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I realize there is another question about corned beef from scratch, but the answers don't really cover my question. Many recipes for making your own corned beef still refer to the use of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) or sodium nitrate. From what I've been able to find out saltpeter is never used anymore nor available to the home cook, and sodium nitrate is not commonly available.

Sodium nitrate in the brine gives cooked corned beef its classic reddish color (without it corned beef comes out gray), and it kills botulism spores. I like my corned beef pink (the gray color is somewhat unappetizing), but more than that I'm concerned about the flavor of the corned beef. The last time I made corned beef I tried to use Morton Tender Quick. The cooked brisket turned out beautifully pink and almost inedible. It was terribly salty and actually made my tongue numb.

So, is there anything that can be used in place of the sodium nitrate, if used in the proper quantities does its absence or presence have any effect on the flavor of the corned beef, and is there any good place to get it?

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@sarge_smith: Are you sure your edit is correct? Sodium nitrate (saltpeter) is used as a preservative, and in fact some curing salts use a combination of nitrate and nitrite. Yes, it's also used in explosives, but lots of food ingredients/additives have alternate uses... –  Aaronut Jan 7 '11 at 2:25
    
It looks like an edit did change some of my nitrates to nitrites. I'm sure saltpeter is potassium nitrate (not nitrite). I'm not sure whether sodium nitrate or nitrite is more appropriate for corned beef. The other corned beef question (entitled Corned Beef - From Scratch) mentions sodium nitrite. FYI, Tender Quick lists both sodium nitrate and nitrite (in that order) in its ingredients after the (I'm sure much greater) quantities of salt and sugar. I'm just wondering if it's possible to obtain or substitute the nitrate/nitrites by themselves. –  Cold Oatmeal Jan 7 '11 at 3:49
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as far as i know, sodium nitrite is sold mixed with salt and died bright red for the purposes of curing meat. The couple of quick searches I did on google backed that up but it is always possible that I am wrong. –  sarge_smith Jan 7 '11 at 5:53
    
you can buy both compounds from any chemical supply house but I would watch the quantities you order to avoid those pesky watch lists. –  sarge_smith Jan 7 '11 at 5:57
    
Rolled back edits. Saltpeter is potassium nitrate (see my answer). –  Bob Jan 7 '11 at 13:25

8 Answers 8

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, which does not directly cure meats. Bacteria convert nitrate into nitrite, which is the real preservative. Saltpeter can be replaced by a smaller amount of nitrite to get the same curing effect (most commercial cured meats do this), though a prolonged cure that converts nitrate into nitrite can develop more flavor.

Tender Quick is not a direct substitute because it contains mostly salt. I've heard that you can replace the salt in your recipe with Tender Quick, and drop the saltpeter, and have a success. You would have better luck finding a recipe that was meant to use Tender Quick, though.

It is definitely possible to buy (food-grade!) saltpeter. I would check online, or at specialty stores. It's a little more difficult than picking it up at your local grocery store, of course.

(Chemistry lesson, courtesy of McGee: nitrate (NO3) is converted to nitrite (NO2), which then reacts to form nitric oxide (NO), which bonds to myoglobin in the meat, which turns it pink and prevents oxidation. Nitric oxide is also present in smoke, which gives that "pink ring" around the outside of smoked meats.)

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Saltpeter is also available at the drug store (chemists in the UK). Your drug store may or may not carry it, but I was able to have mine order it for me. –  Doug Johnson-Cookloose Jan 7 '11 at 15:31
    
thanks for the chem lesson! I always wondered exactly what made the smoke ring. I needs to get me a copy of McGee's book. –  Cold Oatmeal Jan 7 '11 at 21:17
    
Regarding the Tender Quick, I replaced the volume of kosher salt and sugar in the recipe I was following with Tender Quick, making no other adjustments, and it came out awful. I wouldn't recommend using it outside of a recipe that specifically called for it, as you say. –  Cold Oatmeal Jan 7 '11 at 21:30

I have made several of my own corned beef not using any nitrates. I just use a simple pickling recipe and inject the meat then soak it in the brine for 3 days. Rinse off and cook as usual and this turns out very good. The recipe I got was from an old time butchers book. You can also make your own bacon and hams with no nitrates (I have not tried but have recipes) using the Virginia Ham style recipe you can find by googling Virginia Hams.

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The taste is surely good. But the safety is not up to modern standards. The book may well have been created at a time when ptomaine was the most promising theory in food illness (that's as recently as WWII). –  rumtscho Jun 16 at 21:36
    
@rumtscho Assuming refrigeration and that the beef is going to be eaten before it goes bad, nitrates are optional. Cook's Illustrated's recipe for corning beef is just dry-brining for 5-7 days with salt and spices. –  Jolenealaska Jun 16 at 22:19

I've been making fresh and cured sausage for years. Here are the details on what you are asking. There are 2 types of cure. Commercially, they are now known as Prague Powder #1 and #2. You can find them on any website that sells sausage making supplies (casings, stuffers, etc). #1 is also known as pink curing salt, and is a mixture of 1 oz sodium nitrite per pound of salt. This cure is typically used for short term curing/smoking, (ham, smoked sausage, bacon, etc), providing both the appearance (pink color of ham as opposed to pork) and preventing botulism during smoking. Botulism thrives in an oxygen depleted environment where the temperatures are in the 105-115 degree range (read smoker here). Typical amount to use is 1 tsp per 5 pounds of meat. I use it frequently to smoke kielbasa, chorizo, salmon, pastrami, etc. Other then the conversion from pork to ham, the use of cures is only required for smoking/curing at low temperatures, not when smoking pork/ribs/brisket at temps of 250 degrees and up, as you see on BBQ Pitmasters.

