I’m working on a batch of curing meat that’s “done” today and have been doing a bunch of reading on a controversial topic: nitrates. I’m also fielding questions about whether or not we use them, with folks making the assumption that no nitrates = healthier.
I have cured with curing salt (pink salt/nitrate salt) and without. I have to tell you that the pieces cured with the pink salt have more flavor depth and a familiar reddish color. Depending on what flavor you are after, the pink salt imparts a more familiar bacon flavor, while not using it results in a more dry cured, salumi flavor. Mark likes salumi. I like bacon.
The other thing the pink salt does for the meat is prevent botulism. Botulism is a very deadly and undetectable bacteria. The conditions for curing meat are also perfect for growing bacteria, mold, and fungus. While we can see and deal with the rest, botulism spores are undetectable. Botulism contamination is not common, but it doesn’t have to be to make an ounce of prevention worth the ton of cure (if any).
So, to help explain my thinking on the nitrate issue, this article by Michael Ruhlman provides a good explanation about the marketing gimmick that is “nitrate free,” or “uncured” meat. If our products say “nitrate free” you’ll notice a color and flavor difference–because I really didn’t use any form of nitrate in it. But you’ll also notice a flavor difference. I hope Michael can help you sort out the controversy and understand the marketing language used on “natural” products.