Is it safe to cure bacon with Morton TenderQuick?
This may seem like an odd question to ask since Morton Tenderquick (MTQ), specifically the Sugar Cure product, is marketed to people curing their own bacon at home.
But here is the catch; MTQ contains equal amounts of nitrite and nitrate. While nitrite plays a beneficial role in the bacon curing process the presence of nitrate is specifically forbidden in commercially produced bacon by the US Department of Agriculture.
So what gives? Why does the USDA not allow the use nitrate and Morton says you can? There are multiple layers to the answer but in the end it all makes sense.
First let’s understand why the USDA prohibits the use of nitrates. The biggest concept to understand is that there is no inherent danger from the nitrate itself.
It turns out that when bacon is fried at temperatures of 340F or greater then free nitrite from the cure can react with a component of the meat protein (amines) to form a potential carcinogen (nitrosamines). It is the presence of nitrosamines that the USDA is trying to prevent.
For the visually inclined the process looks like this:
In order to minimize the formation of nitrosamines the USDA has placed limits on how much nitrite can be present in bacon. For dry cured bacon the limit is 200 ppm while for pumped bacon the limit is 120 ppm. This gives us the following picture:
In addition to limiting how much nitrite can be added the USDA also requires the addition of “Blockers” which essentially scavenge any free nitrite in the bacon and reduces the formation of nitrosamines even further.
Specifically, the USDA now requires adding 550 ppm of either sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate to pumped bacon. Our picture is now looking like this:
In meat curing nitrate is best described as a “time release capsule” that breaks down and releases nitrite. This function is critical when curing meats like hams and salami for long periods of time (months). This function serves no purpose when curing meat like bacon over a short period of time (days).
Put a different way, the presence of nitrate serves no beneficial purpose in curing bacon. We don’t need it.
It also turns out that the Blockers that get added to commercial bacon to scavenge free nitrite are ineffective at soaking up nitrate. As the nitrate breaks down at the elevated temperatures of bacon frying it would release free nitrite which could then go on to produce nitrosamines.
If a commercial producer of bacon added nitrate to his cure mix it would serve no beneficial purpose and result in the by-passing of a layer of protection against nitrosamine formation. Thus the USDA stance that no nitrate is allowed in commercially produced bacon. That makes sense to me.
This returns to the question of, “Morton TenderQuick contains nitrate so is it safe to use to make bacon?” My answer is, “Yes.”
The term “safe” is actually shorthand for the concept of relative risk. The risk we are evaluating is the risk of developing cancer after ingesting nitrosamines from cooked bacon.
When we make bacon at home we are not adding the “blockers” of either sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate.
This makes the concern over by-passing a layer of protection against nitrosamine formation irrelevant. The only concern at this point is whether our total concentration of nitrite + nitrate is excessive.
My personal belief is that most people will get closer to the correct application of cure by using a commercial cure mix, like MTQ Sugar Cure, according to the manufacturer’s suggested usage rate.
Buy a product designed for an application and follow the directions.
I do not object to people formulating their own nitrate free cure mix but I do believe that it has greater chance for error.
If you are using a scale then it is easy to make a transcription or memory mistake, “Was I supposed to add 20 grams or 200 grams?”
If you are using rough measurements then mistakes are even easier to make, “Was that seven heaping Tbs or seven level tsps?”
Even when the formulation is correctly made the chance of misapplication is greater as there are no usage instructions in front of you.
I am not trying to discourage anyone from making their own cure mix. Once you know how it is extremely easy.
My point is that we are talking about the relative risks of adding too much curing salts. In my opinion, there is less risk for over application of cure when a commercial mix is used.
Just for kicks I have included a snippet from an awesome publication by the National Academy of Sciences that examined the issue of nitrosamines in bacon in 1981.
Here are the references I used to develop this post. If you read them and come up with a different spin on things please let me know!
The Health Effects of Nitrate, Nitrite and N-Nitroso Compounds (National Academy of Science)