Am I about to doom myself by not using sodium nitrite in my bacon cure?
April 6, 2013 12:15 AM   Subscribe

Last week, on impulse, I bought a pork belly from the farmers market. After consulting Ruhlman's Charcuterie, I realized I had no curing salt (aka Prague Powder, aka sodium nitrite) at home, and no one around me sold it. Rather than toss the belly in the freezer until I could buy some by mail (again, Impulsive Pork Belly Buyer), I found a bunch of non-curing salt cure recipes, and settled on 2.5 parts kosher salt to 1 part sugar with a heap of pepper. The belly's been sitting in the fridge for the past week. It smells fine. It feels firm. I am prepared to hot smoke it tomorrow, and now I'm panicking because of a bunch of smoker/BBQ posts I've read that say I'm dooming myself and my family to botulism. Am I?

My fridge doesn't have a thermometer inside, but I cranked it down to its coldest setting before setting the belly in to cure. Also, since I plan on hot smoking the belly (I have an electric Brinkmann, and the temp gets up over 200) over a dry pan, I think I'm avoiding the temperature and moisture range that botulinum likes. I know I could just slow roast the thing in the oven, but, man, I wants me some smoked bacon. I just want not to get sick more.
posted by RakDaddy to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Chef here.

I wouldn't think something cured in salt and sugar would allow botulism. Can you supply a link or two?

I'm off to google myself. I'm just confused.

How many days has it been curing?

Was it covered, or uncovered?

posted by jbenben at 12:19 AM on April 6, 2013

Response by poster: This site had the recipe and the Botulism Doom comment.

The belly sat uncovered on a wire rack above a baking dish for three days. Then I needed more room in the fridge (sauce and soup pots took over, so everything moved up), so I popped it into ziplock bad, squished the air out, and let it sit another four. Tonight, I rinsed the belly, dried it, and set it back on the wire rack to form a pellicle.
posted by RakDaddy at 12:26 AM on April 6, 2013

Best answer: Honestly? I wouldn't think twice about this because the meat sat in a ziploc with the salt and sugar for a long time.


I'm nuts, so I ALWAYS put my proteins in the fridge with extra cold packs. I did this the last time I brined a turkey, for example, but every piece of raw protein I buy gets at least one cold pack in my fridge.

My problem is the time between when you rinsed off the cure and now. I know it is part of the process, but maybe you should add some additional cold packs.

The smart suggestion is to roast it, just to be safe.

In my younger years, I would smoke it with confidence. Now that I am someone's mom, I'm a bit more conservative.

You be the judge, or let someone with more expertise weigh in. The link you provided did not scare me because the responder's debunking was inline with my personal experience - but hey - maybe I've been playing Russian Roulette all of these years?

I hope someone has a more definitive answer than I do.
posted by jbenben at 12:41 AM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is how I smoke fish, except probably much less carefully. I have no idea what the relative risk of botulism is re fish and pork but that's how everyone smokes fish and no one I know has died from it.
posted by fshgrl at 1:03 AM on April 6, 2013

Huh? People, myself included, smoke meat that hasn't been cured, at all, under similar conditions all the time without worrying about botulism.
posted by Good Brain at 1:25 AM on April 6, 2013

Best answer: I am not a food professional of any sort, BUT I've made bacon both with and without curing powder (not your exact recipe but very close). I am not dead, and it was all delicious bacon. I keep mine in a covered container, not out in the fridge uncovered, and - while I smoked it, I generally do this via wood chips on a Webber BBQ so it also roasts as well as acquiring a smoky glaze.

The uncovered part worries me a little only because I don't know how hygienic your fridge is , but I'm assuming that you had a thick layer of cure rubbed all over the meat and reapplied it when it liquified and dripped off. If so, you're probably fine - the salt makes an extremely hostile environment for anything to grow in so it's unlikely anything nasty is growing on it. When you rinse the cure off and let it dry to form the pellicle (what the smoke sticks to), the meat should retain enough salt to keep it safe.

Hot smoking will be good but am I right in thinking that your 200 degrees comment relates to Fahrenheit rather than Celsius? If so, you might want to consider roasting the meat to temp in a regular oven first and then smoking to finish for the flavour. It's not optimal but it will reduce the time the meat spends in the "danger zone" transitioning from cold to cooked.

It's my (admittedly amateur) understanding that the risk of botulism in bacon is very low and that it's largely manufactured meats like salami and so forth that have the high risk - partly because of their ground meat/large surface area and also their long curing times.

