Salt has been used as a preservative for much of human history. The first recorded use of salt in meat preservation actually began with the ancient Sumerians around 3000 BC. The Sumerians were the first recorded people who salted and dried meat for curing purposes. Salt with nitrite was also used to preserve meat by the ancient Greeks; however, their use of it was not deliberate as they were unaware of the presence of nitrite since it was an impurity in the salt. The ancient Romans would learn of curing meat from the Greeks and would note the reddening effect of the nitrite but no one would understand its role until much later in history.
Curing salt is also known as Prague Powder or pink salt; however, it is not to be confused with pink Himalayan salt and should not be used in the same way. If you were to look up recipes containing it, you would find that many specifically refer to it by the Prague powder name rather than as curing salt. While there are many who speculate that Prague powder came from the city of Prague in the Czech Republic, its roots (and the roots of the name) are much less exotic. Curing salt was actually invented at the start of the 20th century as scientists identified the nitrites that could be used to preserve meats. Salt was also used during the Middle Ages in Europe, where salt beef became a popular food.
An understanding of nitrates’ and nitrites’ role in meat preservation is what allowed Karl Max Seifert to seek a patent for his meat preservative, which he dubbed Prague Powder. This is the curing salt that we use today. There is no known explanation for why he settled on Prague powder as the name.
Flavor profile of curing salt
Along with its function of acting as a preservative, curing salt also enhances the flavor of the meats on which it is used. Curing salt consists mostly of sodium chloride so its main flavor is that of salt. It also gives a rich meaty flavor to pork, beef, and other meats.
Health benefits of curing salt
While curing salt does not provide a wide variety of nutrients, it does have a couple of health benefits. They are:
- It prevents botulism: Both types of curing salt do more than merely keep meat from spoiling. They are able to prevent the growth of the Clostridium botulism bacteria. It does this by drawing water out of the meat via osmosis. It also draws water out of the bacteria cells, which kills them.
- It contains sodium: Sodium does more than just flavor your food. It is a mineral that your body needs for the absorption and transportation of minerals along with the transmission of nerve signals. It is also important for maintaining a healthy blood pressure.
- Curing salt helps to prevent food-borne illness: Most importantly, it prevents botulism. Botulism is a condition caused by the Clostridium botulism bacteria mentioned above. Botulism symptoms include trouble swallowing and speaking along with vomiting and abdominal cramping.
Common uses of curing salt
There are two types of curing salt, both of which contain salt and sodium nitrate. One formulation is widely sold as Prague powder 1 and the other as Prague powder 2. Prague powder 1 is usually used to cure meats that will be cooked later on. These include ham and bacon. Prague powder 2 is used for meats that will not be cooked but that will be air dried instead. These include salami and pepperoni.