The Role of Nitrites
Nitrites are a controversial and misunderstood ingredient when it comes to sausages. Nitrites get introduced into sausages in the form of curing salts such as Morton Tender Quick or other products sold under the trade names of Cure#1 or Prague Powder #1. There is much disagreement over whether nitrites are bad for your health. What is certain is that, like anything else, too much will hurt you. Many “organic” sausage makers will play on this fear and will not add curing salts. Instead they will add naturally occurring nitrite from vegetable extracts (celery, spinach) and produce sausage that actually has a higher nitrite content found in sausages made with curing salts. Nitrite is nitrite; it really doesn’t matter where it comes from.
Nitrites perform two functions in a sausage formulation: they inhibit botulism and they add a distinctive color to the meat. Let’s look at each function individually.
Protection from botulism: The organisms that cause botulism absolutely thrive in a sausage type environment. Inside a sausage you have low oxygen, high moisture and plenty of nutrients. This is a classic botulism day spa! If the temperature of the sausage stays within the temperature zone of 40F to 140F for an appreciable amount of time (over several hours) these nasty critters can grow at an exponential rate. The presence of nitrites greatly inhibits the growth of the botulism producing bacteria and helps make sure sausage is safe to eat.
Is this important for the sausages we are making? Absolutely not.
The extra protection against botulism provided by nitrites will not be needed for our sausages for three reasons. The first is that we thoroughly cleaned our knives, cutting boards, meat grinder, stuffer and hands; we did not contaminate our meat. The second is that we kept our extremely clean meat very cold; we stayed away from the danger zone. The third is that we are either going to cook these sausages immediately or freeze them for later use.
When would nitrites be needed? Nitrites are ABSOLUTLEY CRITICAL if you are making dry cured sausages like salami or pepperoni. These are sausages that need to hang at room temperature for weeks at a time. Nitrites are also an extremely good idea if you want to make truly traditional smoked sausages where the smoking takes place over the course of four to twenty four hours. These are advanced sausages that we will not be making in this book.
Addition of color: A side effect of the addition of curing salts is that the nitrite turns the meat a very attractive pinkish red. Have you ever seen the perfect “smoke ring” on a smoked brisket? The smoke ring is the result of nitrites from the smoke interacting with the proteins in the meat. If you wanted to get the “ultimate” smoke ring you would have to find a way to get the nitrite all the way through the meat. That is exactly what you get when you make corned beef. A sausage without nitrite will be a dullish gray in color after cooking while one containing nitrite will be a rosy pink.
Earlier in this book when we were preparing our meat I performed an extra step that I didn’t talk about then because I didn’t want folks to get confused. I split the cubed and seasoned meat into two batches. I added a little less than ½ teaspoon of Cure #1 to one of the batches but not to the other.
I ground and stuffed the batches of meat separately and let the sausages sit overnight in the refrigerator so the nitrite would have time to interact with the sausage. The next day I cooked a sausage from each batch in the oven together and got the following results.
Pretty cool! Which of the two sausages look more appetizing to you?
I am convinced that the nitrite containing sausage also tastes slightly different. I think it is a little juicier and more “porky”. That being said it could all be in my head; I have a hard time believing that such a small change in seasoning could impact the flavor at a noticeable level. It might be that I think it looks better so I also think it tastes better.
This is another excellent reason to make your own sausage. If you want the color and flavor added by nitrites go ahead and use some. If you hate the idea of nitrites in your food now you can eliminate them. It’s completely within your control.
The maximum amount of nitrite legally allowed in sausages is 200 parts per million (ppm). Here is how the math works out for a five pound batch of sausage:
- 5 lbs = (5 lb) x (453 grams/lb) = 2265 grams of meat
- 200 ppm = [ (X grams nitrite) x (1,000,000)] / 2265 grams of meat
- X = 0.45 grams of nitrite
If you decide to add curing salts to your sausages then you need to understand that all curing salts are not equal.
Cure #1, also known as pink salt, contains 6.25% nitrite by weight. The remaining 93.75% is salt. A commercial producer would be legally allowed to use up to 7 grams of Cure #1 for a 5 lb batch of sausage. Seven grams of Cure #1 is roughly equivalent to one heaping teaspoon.
Morton Tender Quick contains 0.5% nitrite and 0.5% nitrate by weight. The remaining 99% is a mixture of salt and sugar. A commercial producer would be legally allowed to use up to 45 grams of Tender Quick for a 5 lb batch of sausage. Forty five grams of Tender Quick is about 3 level tablespoons.
You do not need to use the maximum legal amount of nitrite to get the desired curing effect. You also need to remember that if you are using Tender Quick for a five pound batch of sausage then you are adding about 44 grams of salt and sugar so your base recipe should be adjusted accordingly.
I try to keep thing simple. I use just under a teaspoon of Cure#1 per 5 lbs of sausage.
Do NOT CONFUSE THE PRODUCTS. If you add 3 tablespoons of Cure #1 the meat in unsafe for consumption and MUST BE DISCARDED.
Sausage that has had a curing agent added should not be cooked immediately. Let the sausage rest in the refrigerator overnight to make sure the cure has had time to interact with all of the meat.