24 September 2015
Prague Powder is an iconic curing salt, one of the first in the USA to contain sodium nitrite as curing agent. It was successfully marketed around the world and has been used by butchers, housewives, farmers and bacon curers since 1925.
The questions of who invented Prague Powder and when it was invented unlock one of the most fascinating sagas in the history of meat curing. The popular narrative, held since 1925, relegates the creation of Prague Salt to obscurity in the chaos of World War 1, Germany. Prague Powder was presented as a progression on Prague Salt in 1933 by the company who imported it into the USA since 1925, The Griffith Laboratories. Griffith announced the creation of Prague Powder in 1934. (Prague Powder;1963: 3)
I have been fascinated by the lack of information on the origin of Prague Salt in Germany or details on its creation. Griffith offers virtually no information on the background of Prague Salt or its origin which made me speculate that there may be elements that they may not want us to know.
This precipitated an investigation that focussed on Germany, the findings which I published in an article in 2014, Concerning the direct addition of nitrite to curing brine and in 2015, Concerning Chemical Synthesis and Food Additives.
Despite everything I uncovered about the use of nitrite in curing brines, a practice that became popular during the World War 1, I did not find any evidence of a curing salt called Prague Salt to ever have been produced in Germany or for that matter, anywhere in the world before it was introduced by Griffith in 1925 in the USA. Unable to find any information about Prague Salt in Germany, my attention shifted to the only other lead I had namely the name itself, Prague Salt. I started to focus my attention on Prague as the origin of the salt, possibly produced under a different name.
After an interesting course of events, I was introduced to Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER, a master butcher from Prague who lived between 1896 and 1945. I chronicled these events in my article, Concerning Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER and the invention of the blend that became known as Prague Salt. He invented a famous curing brine, Praganda which are sold across Europe to this day.
As I learned more about Praganda and its invention, the facts started to point not only to a clear link between Praganda and Prague Salt, but two different accounts of its invention emerged. One claimed by Griffith and one possibly the work of scientists in Prague and used by NACHMÜLLNER in Praganda. It sets up a perfect duel of Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER vs the Griffith Laboratories.
THE STORY ACCORDING TO GRIFFITH
A publication of The Griffith Laboratories from 1963, Prague Powder, Its Uses in Modern Curing and Processing, tells the popular story. According to it, “The Griffith Laboratories’ chemists had been studying the German technique of quick-curing. During World War I, pushed by military demand for greater production, German processors changed from slow-acting saltpetre cures to PRAGUE SALT – a salt mixture containing sodium nitrite. Shortly after the war, The Griffith Laboratories imported and introduced PRAGUE SALT to meat packers in the United States.” Users found it would cure ham in just 28 days!” (as opposed to 80 to 120 days curing for a 16-pound or roughly 7kg ham). (Prague Powder;1963: 3)
According to Griffith, there was a drawback to the product. Curers found that it delivered a poor flavour development. In response to this, they directed their researchers to find a solution. (Prague Powder;1963: 3)
“Griffith announced its success in 1934. ”
THE ROLE OF LLOYD HALL
Enoch Luther Griffith and his son, Carroll Griffith, created the Griffith Laboratories, Inc in 1919. A young inventor, Lloyd Hall, born on June 20, 1894 in Elgin, Illinois was hired by E. L. Griffith as chief chemist in 1925. E. L. Griffith and Lloyd Hall were former classmates at Northwestern University while studding towards their Bachelor Degrees in Pharmaceutical Chemistry. (blackinventor.com)
The year of Hall’s appointment, 1925, was the same year that Griffith started importing Prague Salt. It seems plausible that Hall was appointed because of the anticipated success of Prague Salt and future development work around it.
The patent application gives more details about the scientific underpinnings of the invention. By this time the priority of nitrite, nitrous acid and its reaction with hemoglobin was firmly established in the scientific and curing community.
Prague Salts itself was a basic mechanical mixture of sodium chloride, sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate. When mechanically mixed, the different salts would not remain homogeneously distributed through the mix. This separation resulted in the poor flavour development. The amount of nitrite, nitrate and sodium chloride would be different depending if you took the salt from the top or the bottom of the bag. You could therefore never be sure if you use all the ingredients and this caused uneven curing.
Hall also observed “that when sodium chloride, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite were used in order to preserve and cure the meat, the nitrates and nitrites penetrated the meat much faster than did the sodium chloride. In doing so, the nitrates and nitrites adversely affected the meat by breaking it down before the sodium chloride had a chance to preserve it.” (blackinventor.com)
The new Prague Powder addressed this issue. It is best described as a “fused” crystal of sodium chloride (table salt), sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate. The patented process is described as dissolving the three salts in the right proportion in a stainless steel vat of boiling water. “The balanced ingredients are now fused as one in a fast-dissolving crystals.” “The crystals acquire a new melting point and flavour development unlike anything associated with nitrate, nitrite or salt before fusion.” “It contains nitrate, but its free from the bitterness of saltpeter or nitrate; it contains nitrite, but it’s free from the sharpness in nitrite!” (Prague Powder;1963: 4, 5)
The issue of the different rates of penetration was also solved. By encapsulating the nitrates and nitrites within a sodium chloride “shell” through a process called “flash-drying,” the sodium nitrate is now introduced to the meat first and dissolved, and then the nitrates and nitrites. (blackinventor.com)
THE GRIFFITH PATENT
On 7 November 1936, E. L. Griffith filed an application for a patent for the curing salt. It was granted as US patent US2054625 A. The first patent was registered by Griffith on May 18, 1933, 11 year after Hall started at Griffith in 1925. (US2054625)
This is then the account, known to the world since 1925. We now turn to Prague for the NACHMÜLLNER invention of Praganda and then we will put these two accounts together to try and figure out what really happened.
