Brining, Curing & Smoking
Before refrigeration became commonplace, a variety of techniques were used to extend the shelf life of foods dating back thousands of years. Salting, drying, pickling, and smoking didn’t just preserve foods, but also transformed their taste, texture, and appearance. Today these classic techniques are favored for their unique trans-formative effects in diverse preparations.
When preserving foods by these methods, observe safe food handling practices to prevent food borne illnesses. Meats, poultry and fish have certain components that create both favorable and harmful bacteria and fungi. Oxygen, moisture, and ambient temperature help to accelerate their growth in foods (except for the notable exception of botulism, an anaerobic toxin that requires no air to multiply). By reducing or eliminating one of these elements foods can be stabilized and made safe to eat.
Salt is a common food preservative favored because it naturally inhibits most bacteria and fungal growth. Ham, bacon, duck, fish, eggs, cheese and vegetables can be salted through dry cures or wet brines for either short or extended periods to achieve desired results.
Salted foods are sometimes dehydrated, as in the case of lutefisk, and then re-hydrated later prior to cooking. Salted hams like Prosciutto de Parma use only sea salt and time, a year or more, to dry and cure the hams. Salting can be done by either rubbing the surface or burying the item in a salt bed. A salt paste or dough can also be used to encase the product.
Salt is the major component in dry cures along with other additives like sugar, seasonings, and curing salts. Curing salts also called pink salt, Insta Cure, or Prague Powder help to stabilize the pH level preventing botulism, plus they add a piquant flavor and a characteristic pink color to items like ham, bacon, and hot dogs.
A cure dissolved in water is called a brine and works on the principle of diffusion. Because the salt solution is denser than the water in the food, equilibrium is sought thereby drawing salt and moisture into the product adding salt, flavor, and moisture to it. Brining can be done with any type of meat, fish or poultry. In most brine recipes a ratio of 3-5% salt is standard but could be as high as 9-10%.
Pickling is a tradition that dates back over 4000 years, to ancient Mesopotamia in the Middle East, where cucumbers were first cured. Although we tend to think of pickles when the term pickling is mentioned, it really applies to any foods that are preserved either through lacto-fermentation or through the use of a vinegar solution. Pickled herring, popular in Europe, and ceviche a pickled fish preparation popular in South America, are examples of dishes that use this process.
Lacto-fermentation is the process used in German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi, in which vegetables are mixed with salt and spices and allowed to ferment at room temperature for weeks. Lacto-fermentation process enhances the nutritive value of vegetables and creates new flavor sensations. This is the same process used for curing dried salami.
Pickling in vinegar is done by creating a brine solution that usually includes salt, spices, and sometimes sugar. Herbs and spices such as mustard seed, garlic, cinnamon, or cloves, are often added to either lacto-fermentation or the vinegar pickling process, because in addition to adding flavors, they are also considered antimicrobial helping reduce bacteria.
Marinades can be prepared with vinegar, wine, or citric acids and may include seasonings, salt, sugar, or oil. Whereas pickling commonly is used when no heat is applied, marinades are commonly used for foods to be cooked. In addition to adding flavor to foods, marinades often are used to tenderize tough cuts of meat. Acidity will break down the meat fibers and make them tender but care must be taken as marinating items like meats for too long can cause the texture to have a mushy mouth feel.
The French term “confire” meaning “to preserve” refers to foods that are cooked and preserved in jars or pots. Fruit comfitures are cooked with sugar and sometimes other ingredients to add flavor and shelf life. Confit meats, traditional to the Gascony region in Southwest France, are typically salt cured duck or goose submerged, and gently poached in fat until tender. Before the advent of modern refrigeration confits were placed in crockery pots or jars filled with the cooking fat and stored in a cool cellar where they could be held up to six months at a time.
Smoking is divided into either cold-smoking or hot smoking. The temperature of cold smoking is below 80˚F/27˚C degrees and merely injects smoke into the product without denaturing the proteins, for example salmon, or other types of fish. In hot-smoking the foods are cooked between 160-225˚F/71-110˚C degrees and the proteins are denatured and thoroughly cooked. Native Americans in the northwest smoked fish by hanging them from racks above an open fire, and the American barbecue slow cooks meats including pork ribs, beef brisket, and sausages in a similar manner. Scandinavians are known for their wood plank smoking, while sausage makers use smoke houses.
A method of food processing done by simply allowing foods to dry out through exposure to sun and wind. Fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish are commonly preserved in this manner including sun-dried tomatoes, beef jerky, and herbs and spices. Other methods include oven-drying, or the use of food dehydrators.