Curing salt’s role is to prevent food-borne illness and spoilage by killing microbes in the food it is used to preserve. The sodium nitrate it contains breaks down into sodium nitrite, which draws out the moisture that the bacteria need to survive. While the different types of curing salt are very effective for preservation, there are times when you may need a substitute. You may unable to find curing salt in stores near you or maybe you prefer to cure your meat without the use of nitrates. In either case, consider the alternatives below.
Your best bet: Saltpeter
Saltpeter is another name for potassium nitrate. The first known purification process for potassium nitrate was documented in the year 1270 by chemist Hasan al Rammah. He intended it for use in explosive weaponry, but saltpeter was also found to be effective for preserving foods. It has been used meat preservative since the Middle Ages. In African cultures, it is used both as a thickening agent and as a meat tenderizer. In the modern era, saltpeter’s use as a preservative was largely discontinued due to inconsistent results; however, it should be more than adequate for the modern home cook’s meat preservation needs.
Like curing salt, saltpeter works by drawing moisture out of cells via osmosis. It does this both to the cells of the meat and the cells of any bacteria in the meat, which kills the bacteria. In other words, it provides the same preservative benefits as curing salt.
Use saltpeter as a substitute for the Prague powder 1 type of curing salt. This type is used to cure meats that will be cooked later on.
A decent second choice: Non-iodized sea salt
You do not need nitrates to cure your meat. It can be done with simple sea salt, which will also have the desired effect of drawing water out of cells. This could be done with any kind of salt, but experts recommend avoiding iodized salt. While iodized salt would still have the desired effect, the iodine it contains can give the cured meat an unpleasant taste. In addition, table salt may have anti-caking agents that may affect the taste or leave a sediment in the brining liquid.
Note that if you decide to use a nitrate-free cure, you should recognize that there is an increased risk from pathogens when consuming the cured meat. You may also want to shorten the curing time to limit bacterial growth.
Meat cured with sea salt and smoked will not have the characteristic pink color of meat cured with nitrates, but it will have a similar flavor.
Sea salt can be used as a substitute for both the Prague powder 1 and the Prague powder 2 types of curing salt.
In a pinch: Celery juice or powder
Celery juice or powdered celery juice are both used in commercially made nitrate-free cured meats. This is done so that manufacturers can label their products as nitrate-free. Celery juice is used because it naturally contains high levels of nitrates but the FDA recognizes it only as a flavoring additive, which is why the nitrate-free claim can be made. In any case, you can use celery juice or powdered celery juice as a substitute for curing salt. Note that this method of curing is imprecise since it is impossible to tell how high the nitrate content is without testing the meat in which the celery juice is used.
Use either form of celery juice in place of Prague powder 1 curing salt.
Kosher salt is usually non-iodized, which means that it should be able to cure meat without leaving an off-taste due to the presence of iodine. Of course, the risks when using are still the same as with any nitrate-free cure.