Refrigeration is the primary way we keep our meat from spoiling these days, but in the days before refrigeration, people had to rely on other techniques. Curing is one of the oldest methods for preserving meat and the most common way of curing is through the use of salt.
Of course, we still make salt-cured meats today, but it's because we like the way they taste, not out of necessity. It's a sobering thought that if our ancestors many centuries ago had enjoyed widespread access to refrigeration, the art of producing cured meats like bacon, sausage, ham, and corned beef might not have been handed down to us at all. And where would we be then?
Salt As a Preservative
To understand how salt works as a preservative, remember that food spoilage is caused by living organisms called bacteria. These organisms ingest the food and their metabolisms produce the telltale signs of food spoilage, including changes in texture, color, smell, and flavor.
What salt does is it extracts water from cells through a process called osmosis. This has two effects: one, it causes foods, such as meat, to dry out. And two, it kills spoilage-causing bacteria by sucking the water out of their cell walls. No bacteria means no spoilage.
Types of Salt-Cured Meat
The most familiar form of salt-cured meat is probably bacon, which is a preparation made by the curing pork belly with salt, sugar, and smoke, then slicing it crosswise into thin, narrow strips.
Ham is made by taking the entire rear thigh of a hog and curing it with salt, sugar, smoke, and other seasonings. Some types of ham, such as prosciutto, are also air-dried for extended periods.
Corned beef is another type of salt-cured meat, which is made by soaking a beef brisket in a liquid solution of salt, sugar, and spices called a brine.
Other salt-cured meats include sausages such as salami and chorizo; pancetta (also made from pork belly); soppressata (made from pork thigh with red pepper and salt); liverwurst (a spreadable sausage made from pork and pork liver); and summer sausage (pork and beef).
Flavor and Color
The process of curing meat with salt takes time, several weeks or more. During this time, enzymes in the meat cause chemical changes that produce various flavor changes, such as the characteristic tangy flavor in summer sausage. And of course, the salt itself contributes flavor. And additionally, most curing mixtures include more than just salt.
Sugar is commonly added as well, which balances out the salt and also performs some preservative function of its own. Herbs, spices, and smoke are other flavor-producing ingredients commonly used in curing meats.
When it comes to color, plain salt has the effect of causing the meat to turn an unappealing shade of gray. But a special kind of salt, called sodium nitrate, not only imparts the pink color we come to associate with cured meats like ham and bacon but also effectively kills illness-causing bacteria such as salmonella, listeria, botulism, and E. coli.
Thin Slices, Small Dice
Because salt-cured meats are dried meats, they are extremely chewy. Therefore when being served, the meats need to be sliced very thinly or diced very finely.
With a basic jerky, the meat is sliced into thin strips and then cured, and these thin strips make it possible to eat.
But with a salt-cured ham, the entire ham is basically one large mass of jerky, and so the only way to consume it is to slice the ham into thin strips—as thin as possible. In addition to making it chewable, these thin slices also expose more surface area of the meat to your taste buds, which means the flavors are more intense.
But as a consequence of this, salt-cured meats tend to be used sparingly, added to dishes as a flavoring or seasoning component rather than as a primary source of protein.
Dishes Using Salt-Cured Meat
One of the simplest dishes using salt-cured meat is to wrap a thin strip of prosciutto around a piece of fruit, such as melon, or in the case of Prosciutto-Wrapped Pears, pears, and serve it as an hors d'oeuvre. You'll also see variations on this in salads like Feta, Watermelon & Prosciutto Salad with Honey Vinaigrette.
Spaghetti carbonara is a classic Italian pasta dish made with egg yolks, cheese, and finely diced guanciale or salt-cured pork cheeks.
This Spanish omelet features thin slices of chorizo, a salt-cured sausage made with smoked paprika.
And of course, gumbo is a classic of both Creole and Cajun cuisines and the official food of the state of Louisiana. This Shrimp and Andouille Sausage Gumbo is made with shrimp and andouille sausage.