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Cures, Nitrites, & Cure Accelerators: An Overview

Cures, Nitrites, & Cure Accelerators: An Overview

What's the deal with sodium nitrite? Is it the same as sodium nitrate? Is it safe to consume? Do I need to use a cure accelerator when making sausage? There's a ton of varying information out there on the internet and social media, and we strongly encourage you to do your own research from trusted and verified sources. To clarify a few common questions we receive, we've outlined some things we DO know. 

What are Nitrites and Nitrates?

Nitrites are chemical compounds composed of nitrogen and oxygen. Sodium nitrite (NaNO2) is a specific form of salt commonly used in food preservation, especially in cured meats. Its primary role is to inhibit bacterial growth, prevent spoilage, and provide the characteristic color and flavor associated with cured meats. 

In the context of cured meats, nitrates serve as a precursor to nitrites. When added to meat, certain bacteria convert nitrates into nitrites through a process called reduction. Nitrites are the active compound responsible for the curing process, preserving meats and giving them their characteristic flavor and color.

  • Nitrite salt is responsible for improving meat quality and safety;
  • Nitrate salt is inert and must be first converted by bacteria to the form nitrite before it can be helpful for meat quality and safety;
  • When added to meat at the allowed levels set forth by USDA, nitrite completely inhibits Clostridium botulinum growth, almost completely inhibits Clostridium perfringens, and slows the growth of many other pathogenic bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes;
  • Because biological reactions happen when added to meat products, nitrates and nitrites are classified as curing ingredients by USDA;
  • Because nitrate and nitrite slow almost all bacteria that cause food spoilage and sickness, they are classified as preservatives by USDA.

Is it Safe to Consume Nitrites? 

Most of the nitrate and nitrites we consume are found in the vegetables we eat as well as the water we drink. According to the CDC, nearly 80% of the nitrate we consume comes from leafy vegetables. A small amount of nitrates are found in drinking water and an even smaller amount (about 5% of our total intake) are from cured meats. According to the University of Wisconsin: 

  • Levels of nitrate and nitrite used in meat products are carefully controlled by Federal laws and monitored by the USDA or state government officials.
  • Decades of research have shown when nitrate and nitrite are carefully used following levels regulated by the USDA, these ingredients are safe to consume.
  • A slight health risk can come from high levels of nitrite exposed to high temperature cooking (i.e. frying bacon). As a result, bacon curing is carefully controlled. 

Do I Need to Use Cure Accelerators in My Sausage? 

We've seen a lot of questions circulating around whether or not a cure accelerator like sodium erythorbate is required for sausage making. 

What is a Cure Accelerator?

Cure accelerators like Sodium Erythorbate, and Ascorbic Acid are antioxidants or forms of Vitamin C. When used, they accelerate the nitrite (NO2-) conversion to nitric oxide (NO). This means sodium erythorbate speeds up converting nitrite to nitric oxide, so more nitric oxide will be available to react and create the cured meat color, in a shorter period of time. This is especially helpful for those using inclusions like high temp cheese in their smoked sausages, as the meat surrounding the cheese can oxidize, causing a brownish color (though not spoilt). The accelerator will help stabilize the colors and prevent any oxidation, ensuring an even color throughout. 

Sodium Erythorbate is also helpful when using Encapsulated Citric Acid. If using ECA in your sausage, letting the meat rest overnight increases the chances of the encapsulate breaking. Using a cure accelerator help shorten the curing process, allowing the sausage to go directly into the smoker while mainting color and cured flavor. 

If you are not using a cure accelerator in your sausage, is it safe to taste test your meat? 

After adding cure and stuffing your sausages, it's common practice to let them "bloom" for 8-12 hours to let the cure develop. In that time, the nitrites are converting to nitric oxide, which combines with the iron of the myoglobin to produce the signature reddish pink color of cured meats. There is no evidence to suggest that consuming a small amount of meat before smoking or processing your sausages without sodium erythorbate is dangerous. 

If I Use Cure or Encapsulated Citric Acid, Are My Products Shelf Stable? 

No, using a cure in your meat block or adding encapsulated citric acid does not necessarily make your product shelf stable. Shelf stability is determined by a combination of pH and water activity of the end product. Please be sure to store your meat properly unless under guidance from a professional.   


Sources: 'What’s the deal with Nitrates and Nitrates used in meat products?'

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