Old Cure Recipes - 2. Dry Cures, the Theory

Having looked at some of the reasons why we wouldn't just use older cures without amendment in the previous post, let's actually look at a cure and some of the questions it throws up.

A fairly easy recipe to start with, recipe 878 from the 1872 print of 'Warnes Every-day Cookery Book':

Bacon

878. For every forty or fifty pounds of meat, allow one pound of bay salt; one pound of saltpetre; two ounces of salprunella; four pounds of common salt.

In Yorkshire and the northern counties, pigs are scalded ; the hams, spareribs, and chine cut off, and then afterwards salted thus :—
Rub them well with common salt, and lay them on a board for the first brine to run away, for twenty-four hours; then take for every side of forty or fifty pounds, the above quantity of bay salt, saltpetre, sal-prunella bruised fine, and mixed with four pounds of common salt. Rub the pork well with salt, and put it in the pans at full length; turn and rub it in the brine every day for a fortnight, then take it out, strew it all over with bran or sawdust, and hang it in a wood smoke till it is dry ; place it in a cool dry place, taking care that it does not touch the wall, as that would spoil it.

I say 'easy' because at least this recipe gives us both the amount of ingredients and the amount of meat to cure; often they don't.

As an aside, it's interesting to note the use of salprunella, the form of potassium nitrate fused with sulphur into balls and containing small amounts of potassium nitrite. The reason? It wasn't until the 1890's that it was discovered that it's nitrite that cures the meat; the people using our recipe obviously knew that the addition of salprunella gave a 'better cure', but it was another couple of decades before they would know the reason why.

Anyway, back to the recipe, first we need to decide what sort of recipe it is. Is it one where the meat is placed into large amounts of cure for a short time, only 'picking up' a fraction of the cure ingredients? Or is it one where the meat 'bathes' in the cure for a longer time to absorb as much of the ingredients as it can? In this case we can see that the recipe mentions spareribs (pork belly) being cured for 14 days. Even allowing for the longer time that saltpetre takes to work compared to modern nitrite cures, we can say that this one falls into the bathing category!

We then need to ask ourselves how much of the cure can it physically absorb in this time? Now, I know from my bacon cures that meat has no problem absorbing 30mg/kg cure, and from my own and others experience that 60mg/kg would not a problem. When I get a chance, I'll do some tests with higher amounts, but just for now, let's examine this cure based on the premise that it will absorb 50mg/kg; this being a figure that's indisputable.

By dividing the maximum amount of meat the recipe cures by 2.2 will give the weight in kg, some 22.73kg. Using the cure at 50mg/kg will require a total cure amount of 22.73 x 50 = 1137mg. This will be made up of 928gm salt, 23gm salprunella, 186gm saltpetre.

To calculate the level of nitrate in the cure in terms of milligrams per kilogram for the EU standards (referred to as Parts Per Million in the US standards), we do the following calculation: Calculate saltpetre

In this case, that's 186/22730*1000000 = 8063mg/kg Nitrate

Blimey, that's over 50 times the current EU limits. A cross-check of the % salt in this scenario shows a level of just over 4% - that's salt/meat*100 or 928/22730*100 = 4.08%. That's perfectly feasible.

In reality, the original cure would no doubt absorb more than the 50gm/kg we've calculated. In any case it's unlikely we would want to copy such a simple cure, we're much more likely to want to use one with specific spicing that we want to emulate. It does, however, illustrate the need to check out fully old cures before using them.

The next example is of a cure where the ingredients are specified but the amount of meat it cures isn't. It's the dry-cured Wiltshire bacon recipe from my pre-1925 Mrs Beeton's Household Management. The ingredients are:
2½lb salt,
1½lb sugar
6oz saltpetre.
The amount to use, per lb of meat, isn't specified nor is the total amount it cures.

A good starting point when dealing with this type of cure is to look at it in relation to 100lb (45.5kg) meat; often cures were calculated for this amount. Again, it's easiest to look at whether this gives a feasible level of cure per kg of meat, along with a believable level of salt. In this case, the usage amount per kg of meat based on it curing 100lbs of meat would be 43.75gm per kg, perfectly sensible. In the month curing time specified in the recipe it would certainly absorb all the ingredients. The 2½lb (1134gm) of salt on 45.5kg meat would give a salt percent of 1134/45500*100 = 2.49%, an amount that's reasonable even by today's standards - it raises the question as to whether the cure was for less than 100lbs of meat. However, we should note that this cure is from some 50 years later than the previous one. Far wider access to refrigeration meant that lower salt levels were possible. In this case it's academic, but what we can see is that the cure would be very unlikely to be for more than 100lbs meat and if used on that amount, the nitrate level would be a massive 3750mg/kg.

Outside of historical re-enactment there seems little point in recreating these potentially dangerous cures just for the sake of it. In fact, even for historical re-enactment it's doubtful whether it would be wise to eat it!

So how do we adapt a recipe where we want to try the spicing of the original, but a cure that's safe? We'll look at that in the next instalment.


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