I recently made homemade bacon from start to finish. It was actually quite easy and in the near future I will be posting a step-by-step guide with pictures so you can try it for yourself. The thing that surprised me the most about the process was in what I learned about nitrites and nitrates.
If you are not familiar with curing meats or the great nitrate debate. Here is a very brief run-down of the reason for their use. Both nitrites and nitrates are anti-oxidants (read: preservative) used essentially to keep uncooked cured meats from going bad and to arrest the growth of food-borne pathogens. Nitrites are most commonly used in cured meats and fishes that are not cured for a very long time, usually from only a few hours to a couple weeks of curing time. Nitrates, on the other hand, are used for preserving meats that cure for a very long time as in the cases of some salami and prosciuttos, which can cure for a number of years. (To learn more about nitrites/nitrates, I strongly recommend following the links at the end of this post.)
Since the 1970’s nitrites and nitrates have gotten a pretty bad rap. There were several studies done that concluded that when nitrites/nitrates were burned (burned, not cooked) they formed cancer causing compounds. Apparently, in 2003, many more studies were done on the topic and proved the link between nitrites/nitrates and cancer to be “negligible at best.” Their stigma, however, remains.
There are two main issues here that trouble me the most. First, and most importantly, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the health risks that nitrites/nitrates present, versus the health risks of various food-borne illnesses (namely botulism, which can kill you) that nitrites/nitrates mitigate. In other words, when you choose to not use nitrites/nitrates in the preservation of certain cured meats, you make a choice to put your health, your family’s health, and your friends’ health – dare I say life — at a far greater risk than if you had used them. The number of people sickened or even killed by preventable food-borne illnesses is quantifiable and it is high. The number of people that have gotten cancer from ingesting normal amounts of nitrites/nitrates is not at all quantifiable, and studies have shown, potentially non-existent. For me, and I hope everyone, this is an easy choice.
The second issue is how marketers have, yet again, created fear where there should be none and use it to deceive the consumer into buying their product by giving them a false and misleading sense of security. (I’m sure that I have already offended enough people by my position on this, so in the following example, I won’t name any brand names.)
Many of you know by now that Danielle and I have been doing the Whole30 food challenge. It has been a great experience in so many ways. The Whole30 program, however, frowns on nitrites/nitrates. I love hot dogs. Therein lies the rub. So, uncured hot dogs to the rescue, right? Not so fast. Do you know where we get the majority of the nitrites/nitrates that we ingest? Well, it must be from those horrible cured meats, right? Wrong. Vegetables, people, vegetables. Celery, in fact, has an extremely high concentration of nitrates. So high, in fact, that the package of “uncured” hot dogs that I bought even says, “No added nitrites/nitrates except for those naturally occurring in sea salt and celery powder.” What? Uncured, my you-know-what! Not only are those hot dogs cured, they are cured with nitrites/nitrates! To sell them as uncured plays off our ignorance and is deceptive at best. To say, “No added nitrites/nitrates except for those naturally occurring in sea salt and celery powder,” is the same as saying, “No added nitrites/nitrates, except for the ones we added.” Now, if “naturally occurring” is what gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, that’s great. Let’s just not forget the immensely important role that nitrites/nitrates are playing in the preservation of those hot dogs, naturally occurring or not.
Please don’t take my word for all this. I am neither a scientist nor a nutritionist. I am also, however, not the only person to take this position, as unpopular as it may be. I implore you to read the following articles by Michael Ruhlman published on his website and from “Meathead” Goldwyn published on his website. These articles were a real eye-opener for Danielle and me. I hope they are for you as well.
Which side of this argument do you fall on? Have you tried to make homemade bacon? It really tastes so good and the process is quite easy. Are you trying to make anything new this weekend?