Friday, February 8, 2013

Equilibrium cure vs. Excess salt cure

I've gotten a number of questions regarding the application of salt during the curing phase of cured meats as it related to quantity and duration, so I thought a small post was in order to clarify various curing methodologies.

There are generally 2 methods to cure meat:

  1. The older method (I believe) is what I would call "excess salt" curing. This basically involves applying a generous quantity of salt to the piece of meat, together with the spices, and waiting a certain amount of time for the meat to absorb the salt.
  2. The other method is what I (and others) call "equilibrium curing" in which a calculated quantity of salt is added to the meat, with the spices, and allowing enough time for the meat to absorb all the salt.
While both methods will work, the excess salt method involves guessing, hopefully based on experience, how long the meat should be left in this salt mixture to cure. If it's not left long enough, not enough salt is absorbed to preserve the meat, if it's left too long the end product will be salty. This "guessing" will have to vary based on the percentage of meat to fat in the product (fat absorbs salt less readily), whether the product has skin on it (skin acts as a barrier), the thickness of the product, the temperature of the fridge, and probably many more variables. I've heard people say to leave items for 1 days per kilogram of meat, but that doesn't really make sense as it doesn't account for thickness or fat content.  Sounds to me like the old recipes where people were told to cook something in the oven for X number of minutes per pound. It'll work, but most likely you'll end up with overcooked/undercooked food because the variables are not accounted for! Honestly, this type of curing doesn't make much sense to me. I don't see an advantage, but I would be happy to hear from people who do this (and there are many!) to correct me.

I always cure using an equilibrium cure. I use between 2.5% and 3.5% of the meats weight in salt, rub it all over the meat, and put the meat in a sealed bag, flipping it every 3-5 days in the refrigerator to make sure the  chunk is always exposed to the brine that is formed by the salt pulling out water from the muscle. After a fairly arbitrary amount of time, but one which is long enough to make sure all the salt i've applied has been absorbed, I consider the meat cured and ready to move to the next phase, into the fermentation box or curing chamber. To me this is much easier than excess salt curing. By applying a known, wanted, quantity of salt, the product will not become over-salted, ever, no matter how long it's left in the fridge. The question is really what the minimum amount of time is for the meat to absorb the salt. I don't really have a good answer, other than "leave it long enough to be SURE it's absorbed the salt". I always leave my items in the fridge curing at least 2 weeks, and for very large things like a culatello, I give it 3. That's the beauty of this system..... you can't overcure! I guess if I'm in a analogy to cooking mood, this method would be the sous vide cooking of the curing world. By cooking a product at it's final temperature, you can't overcook it, and it won't be undercooked if you leave it long enough.

I hope that sheds some light on the different methods, and why I do things the way I do.


Scott B. Garrison said...

Hey Jason, great post. And crucial to this moment for me. I made Ruhlman's corned beef about a week ago...err I ate it about a week ago, making hash with leftovers. So I cured it about two weeks ago.

My problem - too salty. I pulled it, rinsed it well and crockpotted it in 3 bottles of Guinness. Only issue was it was too salty. Now one thing I did wrong was leave it in the cure for a day or two longer than the book said...I assumed an equilibrium would be reached. Your post makes me think I was wrong.

So my questions are (1) I assume by following your "equilibrium method" that the proper amount of salt/flavor balance will be more likely; and (2) where do you get your quantity - 2.5% and 3.5% of the meats weight?


Scott B. Garrison said...

Never mind on the ratio question Jason - I see it is all over the web as the proper percentage. sorry for asking something I could easily find on my own

Any other comments though - feel free


Jasonmolinari said...

Scott, 2.5-3.5% salt i believe is based on limiting bacterial growth while the product loses water and because unsuitable for bacterial growth.

I don't have ruhlman's corned beef recipe in front of me, but i assume it uses a brine. Brine/meat equilibrium can be calculated in the same way meat/salt equilibrium is calculated, but you have to include the weight of the brine water in the equation as that will "keep" some of the salt. So the equilibrium will exist between the meat and the brine.
This FDA handbook described equilibrium brining.

hotsauce said...

