What Are Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite?

Buying, Using, and Recipes

A selection of cured meats

Maximilian Stock Ltd. / Getty Images

Sodium nitrates (NaNO3) and sodium nitrites (NaNO2) are naturally occurring chemical compounds commonly used in cured meat products such as bacon and hot dogs. For home cooks, a product called "pink salt" or Prague powder that combines sodium nitrites and/or nitrates with sodium chloride (salt) makes it possible to safely preserve meat for flavor and extended storage.

Fast Facts

  • Uses: Cured meats
  • Common names: Prague powder, pink salt, Insta Cure, DQ Cure
  • Shelf life: Indefinite

What Are Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite?

Nitrates and nitrites are used in curing, a broad category of techniques for preserving foods, mainly meat and fish, that involves the use of salt, sugar, and/or dehydration to make food unattractive to the bacteria that cause spoilage.

Sodium Nitrate vs. Sodium Nitrite

One of the earliest methods for curing food involved the use of salt. Salt prevents food spoilage through a process known as osmosis, which sucks moisture out of the bacteria's cells, killing them by dehydration.

Sodium nitrate is a type of salt that happens to be particularly effective as a food preservative. A naturally occurring mineral, sodium nitrate is present in all kinds of vegetables (root veggies such as carrots and leafy greens such as celery and spinach), along with many fruits and grains. Anything that grows from the ground draws sodium nitrate out of the soil.

The word "nitrate" refers to a compound made of nitrogen, the single biggest component of our atmosphere and an element abundantly present in soil, and oxygen. When sodium nitrate is used as a curing agent, it is converted to sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite possesses the antimicrobial properties that make it a good preservative. Interestingly, the human digestive process converts sodium nitrate consumed through fruits, vegetables, and grains into sodium nitrite.

Varieties

Prague powder, or pink salt #1, is a quick-cure product for use with meats that must be cooked before serving or will be smoked or canned, such as hams, jerky, corned beef, sausage, fish, and bacon. It contains a concentration of 6.25 percent sodium nitrite. Prague powder #2 is for dry-aged products such as prosciutto, country-style ham, pepperoni, and other sausages that do not require refrigeration. It contains sodium nitrate in addition to sodium nitrite as the nitrate converts to nitrate over a period of time, working as a sort of time-release curing agent during a lengthy aging process.

Most salt-cure products will be dyed pink to distinguish them from common table salt; You may see alternative names such as InstaCure, sel rose, tinted curing mixture, Tender Quick, Quick Cure, Slow Cure, and DC or DQ Cure. Anything with #1 is intended for use with quick-curing recipes. Use a #2 product for anything requiring an extended curing time. The two types of curing salt are not interchangeable. Do not confuse pink curing salt with Himalayan pink salt, an expensive type of gourmet finishing salt.

How to Use Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite

Pink salt #1 can be added to brine to wet-cure meats before cooking, such as corned beef, ham, and bacon. Add 1 level teaspoon to the liquid and other brine ingredients for every 5 pounds of meat. Pink salt #2 can be added to a recipe for dry-aged meat such as prosciutto or dry salami. A general rule calls for 1 level teaspoon per 5 pounds of meat, but you should always follow your recipe precisely.

What Does It Taste Like?

Like kosher salt, curing salt enhances the flavor of meats. However, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite can be toxic unless used as intended. You should never use curing salts to flavor dishes for immediate consumption (i.e. a steak for the grill) or at the table.

Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite Substitutes

You can use saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, to cure meats that will be cooked before serving, such as bacon. Similar to curing salt, saltpeter draws water out of cells, creating an inhospitable environment for bacteria. It's rarely used commercially because of inconsistent results, but it can stand in for #1 curing salt in-home kitchen preservation.

Another option is simple sea salt, which you can use in place of #1 or #2 curing salts. However, while sea salt will effectively preserve the meat and give it good flavor, it won't enhance the color like actual curing salt does.

Finally, celery juice or celery powder can replace a #1 curing salt, but it does not provide the precise measurements you get with packaged Prague powder.

Recipes

Pink salt makes it possible to home-cure meats. Most recipes for home kitchens use a #1 product for quick-cured meats such as bacon and corned beef.

Where to Buy

You can purchase Prague powder or pink salt online from a variety of retailers, including in bulk amounts. A well-stocked grocery store may carry smaller packages of it, particularly in the fall; look in the aisle with canning or home food preservation tools. You may also find it at hunting supply stores or a butcher shop.

Storage

Curing salt lasts indefinitely if you store it in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry location. Do not refrigerate or freeze curing salt, which can introduce moisture into the product.

Nutrition and Benefits

Curing salt does not add any nutritional benefits to food, but it does significantly increase the sodium content of cured meats. In 2006, the World Health Organization released a report warning that the sodium nitrates and nitrites in cured meats were likely carcinogenic in humans; subsequent studies have not produced a definitive conclusion on the matter. However, general health guidelines recommend a largely plant-based diet and limited consumption of processed foods.