How to Use Nitrites and Why
Although on a site like this one, you should tend to deal with subjects that are the most heterogeneous possible, I think it is natural that in the long run what are the preferences or natural inclinations of the author emerge and how I believe you have profoundly understood about me, between the many areas of the barbecue that fascinate me, the smoking always covers a special part and especially the cold one. If you think about it, it represents a very small niche on the total, a technique unknown to most people, an uncomfortable and long practice if we want to be honest and falling the Christmas Salmon people do not knows many other famous expressions. Not certainly the best to reach the “masses” in short. Yet I believe that there are few national references so specific and full of dedicated recipes like these pages. The real fact is that I think the cold smoking as one of the most unexplored lands of this crazy and fascinating world and what has been done, as only the tip of an iceberg still able to give us crazy emotions especially if the comparison is with the awful but expensive packaged products that are found in supermarkets. BUT … (because in all the beautiful and fascinating things there is always a “BUT” to weigh the scales) in the preparation of cold smoked dishes, there are often Nitrites. And on average, people do not like Nitrites. They sound like an adulteration of the plate. They frighten, because it is known that on high doses they can be toxic to humans.
Think about when we were children and we were afraid of the dark and let’s ask ourselves what the real reason for our terror was. The answer will be almost obvious: we did not see what was there. Fear is nothing but a form of ignorance (in the good sense), that is, insufficient knowledge of the environment in which we are moving. There are not under our control a number of factors enough to allow us to deal with that matter with confidence and therefore we fear it. Most of the messages that I have received and that I still receive in relation to the many recipes that use Nitrites, are not so much about the preparation itself as about their dosage or about the possibility of getting the same purpose through the use of alternative tools or even asking me an opinion about their danger. Year after year, those recipes are becoming more and more popular. Now the preparation of Salmon, of Duck Speck and now of Tuna are becoming fixed dates of the pre Christmas season. The time has come for me to speak more in depth about the use of Nitrites, to learn to know them better and to use them more comfortably (or to choose not to use them if you want, but with the necessary awareness). Let’s see in detail the main topics in this regard.
What Nitrites e Nitrates are for
Let’s start with an important factor: Nitrites are not a “chemical” product, if with this expression you mean “artificial” or “foreign to the food world”. More precisely, by this term we mean Sodium Nitrite NaNO2, a substance commonly found in nature, formed from nitrogen and oxygen which is simply synthesized for food use with the initials E250. Its natural presence in spinach is fairly well known, but the same can be said for many vegetables such as beets, celery, turnips and lettuce. In food, especially in cured, processed and preserved meats, they have the undoubted advantage of binding to myoglobin, giving it a pleasant and inviting rosy color, but above all inhibiting the germination of the spores of Clostridium Botuilnum, responsible for a form of food poisoning. call botulism, potentially deadly and typical of canned food packaged in risky conditions, usually domestic.
To return to our specific case, the use of Nitrites does not therefore serve for the smoking phase as many people think, but for the dry or wet brining phase. Since the Botulinus is an anaerobic bacterium, the conditions in which this occurs and the long times to which some preventive preparations are subjected can lead to its development on raw materials affected by its spores. You may have probably heard about Nitrates too. These are completely irrelevant substances on the process, both in terms of prevention and in terms of potential risk, which we will see shortly. Nitrates, however, under certain conditions of time, temperature and acidity are gradually transformed into Nitrites. Therefore they constitute a “reserve of Nitrites” if you want to see it like this and are destined for use on preparations with very long times, in which they would exhaust their effect too quickly. They are a classic example of the famous Instacure #1 and Instacure #2 difference, where the first contains only Nitrites, is intended for short periods of cure included in days or at most a couple of weeks, which then lead to more or less partial cooking or cold smoking and that is useful one for our purposes. The second one instead adds a percentage of Nitrates that allow to prolong the effect so to mature salami or typically raw seasoned foods, for several weeks. And if you were to use Instacure #2 instead of #1, what happens? Nothing, in those times the Nitrates remain inert and you simply have a cure with the same percentage of nitrites and (slightly) less salt.
The risk perception
In the face of the great benefits already seen, linked to their antiseptic capabilities, the greatest risks related to Nitrates are two. The first is that their excessive presence in food can lead them to irreversibly bind to the hemoglobin of the blood, reducing its ability to transport oxygen from the lungs and thus leading to states of difficulty respiration or even respiratory crisis. The second is that the Nitrite in the presence of stomach acid in the stomach, can produce nitrosamines, substances considered by the IARC as “probably carcinogenic” for the stomach.
