Why do I use sodium nitrate or nitrite? I get asked that question all the time. Back in the 70’s some scientist published a report about sodium nitrite being bad for you, and that story really stuck. Suddenly everyone wanted no-nitrate/no nitrite products. The fact is, these are naturally occurring chemicals in the body. You make them in your saliva. They are not produced by Dow Chemical in some far away lab. Try sea salt for instance. Lots of naturally occurring nitrates/nitrites there.
And I tried just using sea salt. But salt from the sea is inconsistent in its properties. One box of sea salt will have more or less of the nitrate/nitrate that I need to be sure my hams are safe to eat in six months or a year, when they are really going to taste their best.
And I don’t use nitrites just for cosmetic purposes, another bugaboo from the 70’s. Everybody thinks that it’s all about making the color better in a cured product. But the truth is, these compounds inhibit the growth of bacteria! Without nitrates, my hams could spoil. I need that curing ingredient and aging to achieve the quality that Edwards hams are known for. Remember we cure the old fashioned way, just the way my Pop Pop did in the early 1900’s and his father did in the 1800’s and so on.
Now the nitrates/nitrites we use here at Edwards are mined. In some salt mines, you will find a naturally occurring vein of nitrates, along with the salt. That’s what we use. Some folks are using spinach juice or celery seed for their nitrates added to their ham, bacon or sausages.. but make no mistake, it’s the same compound, whether its coming from a salt mine or a stick of celery!
And while we are on the subject, sodium nitrite is basically a souped up version of sodium nitrate. They both function the same way, with nitrate converting over time to nitrite during the curing process.
So to put this particular baby to bed, please know that the use of these ingredients, contrary to that long ago inaccurate report, is not dangerous or bad. In fact, they protect you.
Further information about the nitrate/nitrite issue:
- Read what Dr. William Campbell Douglass II, author of The Douglass Report, has to say about cured meats.
- Read what the Unbroken Paleo blog had to say in Nitrates, Nitrites, and Nitrosamines – OH, MY! earlier this year. There is a lot of good information in the links at the end of this post.
- From Culinary Arts section of the multifaceted About.com web site, peruse the Facts About Sodium Nitrate article.