either by directly inhibiting it or by its drying effect. Most bacteria require substantial amounts of moisture to live and grow.

Sodium nitrite produces the pink color (nitrosohemoglobin) in cured bacon. Nitrite also greatly delays the development of the Clostridium botulinum toxin (botulism); develops a cured-meat flavor; retards the development of rancidity, off-odors, and off-flavors during storage; and inhibits the development of a warmed-over flavor.

Sugar is added to reduce the harshness of salt. Spices and other flavorings are often added to achieve a characteristic "brand" flavor. Most, but not all, cured meat products are smoked after the curing process to impart a smoked meat flavor.

Researchers at the USDA found that the addition of vitamin C (also known as ascorbate) and vitamin E (also known as tocopherol) reduced the levels of nitrosamines in fried bacon and in nitrite-cured products. The findings led to changes in Federal regulations and industry processing to minimize consumer exposure to nitrosamines. USDA now requires adding 550 ppm (parts per million) of either sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate to pumped bacon. This addition greatly reduces the amount of free nitrite and, thus, minimizes the formation of nitrosamines.

How much nitrite can be used in curing bacon?

The USDA is responsible for monitoring the proper use of nitrite by meat processors. While sodium nitrite cannot exceed 200 ppm going into dry-cured bacon, sodium nitrite cannot exceed 120 ppm for both pumped and immersion-cured bacon.

Can bacon be made without the use of nitrite?

Bacon can be manufactured without the use of nitrite, but must be labeled "Uncured Bacon, No Nitrates or Nitrites added" and bear the statement "Not Preserved, Keep Refrigerated Below 40 °F At All Times" — unless the final product has been dried according to USDA regulations, or if the product contains an amount of salt sufficient to achieve an internal brine concentration of 10% or more, the label does not have to carry the handle statement of "Not Preserved, Keep Refrigerated below ___" etc. Recent research studies have shown for products labeled as uncured, certain ingredients added during formulation can naturally produce small amounts of nitrates in bacon and, therefore, have to be labeled with the explanatory statement "no nitrates or nitrites added except for those naturally occurring in ingredients such as celery juice powder, parsley, cherry powder, beet powder, spinach, sea salt etc."

Is bacon inspected?

All bacon found in retail stores is either USDA inspected for wholesomeness or inspected by State systems that have standards equal to the Federal government. Each animal, from which the bacon is made, is inspected for signs of disease. The "Inspected and Passed by USDA" seal ensures the bacon is wholesome.

Can the term "natural" be used on bacon?

Yes, bacon can be labeled as "natural" if the bacon is "uncured." This means the bacon does not contain nitrites or nitrates as direct additive curing agents. Therefore, the bacon would meet the definition for "natural" (minimally processed, no artificial ingredients) and can be labeled as "Natural* Uncured Bacon (No Nitrates or Nitrites Added, Not Preserved, Keep Below 40 °F At All Times), *Minimally Processed, No Artificial Ingredients."

Is a safe handling label required on bacon?

Yes, the USDA requires safe handling instructions on packages of bacon and all other raw or partially cooked meat and poultry products as part of a comprehensive effort to protect consumers from foodborne illness.

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