Personally, I'd roast then smoke and enjoy the fruits of your labours.
posted by ninazer0 at 1:34 AM on April 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sodium nitrite just keeps the meat pink (and causes cancer), salt is what keeps the spoilage from happening. Usually, sodium nitrite is a tiny fraction of the curing salt mixture (along with sodium nitrate and a lot of table salt), please don't use it full strength. Most grocery stores carry this, already premixed at the correct ratio. Lots of cured meats don't use nitrite - stuff you can buy at the grocery store like many virginia hams (any that are not pink).
posted by 445supermag at 4:08 AM on April 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do you cook your pork chops to shoe leather? If you're comfortable with using proven techniques to cook a pork chop to a juicy but safe temp, you shouldn't feel to bad about using techniques that have been used for centuries to cure meats.

If you're still a little nervous, look up a small craft charcuterie in any city, call it up, and ask to speak to the chef. Craft places _love_ to talk about what they do, and can give you some professional advice.
posted by bfranklin at 6:08 AM on April 6, 2013

There are commercial products that don't use sodium nitrite (addressed by Ruhlman himself here). You can perfectly safely cure bacon without it, it just doesn't taste or look as good. I've done it many times and although I think my recipes that more perfectly follow the ones in Charcuterie are better, I'm convinced that ones with ordinary salt are still miles better than commercial bacon.
posted by Lame_username at 7:33 AM on April 6, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone!

To answer some questions, first, the fridge, while not wiped down with bleach, is clean. And, yes, it's 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

I'm going to roast and smoke for this batch. Future bellies I'll stick straight into the ziplock without the open exposure, plus extra cold packs like jbenben suggested.

The one thing I'm wondering about now is that, for years, I've made pork ribs on my smoker with the water bowl completely full, and the recipe books don't talk about botulism or bacterial growth or anything like that. Is the botulism fear because bacon is traditionally cold smoked? Or is there something about bellies that makes for a better home for botulin?
posted by RakDaddy at 7:54 AM on April 6, 2013

1) Unless you canned your pork, you shouldn't worry about botulism specifically. It's anaerobic.

2) Cooking kills the bacteria but won't destroy the toxin. If it's already infected, no amount of cooking (short of setting it on fire) will make it safe to eat.

3) I don't eat pork and you shouldn't take my advice.
posted by chairface at 8:06 AM on April 6, 2013

I've cured bacon without pink salt, and it's all right, but the meat doesn't get the pinkness of bacon, and it doesn't seem to crisp up the same. It's still delicious though. Personally, I would stick to cuing in the bag, which keeps the belly from any possible contamination as long as you're careful in all the steps to that point.

In Charcuterie, Ruhlman mentions Butcher Packer. Go to the website, order the pink salt. It's dirt cheap, and they have a really wide selection of other things that might catch your interest. Enjoy your bacon.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:40 AM on April 6, 2013

Here is some authoritative information on the safety of smoked and cured meats from the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia. I suggest that you read the section on botulism carefully.

Unless you canned your pork, you shouldn't worry about botulism specifically. It's anaerobic.

This is not quite the whole story. Yes, the C. botulinum bacterium is anaerobic, and outbreaks of botulism have been associated with home canning processes. However, canning is not the only way to create an anaerobic environment; the NCHFP fact sheet also mentions vacuum packing as a significant risk for botulism, and points out that "These organisms will not grow in an aerobic environment, but other aerobic organisms in a closed system can rapidly convert an aerobic environment to an anaerobic environment by using the oxygen for their own growth, permitting growth of C. botulinum." Putting something in a ziplock bag is not the same as vacuum packing it, but given this point about "aerobic organisms in a closed system" turning it anaerobic, I wouldn't assume it's safer to "stick [meat] straight into the ziplock without the open exposure."

That said, the NCHFP fact sheet also tells us that "Sufficient heat can be used to inactivate the toxin (180°F for 4 min., Kendall 1999)." I am not a food safety scientist, but I would interpret this to mean that if RakDaddy's pork belly gets completely heated through to 180°F+ in his 200°F smoker for at least 4 minutes, it should be safe to eat immediately afterward, or if subsequently stored below 38°F in an environment with plenty of oxygen. ("Safe" with respect to the threat of botulism, I mean: please review the NCHFP fact sheet for other food safety concerns in cured and smoked meats.)

180°F is not hot enough to kill the botulinum spores, so I wouldn't want to eat the meat if it were, for example, smoked and then vacuum packed or canned, then served some time later without cooking.
posted by Orinda at 9:47 AM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That is excellent, Orinda. Thank you.

And I should add that I am not opposed to using nitrites in the cure. I just picked some up from Williams-Sonoma right up the street; if I'd looked around some more, I'd have gotten it and used it last week, and we would not have had this discussion. Lesson: Google more, AskMeFi less.

And now, to the kitchen!
posted by RakDaddy at 12:55 PM on April 6, 2013

Response by poster: For follow-up, I roasted this belly, and, holy cow, was it salty. I froze it and will use it sparingly in future soups and stews.

A week later I did get some pink salt and cured a belly and smoked it and oh my God was it the best bacon I have ever had in my life.
posted by RakDaddy at 7:30 PM on May 15, 2013

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