Prague Powder #2 is designed for dry-cure products, like proscuitti, capicola or sopressatta. These not smoked/cooked, but age over time, up to 6 months or more. #2 contains the same sodium nitrite/salt solution plus .64 ounces of sodium nitrate per pound of salt. This would be the equivalent of saltpeter. The sodium nitrate acts as a time release, breaking down into sodium nitrite, then nitric oxide over an extended period of time. This supplements the sodium nitrite, which can deplete by 75% over a two week period, far too short for products that cure over an extended period of time. It should be noted that Cure #2 should NEVER be used to cure bacon, as it has been found that the combination of nitrite and nitrate in bacon has been found to produce nitrosamines (cancer causing cells) when fried at high temperatures. Seems to be a problem only with bacon.

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If pharmacy is uncooperative, or too expensive, but you're lucky enough to have an asian store (Chinese, Vietnamese etc.) in your area you'll find that most of them sell 'Nitre Granules', also called "muoi diem". It's pure granulated potassium nitrate. My little 2 ounce bag of Panda Brand cost all of 49 US cents.

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I bought some from my local pharmacy. I just took in my grandmother's recipe, showed it to the pharmacist and he ordered me a bottle; the bottle was really too big for my needs but it keeps really well in the cupboard

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Heck, it's easy to get. Just go to your local pharmacy; they have it. I use it every year, and have yet to puke up my tender, red brisket.

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Yes, pink salt is often used in food preparations. Sodium nitrite is the chemical name. Be careful here, there are some nasty uses for the other forms of the chemical.

you can order it online, usually in quantities far more than you would ever need at home. It is hard to find, but not terribly expensive.

Yes you can omit it from your preparations. But the final result is never quit the same. Th texture and Colour is dramatically different. Unappealing without it. Flavour can also be affected. In my experience, without is yourv preparation tastes more like "cooked meat" and with it it tastes like "deli meat"

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I decided to do some more of my own research on this with the nitrate/nitrite confusion. Thanks to the other answerers, that definitely helped give me a good starting point. I'm writing my own answer so I can include some links. I made it a community wiki (seemed like it might be good for this one).

Firstly, from everything I've been able to find online (wikipedia has remarkably little info about nitrates/nitrites as applies to meat curing) there is no substitute for the nitrites. They occur naturally in many vegetables, so when used appropriately they don't pose an undue health risk. Nitrates/nitrites are added to meat cures (at least historically) largely for their preservative qualities. So, in a corned beef brisket that is going to be brined then cooked and consumed immediately the nitrites are unnecessary.

Also, nitrites do make the meat turn reddish when cooked. Opinions seem to be split as to whether there's a significant impact to flavor in meat brined with nitrites for a relatively short time, say around a week. But since the flavor development is unmistakable in longer curing processes, I doubt there is zero effect on flavor even with a short brine.

As Bob explains in his answer, nitrites are the preservative, and potassium or sodium nitrates are converted into nitrites during the cure. I'm guessing that saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was used more frequently than sodium nitrate/nitrite in the past because it was more readily available. From what I've been able to find online, it's no more available now than sodium nitrite preparations, which are more appropriate for this kind of meat curing.

The sodium nitrite preparations are often called by the generic name "pink salt" because they are colored pink to avoid confusion with regular salt. The brand names I've found online are Insta Cure #1 and DQ Curing Salt #1. The #1 indicates a preparation of 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% regular salt. Pink salt #2 indicates the preparation also includes sodium nitrate. #2 is only necessary when dry curing like pepperoni and dry salami, which are not cooked or refrigerated. Pink salt is used in small quantities in addition too, not instead of, regular salt. (Most brine recipes I've seen use 2 cups kosher salt and 4 teaspoons pink salt.)

It seems like there are two widely available books that people recommend for meat curing: Charcuterie, by Ruhlman, and this one (which seems to get the hardcore purist vote), by Rytek Kutas. I don't own either, so can't recommend one, but Ruhlman does have a blog where he posted the corned beef recipe from his book. Best of all, the blog post has a link where you can mail order the pink salt, and it's way cheaper than the small handful of other online sources I've been able to find.

Finally, note that saltpeter is poisonous and flammable (it's used in pyrotechnics and to burn out dead tree stumps). Sodium nitrite itself can be fatally toxic if a human were to ingest an amount equivalent to 4.6 grams (citing from wikipedia), which again is why they make the curing preparations pink. Given that, there is no way I'd use the 99% pure form of sodium nitrite even if it is labeled food grade. I'm no where near good enough at math to be sure I wouldn't kill myself with it. (I found a hunting supply website that sells that stuff to use in curing fishing bait.)

To sum up, it seems like sodium nitrite is worth using but can be omitted, it has no reasonable substitute, and it's unfortunately not easy for most of us to come by. Thanks again to the commenters and answerers.

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Good points. We had associate whom made some sausages from one of our animals and we tried some. He had put in pure saltpetre instead of the usual 5/95 mix by mistake. They cooked up great and smelt and looked good. But after about the third bite I was throwing up violently. I never new it could have killed me! –  TFD Jan 10 '11 at 7:20

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