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Cured vs. Uncured Meat

Cured vs. Uncured Meat: What is the difference?

Cured and uncured meat are two terms you may not be familiar with. While we often come across cured and uncured meat in our daily lives. You wouldn’t think to call them that unless you already knew to look for one over the other.

So what exactly do these terms mean, and what difference does it make to your cooking?

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What is cured meat?

Cured meat is meat that has been treated with chemical preservatives such as sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. While these chemicals are forms of salt, they aren’t a form of salt you’ll find naturally.

How is cured meat made?

There are two key ways meat is cured:

  1. Wet curing using brine – this is where salt and other additives are added to water. And the meat is then submerged for around 4 days per 454g to cure
  2. Dry curing with a rub – This is where the meat is covered with a dry rub. And allowed to cure for 2-3 days per 454g

After curing, the meat is often (but not always) smoked.

What are some examples of cured meats?

Some of the most recognisable cured meats include:

  • Hot dogs – if you’ve ever had or seen hot dogs in a jar, they are cured in brine
  • Dry-cured ham – many deli meats are cured
  • Pepperoni/Salami – cured sausage meats like pepperoni and chorizo are cured so they last a long time

Note that there are also uncured versions of these products. So be sure to check the packaging if you aren’t sure.

What is uncured meat?

You’ll be forgiven for assuming uncured meat is any meat that has not been cured. But confusingly, uncured meat is cured, it’s just cured using natural preservatives.

Instead of using artificial preservatives, uncured is cured using natural products. Such as celery powder and juice, beetroot extract, and sea salt.

Cured vs. Uncured: What’s the difference?

The main difference is in how, and most importantly with what, they’re cured with. Cured meat uses artificial preservatives while uncured uses natural sources.

This causes a difference in two key ways. First, cured meats have an extremely long shelf life considering it is meat. And the second is that long shelf-life comes at a price.

All processed foods are worse for you than unprocessed foods. But research shows that when nitrites (such as sodium nitrite) interact with protein, it can produce carcinogens.

Some other key differences are in their colour. Since cured meats are usually pinker than uncured meats, and in the taste.

Is there a taste difference between cured and uncured meat?

You can taste the difference between cured and uncured in some circumstances. For example, cured bacon has a classic salty bacon taste. Whereas uncured bacon has a taste that’s more like pork belly, where the cut is from.

Essentially, because uncured meat is left in a more natural state. With less added salt (though salt is still added). It tastes more like other cuts of meat from that area.

How do I know if meat is cured or uncured?

If meat is cured or uncured, it will say so on its packaging. If you can’t see a designator, look at the ingredients. You should be able to tell there if the product is cured using chemicals or natural preservatives.

Can cured meat go bad?

Yes, though how long it will take to go bad depends on the cured meat itself. A whole piece of cured meat like a stick of salami does a good job of keeping oxygen out. Which means it’s going to take longer to start breaking down.

Pre-sliced cured meats, on the other hand, won’t last anywhere near as long once the package is opened. Because they’re largely exposed to the air.

If the package is unopened, use the use-by date as a guide. If you keep your cured deli meats in the fridge, they’ll last for 1-2 weeks once opened. When buying whole salami or similar large cured dry cuts, they can last for months.

You can freeze the meat to extend the shelf life another 2-6 months on average.

If you’re ever not sure, look for obvious signs of decay and do a sniff test. Meat never smells good if it’s gone bad!

Is it possible to cure meat without nitrates?

Yes, you can cure meat without the use of sodium nitrate. Some hams like prosciutto and Iberico are cured with sea salt instead of sodium nitrate.

Cured and uncured meats can make a delicious addition to your pizza, sandwiches, and paella, among other dishes. But you should be aware of where your cured and uncured meats come from and how they were processed.

With that knowledge, you can add them to your meals. Or consciously choose to exclusively cook with cured meats that use salt instead of nitrates.