Curing and smoking - the science of sensational taste
By Sam Wass, Medium Well
It’s fair to say that bacon, sausage and other ‘processed meats’ have received some bad press over the past few months, and being tagged as a “cancer causer” is going to be a difficult reputation to shake off.
We aren’t denouncing the WHO findings, we do think they need to be taken in context, (and maybe with a pinch of curing salt), but even Cancer Research said that the occasional bacon and sausage sarnie is unlikely to do you harm. So, we thought it was time to put forward a case for curing and smoking, or at least stop and think about this traditional technique, and why it enhances flavour.
Curing and smoking are among the earliest cooking techniques and can be traced back to ancient Egypt. They were initially a result of the requirement to make use of whatever food was available and to extend food life so it could be used through winter periods when food was scarce.
Over the years advancements in technology and food science have invariably altered production processes, and ingredients used, but the basic premise remains the same. Curing food, by adding salt, or smoking it, has a dehydrating effect, which in the days before refrigeration was essential for preserving meat because it is the moisture of the meat that fosters bacterial growth and leads to food spoiling.
As you almost certainly know, fresh meat does not have a long shelf-life. When it stops being part of a living animal, the meat begins to deteriorate under the influence of enzymes, oxygen and light. This isn’t a negative process, as it is because of this process that meat texture and flavour are improved, with the most obvious example being dry-aged mature beef. That said, there is no getting away from the simple fact that meat left unattended will eventually rot and spoil.
Meat spoils when moisture and fat break down, while bacteria thrives on the surface of meat. It is for this reason that meats with a high fat content (such as beef, lamb and pork), take longer to spoil than those with less fat (like poultry and game). Curing and smoking applies ingredients and create conditions that control the process or deter the deterioration, so that this process happens safely over a prolonged period.
The key to successful curing is the reduction or removal of moisture in the meat, which creates an environment that is inhospitable to bacteria that spoils the meat, and arguably more importantly, it is beneficial to the bacteria and microbes that protect the meat and add flavour, namely halophiles. These bacteria are beneficial and thrive in dry, salty conditions (the name means ‘salt-lovers’) and they create lactic acid that, when in contact with meat, protects it from pathogenic bacteria such as listeria and encourages moulds which are somewhat desirable to humans such as Penicillium.
It is the unique molecular structure of salt which gives the meat preservation ability. It is comprised of small, highly concentrated, super-active positive and negatively charged atoms that penetrate foods. Salt draws out moisture, which limits the growth of the microbes that cause meat to spoil, while the salt itself travels into the meat, and promotes the benign bacteria that brings out flavour, a gradual exchange known as osmosis. By slowing down deterioration, salt creates an opportunity for flavour to develop.
Smoking complements salting by adding a spectrum of complex flavours while also having a preserving effect. Phenol, which is a compound found within the smoke, acts as an antioxidant that inhibits the breakdown of fat, while naturally occurring formaldehyde and acetic acid lower the pH when hitting the surface of meat, which has an anti-microbial effect.
So there you have it, the science behind how curing and smoking your meat makes it taste so good. Food preservation nowadays centres around chemicals and additives, and that’s something we should be more worried about than the occasional bacon sarnie. We’d always recommend you eat cured or smoked meat, no freezer-food microwavables - do preservation the natural way, let the sciencey-stuff do its thing and enjoy the fantastic taste that follows. Trust us, we’re the professionals.