I have to agree Jason.
I have cured both ways for several years and the equilibrium method is far superior, almost foolproof unless you don't let it cure long enough.
One of the biggest problems I have with books like Ruhlman's is that the general blanket is 2#/day. Lets talk about that: If you are curing a lonzino or loma it will be wayyyy to salty, because of the thinness of the meat vs the weight--I have successfully cure lonzino packed in salt in the fridge for only 24 hours, and it was still on the salty side.
Its easy to get a 10# brisket or loin that is thin and has little fat on it, so it will soak up the cure so much faster than say a hind leg ham for prscuitto that is covered in skin and fat (they do these in Italy at 2#/day, and that works).
Another advantage of equilibrium curing is much less waste of valuable sea salt and curing spices.
I always go with the same percentages (2.5%-3.5%) sea salt that you do and it always works.
Yes some adjustment is necessary if you have an especially fatty/marbled piece, then go a little less on the salt.
Great post, and one really needed!

Harm said...

I am wondering whether the amount of liquid is an indicator as to whether the salt has penetrated properly.

Jasonmolinari said...

I think the amount of water exuded is more related to the age of the pig and the quality of the meat....i haven't figured it out though.

Anonymous said...

Water emitted? Be patient because you will see some of that drawn back in. Would not suggest using that as an indicator towards anything.

Bill said...

After mixing up the calculated amount of salt and spices, I 've coated my coppas with the mixture only to have some left in the bowl I was using. I'm curious if anyone dumps in the excess mixture into the bag with the meat. I have with my last coppa and was hoping I did not overdo it.

Adriana said...

Hi Jason,
what about a bone-in ham for prosciutto?

Jasonmolinari said...

adriana, i have not made a bone in prosciutto.
I suspect the equilibrium cure would also work for that, but i'm not 100% sure because of its size.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jason-
I started curing recently and have done pancetta, bacon, and coppa, etc. My question is about the firmness test: I keep seeing references to the meat being firm throughout, but I know how difficult textures and firmness are to communicate... Have you heard of any more specific ways of telling when the meat is salty/firm enough? I've ended up with oversalted bacon waiting for the meat to firm up.

Obviously with equilibrium curing this isn't as much of an issue as you can wait longer before hanging without the meat becoming too salty (and I will likely be doing more equillibrium curing in the future). But I like trying to eyeball these things as it helps me to understand and learn more. I always wonder what the traditional methods were for eyeballing things when it comes to cooking and curing...

Mike said...

My name's Mike, by the way. Accidently hit anonymous on that last post.

Jasonmolinari said...

You could do an equilibrium cure and see what the meat feels like at the end...but i'm not really sure how else to describe it.

Anonymous said...

Any sugar will result in a softer cured state. A cure with equal parts sugar to salt or more sugar is called a soft cure. and as for bone in joints, i have made a few prosciutto items, including a lamb leg, with the excess method. the point of it is to not allow the juices that come out to go back in. You need to drain the bag that you have wrapped the meat packed in salt in, or have it raised above a pan with drainage holes. the test for its doness is touch, but keep in mind that it takes longer to cure through connective tissues(the knee joint). The lamb prosciutto had an extra two days after it seemed done, except around the joint. once it is removed from the salt, the meat will.slowly reach internal equillibrium or an evn dispursion or salt. ive cured lonza in a similar method, as well as the french classic "noix de jambon".
Hope this helps.

Kosher Dosher said...

I hope this a good place to ask this question. I am a complete newbie when it comes to Charcuterie. Salt equilibrium vs excess salt. Fascinating subject. My question: could salt equilibrium in Duck Prosciutto work? Most recipes call for completing encasing duck breast in salt for 24 hours.

In Ruhlamn's book SALUMI and CHARCUTERIE recipes he encases duck breast in SALT and in one recipe he uses pink salt too. A little confusing. I believe whole muscles dont need pink salt unless you are doing it for color and taste or possibly want to cold smoke.

In his bresalola recipe he uses pink salt for one but not the other.

Could someone lead me in the right direction to understand his reasoning behind this. I have already been to his blog and have emailed him.

thanks in advance.

Jasonmolinari said...

technically on whole muscles nitrates/nitrites are not necessary. I use them for added safety, color and flavor.

