Pink salt is a common name for a mixture of sodium chloride, or table salt, and sodium nitrite. It is also called InstaCure, Prague powder, and Pokelsalz in German. It is used on meat to prevent the production of botulinum toxin in meat. Pink salt is toxic to humans but is not present in finished, cured meats in a high enough dose to cause illness or death.
Pink salt is dyed pink in color so it cannot be confused with table salt. This dyed salt imparts characteristic color and flavor to cured meats. Do not use pink salt like regular table salt. Do not sprinkle it on your food.
Once known as sausage disease or sausage poisoning, botulism was named after botulus, the Latin word for sausage. It was first described in Germany by Justinus Kerner in Wurttemberg in 1817, although the pathogen and toxin were not identified until 1895 by Emile Pierre van Ermengem, a professor at the University of Ghent.
Clostridium botulinum is the name of an anaerobic (cannot grow in presence of oxygen) bacterium which is present in soil and water. The durable spores can be airborne and can land on food. If it finds the right environment, low acid and little or no oxygen, it will grow and reproduce.
If the bacterium reproduces it can produce botulinum toxin and cause botulism, a foodborne illness caused by ingesting the toxin.
Clostridium botulinum is difficult to kill; the spores tolerate boiling temperatures (212 F and 100 C) so heating to 240 to 250 F (or 120 C) for 5 to 10 minutes is necessary to destroy the bacteria. This necessitates the use of a pressure canning device when home canning.
A secondary step to ensure your home canned, non-acidic food is safe to eat, is by heating the food for 10 to 20 minutes to temperatures above 176 F (80 C); this will destroy most of the toxin.
Other ways to control the bacteria are by using acids such as vinegar in canning recipes, canning high-acid fruits, and vegetables, using high sugar or salt concentrations (as for jam or pickles), keeping food at temperatures below 38 F (3 C), and using nitrites or nitrates.
Nitrites inhibit the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which logically inhibits toxin production. Nitrates turn into nitrites over time which makes them a time-release form of the inhibiting compound. Both are toxic to humans in high doses. Home cooks, therefore, are allowed to purchase sodium nitrite which has already been cut with salt, reducing the chance of accidental overdose.
Nitrite is eventually used up in the meat during the curing process and converts to nitric oxide, which is not harmful and is safe for human consumption. The amount of nitrite in cured meats is not harmful at several times normal levels of consumption.
Two Forms of Pink Salt
Pink salt comes in two forms: cure No. 1 and cure No. 2. Cure No. 1 pink salt is used to cure all meats that require cooking, brining, smoking, or canning. This includes poultry, fish, ham, bacon, luncheon meats, corned beef, pates, and other products. It is 93.75 percent table salt and 6.25 percent sodium nitrite. It is used at a rate of 1 teaspoon per 5 pounds of ground meat.
If you are using it for a brine, you use 1/2 cup InstaCure No. 1 per gallon of water, plus 1 3/4 cup table salt, 2 1/4 tablespoon sugar, and any spices you wish.
Cure No. 2 is formulated for dry cured products such as pepperoni, hard salami, prosciutti hams, dried sausages, and other products which do not require cooking, smoking, or refrigeration. One level teaspoon (a mix of 1 ounce sodium nitrite (6.25 percent), 0.64 ounces sodium nitrate (4 percent) to 1 pound of salt) is used per 5 pounds of meat.
The cures are not interchangeable so follow the recipe you use closely and use a recipe from a reliable source.
Curing Meat Warning
Curing meat requires specific expertise and failure to cure meat properly may result in sickness or death. If you have no experience in this area, we advise you to consult an expert to teach you proper techniques and applications.
Great Resources on Curing Meat
Since curing meat requires such a specific skill set, otherwise, it can lead to illness or worse, we highly recommend consulting with an expert to teach you proper techniques. We found that the following four publications are super helpful guides and go in-depth about just such processes, procedures, and techniques:
- Charcuterie: The Art of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
- Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages by Stanley Marianski
- The River Cottage Smoking & Curing Handbook by Steven Lamb
- USDA’s Processing Procedures: Dried Meats