As always, however, it is necessary to put some information on the other side of the scale in order to make a correct evaluation:
The ability of nitrites to inhibit the transport of oxygen is significant for adults and healthy individuals just on very high doses and risk parameters are set on weary subjects such as the elderly, newborns (this is why homogenized foods are made only with zero nitrite foods) or those with respiratory problems. The nitrosamines are then present in an absolutely natural way in many foods considered healthy and valuable for the diet including beer, some vegetables and fish and is abundant in all high temperature cooking such as fried food. In the stomach of healthy individuals, however, there is a substance called Mucine, having its own function of protection, tolerating very well both the presence of nitrites and nitrosamines. Finally, the stomach naturally produces ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) during digestion, a substance that has the ability to significantly reduce the synthesis of nitrosamines. The risk parameter is then set on the weakest subjects with gastric problems such as those at risk of ulcer.
It is clear, however, that despite this, Nitrites are potentially dangerous substances to which we must pay attention. RIGHT FOR THIS, the cures you find on the market and which we’re quoting in detail in a moment, are deliberately calibrated in a precautionary way for amateur use. These products are NOT Nitrites, they are mixtures for food treatments containing Nitrites. Each product has its own proportions but we take as an example one of the most famous: the Instacure #1: it has a content of Nitrites of 6.25% of the total, the rest is very normal kitchen salt, just to allow an extremely “prudent” dosing and easy measure. If you are wrong then by half a teaspoon of the dose, consider that only 6.25% of that amount is POTENTIALLY dangerous. Its color is pink also, just to allow you not to confuse it with normal salt.
There would then be an in-depth analysis of an important step: the limits of the law imposed on the basis of the principles described above provide in the most restrictive cases 150 mg/kg of Nitrites, but what are the limits of absorption by our body? Let me explain better: pretend to be on a diet and then decide to impose you to enter in your supermarket cart only low-calorie sweets with a limit of calories that does not exceed 70% of that of normal sweets. But if you then eat twice of usual, instead of losing weight you’ll get fat, right? Speaking of unit calories without talking about total calories becomes an exercise that is an end in itself. In the same way we have established the maximum content of Nitrites that in a prudential way there can be in a Kg of products treated but how many kilos can you eat before actually getting intoxicated? Let’s start from the assumption that of the quantity of Nitrites to which you subject your food, at the end of the treatment it will remain in the food about a third. So of those 150 mg/Kg, the residual quantity will be in the best (or worst, depending on how you want to see) of the hypotheses 50 mg/Kg. The limit set for determining Nitrites intoxication is 22 mg. per Body Kg, a monstrous level considering that the World Health Organization recommends as a “prudent” limit of consumption, 1 milligrams of Nitrites per kg of body weight …. Without going to take a big man like me and even considering a slim individual of 70 kg, it would mean a quantity of 1,540 mg which on a ratio of 50 mg/kg would be translatable into 30.8 kg of cured meat… Not to mention the fact that the limit in question refers to ingestion of “pure” nitrites while ingestion through the treated foods is considerably mitigated by a partial conversion into nitrogen monoxide. In this case it would be more opportune to talk about absorption in parts per million, which considering average values would bring tolerance to a quantity of meat even higher than our own weight. To recycle the consideration of some American sites that have treated the topic, in case it was possible to swallow those quantities, we would have to worry about many other consequences even before the intoxication … Let’s clarify very well: I’m not saying that you can serenely not matter about this, cause up to 22 mg/kg nothing happens. I’m just saying that the consumption limits suggested by the WHO are extremely precautionary, set at quantities more than 200 times lower than those we are talking about, established to protect people at risk and in consideration of a daily consumption and that going crazy behind the more or less gram of 6.25% cure on a salmon prepared once a year for Christmas is quite exaggerated because you have decidedly abundant safety margins.
Instead, let’s look at the opposite side of the barricade: we have seen the risk of overdosing the Nitrites, but what is the point of not using them at all? As mentioned, the risk is to incur Botulino, one of the most serious and dangerous food poisonings for humans. But for completeness of decisional information, the risk of contracting it what is it? I mean: assumed that an aircraft could potentially fall and that the consequences of a fall would almost certainly be fatal, what is the probability that it will happen? If one plane on two falls or one on a million, this significantly changes your decision to use it as a means of transportation, right? The same applies to the possibility of contracting botulinum. However, it is difficult to estimate the probability of risk but from this point of view we can meet the statistics: according to data from the Ministry of Health from 1995 to today there have been diagnosed between 20 and 30 cases of botulinum per year on 56,000,000 of inhabitants, of which the overwhelming majority refer to infected preserves produced at home. So, assuming that each of us has eaten at least once a year of them, we talk about a 0.00005% probability. To this we add that the high salt level conditions are among the most unfavorable to the proliferation of botulism. Think about it for a second: year after year, fans of barbecue and grilling are increasingly numerous and more and more of these are becoming familiar with cold smoking. I am more and more bombarded year after year by messages from people who try to replicate the recipes published during this period. We are also more and more connected to each other: there are an infinite number of groups and pages dedicated to this world and more or less we are all in touch with everyone. Well, have you ever heard of someone who has had any botulism or any other problem related to cold smoking?