If he's covering the breast in salt it's not equilibrium salting. See my post on excess salt vs. equilibrium..

Jay Bui said...

I think there are two "advantages" or rather differences with the salt box method. First is what was mentioned in a comment earlier facilitates in drying out the meat by drawing out moisture, moisture that goes back in with the equilibrium method, and reduces air drying time. Second, the curing time is drastically reduced since you don't have to wait as long for the salt to penetrate the meat.

As for the drawing out of moisture, I have a theory that the equilibrium method is still better in the long run, although it will still take much longer. The salt box method draws out moisture, yes, but with the moisture that is drawn out is also many hydrophilic compounds that is probably flavor as well. With equilibrium, that moisture along with the flavor is brought back into the meat...the drying time will remove the water content but not the actual flavor compounds. That's my theory at least anyway.

Side question, how do you decide what salt percentage you use between 2.5 and 3.5? From taste experience? Eyeballing the meat and fat ratio? I'm doing duck prosciutto for the first time and I'm unsure of what salt percentage to use. said...

I used 3% for my duck and it was great. I think it's taste.

Jasonmolinari said...

2.5-3.5% based on personal preference, final drying amount, experience and all that:)

Unknown said...

Caught this blog just in time.1kg pork loin and 3kg pork neck in excess salt method 2 days now. Will have to rinse and use 2.5% assuming some salt has already penetrated during the 1st 2 days of curing. Thanxz heaps

mollymae99 said...

Hi Jason,

Thanks for your blog! I understand I'm really late to this discussion, but I recently got into curing. I'm on my second duck prosciutto, the first one was a recipe from Broad Fork, and now my second is this recipe...

Instead of two breasts I used one, and instead of wrapping the duck and cure in a plate, I have it sealed in a tupperware container. At first the duck was incased in the salt mixture. But two days later the side is exposed. Is this ok? From what I'm reading from the comments it seems like maybe the salt was absorbed? Also, if this isn't good, should I make more cure and cover it?

If everything is ok, then I'm taking the duck out of the cure tomorrow and will rinse then hang.

Thanks Jason, I hope you've been well!

Jasonmolinari said...

Hard to say. That's why using an equilibrium cure makes sense. I don't know how much salt you applied. If the salt is gone it was absorbed. Problem is you don't know how much.

Unknown said...

MollyMae, I regularly do Duck Prosciutto and use 400 gm of just regular kosher salt for 8 breasts and never get any that are too salty. I am an advocate of the salt box method primarily because I use kosher and not pink salt. The reasoning is that most of my cures are whole muscle pieces and as has been stated there is no need for the nitrates. just my $.02

Unknown said...

000This post and comment are fascinating. Speaking as a Ph.D. scientist, and a student of cooking history and anthropology, this entire subject goes to the very heart of what it means to be a human being. The truth may be that we enjoy cured meats because they preserve the "rotted" taste of animal protein that we all evolved to enjoy. As far as the evidence suggests, we are all mostly glorified jackals, following the mega-predators, lions, tigers, and bears, and enjoying their leavings, once they became a bit too ripe for them to bother with. Furthermore, this discussion of equilibrium curing really only became possible with the advent of refrigeration. This entire discussion is fed and developed through our advanced thinking and cooking techniques. I am fascinated with how meat curing techniques are changing due to refrigeration which really has nothing to do with why the techniques were originally developed. The ingenuity of humans is limitless.

Unknown said...

The entire notion of an "equilibrium cure" is genius. I have recently become very interested in doing charcuterie. I am a Ph.D. chemist, and a life-long student of history and especially ancient anthropology. I have found that many of the traditions of charcuterie are nothing more than that. They have very little basis in science. The techniques are often done because of tradition, nothing more. Do they work? Certainly they do. However, does anyone else think it is simply absurd that many charcuterie recipes require refrigeration when clearly the recipes traditionally involved no refrigeration. I think using an appropriate amount of the ingredients under refrigeration is lovely modernization of ancient techniques. I am sure this is taken advantage of in industrial techniques. Why shouldn't home techniques take advantage of refrigeration as well. Yes, I would like to make my own prosciutto, but burying my pork under a mountain of salt seems rather silly.

Unknown said...
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