For thousands of years a refrigerator-less kitchen was the bane of mankind’s existence. Ironically the first refrigeration machine built was actually for the purpose of making ice. That ice was supposed to help cool the air and help patients suffering from yellow fever. It had nothing to do with food.
Today, refrigeration is the primary means of preservation…both for our food and our sanity! (especially if you live anywhere near the desert southwest) But how were meats preserved for long periods of time without refrigeration? They were cured. The common term is “charcuterie” and has been considered a french culinary art since the 1400’s. But what in the world does all of this have to do with salt?
Everything! Without unrefined sea salt, the paleo hunter gatherer’s would have had nothing of any substantive nutritional value to pack along for a trip. They would have to rely solely on what they could catch or kill…or go hungry. Enter salt and saltpeter. Occasionally saltpeter was used in place of unrefined sea salt as a curing agent, but it was very unreliable.
So everything from fish to venison to pork was dry cured with a salt rub. As time went on, herbs, spices and even sugar was added to the rub to enhance flavor…enter the charcutier. The precurser to the garde manger chef if you will. But his was and still is a risky work. People can get sick and frankly people can die.
Certain bacterias need to be killed, others need be allowed to live for a while. Fail to keep the baddies in check and either you, your family or even the master of the house might not live to see another day. For ham and bacon, the primary bacteria of concern is clostridium botulinum…you and I call it botulism.
It has principally been defeated with the dry salt cure (sometimes sugar too) and then a trip to the smokehouse. It turns out smoking a pork belly or ham hock had much greater benefit than just the deliciousness of the fruitwood or hardwood flavor imparted. The smoke also contained PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) because some of the fat almost always was used in the fire or fell in to the fire while smoking. Cold smoking was not something most were familiar with! Those PAH’s also helped inhibit bacterial growth.
Between the nitrates in the sea salt and the PAH’s in the smoke, ham & bacon were fairly safe. But not safe enough…
In 1920 saltpeter was analyzed and understood to contain potassium nitrate. In 1925 sodium nitrate was isolated. In 1926 regulations controlling the use of nitrates and nitrites in the USA were established. These regulations have only been slightly modified in the last 85+ years. The point is this…nitrites are necessary for short term curing, nitrates for long term curing. Most charcutier’s will use “pink” curing salt as a safety measure to prevent the dreaded botulism.
As a beautiful aside, nitrite keeps your meat looking nice and pink rather than letting it turn a dingy grey during the curing process. So the next time some one says “nitrates” and you think of hot dogs, stop yourself. Nitrates can be safe. They do occur naturally in sea salt and are good, because without them we wouldn’t have bacon, and that has nothing to do with the Canadians!