The Nitrites measure
I do not want to go into the merits of evaluations of a personal nature in relation to the perception of risk in the face of the above considerations and everyone must rightly decide for themselves how to approach the use of Nitrites. I limit myself to considering therefore that generally we tend ALWAYS to use them and to determine with extreme precision, almost maniacal with the help of pharmacist scales, the quantities to be used. For those of you who particularly love this approach, the best aid in my opinion is found on this simple and highly effective spreadsheet of the famous American website Amazing Ribs. It is possible to insert many of the thousand variables that govern the way of food to absorb Nitrite, such as thickness, weight, shape, time, the desired residue in parts per million, the amount of liquid in the case of a liquid brine , etc.
Without absolutely condemning any passion for chemistry, I am personally closer to an approach that puts the result in the foreground more than the love for formulas on the blackboard. On the above formula, which is among the most accurate and complete verifiable, it should be noted that:
- it is based on estimations: thickness? it must be measured at the point of meat the most thick in which the bone is not included. But in a curved and irregular shape like a ham, how can I determine it without cutting it? Making a mistake of centimeters is quite easy. Or: weight of meat? How do I estimate the weight of a Boston Butt bone? It depends how they have dissected it. And so on
- the studies of Prof. Blonder on which the table is based, start from some simplifications due to the lack of constant values linked to the indices used to determine the reaction of the meat to the Nitrites. It is therefore an excellent estimation, but they’re not absolute values
- The scheme starts from the premise of using the Prague Powder. There are other products that can be used with a different presence of Nitrites on the total and if you use them you must pay attention to verify what it is and if necessary to proceed with the conversion. At least uncomfortable.
For these reasons and for my personal perception of the degree of risk deriving from what we said in the previous point, I personally prefer more salomonically to stick to the simple indications on the label, without worrying about thicknesses, bones, shapes, etc. If they are not reported, consider that most of the specialized sites recommend a quantity between 2 and 2.5 gr. of cure for every Kg of meat, even if as you can easily verify it, I tend on my recipes to stay slightly lower, stopping at 1-1.5 gr. Even about the times, very well estimated on the table of amazing ribs, I simply tend to reinterpret standard periods of reference through logic, considering that a dry brine will be much slower than a liquid one and that large bodies will require much longer times, conscious that one day more or less will not change anything in substance.
The products on the market and where to find them
Once decided how to relate to the Nitrites remains the problem of where to find them, considering that indeed they are products not so comfortably widespread in our country. Instacure, Prague Salt, Pink Salt are basically substitutes. For those who want to buy like me abroad, I stock myself on Modernist Pantry or on Home Curing. Clearly there are to be added shipping costs but it must be said that the cost of departure is quite low and you use it on cooking so little that a pack will last an eternity. Otherwise there is an Italian variant called Nitritec but that respects different proportions and therefore requires a conversion of the recipes. Or of course, as we said before, we can simply follow the quantities suggested on the label.
For those of you who were still frightened by Nitrites and wanted to feel even more comfortable about their use, I provide two further practical advice, which can help to alleviate your concerns:
- As mentioned, our stomach secretes Vitamin C to protect intestinal walls. This is because Vitamin C has the ability to cancel or drastically reduce the production of nitrosamines. If you notice, where the presence of Nitrites E250 is reported in food labels, ascorbic acid E300 (Vitamin C) is often present. If you then add in the recipe of your brines the ingredients that contain it, such as citrus, certainly averted many potential negative effects of the Nitrites, described above.
- According to the Legislative Decree 31/2001, water coming from the municipal water network should be considered as drinkable water, whose values show a presence of Nitrites up to 0.5 mg/Lt, which naturally would be added to those contained in the treatment. If you want to be on the right side, use distilled water or at least bottled mineral waters for your brines that usually have very low nitrite values.
As I said, there is very little material on this subject and on all that you will find, we will be told to strictly use the Nitrites, for the Botulism risk and to scrupulously respect the dosage of the cure for the risk of intoxication. The reality is that if things are made with a minimum of “grano salis” and if you really do not confuse hg with kilos, the use of Nitrites is a very dangerous practice … only for the author. In the sense that if you were saying something not accordingly with that and it may happen that even just one of you get sick cause he ate some battered salmon … but treated with Nitrites, the fault will be of “the one right there, who told me to do so”.
So ultimately: I recommend, always use the Nitrites and when you have to dose them, always use the very precise table linked before. Then if you decide not to do one thing or the other, it will be a your own specific decision resulting from a strictly personal assessment. We agree? 😉