By 1915, the Prague master butcher, Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER, had a successful business selling his Praganda curing powder containing the quick curing power of nitrite. His daughter, Eva, told the story many years after the passing of her dad. (all information on NACHMÜLLNER comes from Ladislav Nachmüllner vulgo Praganda, written by Eva Nachmuelnerová.)
1915 was one year after the outbreak of World War One. The restrictions on the use of saltpeter in Germany came into effect soon after August 1914 when all saltpeter (sodium and potassium nitrate) was reserved for the war effort. This was the initial impetus behind the change from nitrate to nitrite as principle curing agent in brines. On the basis of the work of German scientists Polenski (1891), Kisskalt and Lehmann (1899) sodium nitrite was authorised for use in curing brines in Germany for a short period during the war.
PRAGUE – 1915
In 1915, there were only two salts available to butchers in Prague that would achieve a pink/ red cured look and taste of meat, both containing nitrate. The nitrate in these salts are either bound to potassium or sodium. NACHMÜLLNER knew the salts as Sanytra (KNO3 or potassium nitrate) or salpetr (Sodium Nitrate or NaNO3).
NACHMÜLLNER discovered through “modern-day professional and scientific investigation” that the outdated sodium or potassium nitrate based curing brines “are not the best.” Sanytra (potassiumm nitrate) “sits” on meat “for some 6 to 8 weeks without any effect” and “only after that time, starts the work on meats haemoglobin, which is changing to red nitro-oxy-haemoglobin.” This means lost time for the meat curer. His statement on the action on haemoglobin puts his invention after 1901 when Haldane published his findings that cured meat pigment development was the result of adding nitrite to haemoglobin.
NACHMÜLLNER makes an interesting observation that “the important ingredients (actually responsible for the curing) is released in the brine and drained and later dumped.” In Denmark, tank curing was developed where during the early 1900 the power of used brines were harnessed on an industrial scale which allowed large scale bacon production. It would eventually become the legendary Wiltshire cure method, being practiced in the UK till today.
Tank curing is however a combination of injection and dry curing and in Prague of 1915, dry curing was practiced without brine injection. NACHMÜLLNER said that there is a weight loss in the meat associated with the use of Sanytra (potassium nitrate) which shows that dry curing was widely in use in Prague. The dry curing process has evolved from only using salt to first injecting new brine into the meat and then rubbing the meat in dry salt (The History of Curing). The weight loss was associated with the long curing time that Sanytra (potassium nitrate) called for.
Again, note that he was aware of developments around the world. The fact that nitrate is reduced to nitrite, resulting in nitrite being present in the used curing brine shows a complete understanding of the mechanisms of curing.
At this time butchers used 0.5% of sanytr (potassium nitrate) for 1kg of curing mix (salt, sanytr and possibly sugar). He says that many butchers err in thinking that increasing the percentage will speed up the process. In reality the higher percentage of potassium does not increase the reaction rate, but makes the meat bitter due to the increased amount of potassium and the increased percentage of nitrate may result in a product that is too red. Consumers reacted negatively to both cases.
PRAGANDA REPLACES SALTPETER
Praganda had two features that set it apart from any other curing salt at the time namely that it was the only alternative that could replace Sanytra (potassium nitrate) and the fact that it offered quick curing. NACHMÜLLNER referred to it as a “quick-salt.” Such was the aversion of consumers against Sanytra (potassium nitrate) that butchers who changed to Praganda placed signs in their shop windows that read, “SANYTRA FREE HAMS AND SMOKED PRODUCTS”
Butchers tried to replace Sanytra (potassium nitrate) with other products such as borax or using different acids. On the one hand these did not work and on the other its use in foods were not allowed. It showed that not everybody had the scientific insight that NACHMÜLLNER demonstrated in the invention of Praganda.
A key statement then follows in the narrative of Praganda’s invention. Almost as a side note Eva mentions that one other substance was allowed, nitrite! She said that at the time of Praganda’s invention, despite its use being legal in Prague, the use of nitrite was not allowed in Germany and other countries.
Today, with the benefit of over a hundred years of research into the matter, with an effort to find an alternative to nitrite as curing agent that has no equivalent in terms of an international effort and resources spend on the problem, we know that the only possible substance that could have replaced nitrate was nitrite. Without it, curing is simply not possible.
Despite the nature of the meat curing industry of the time of being secretive about its processes and ingredients, NACHMÜLLNER states that the use of nitrite was legal, but its application difficult, hinting to the fact that in Praganda, he found a way to manage this toxic substance.
We know that by 1917, nitrite was not only used for curing meat in Germany, but proprietary meat cures containing nitrites were being marketed across Europe. (Concerning Chemical Synthesis and Food Additives) The fact that Praganda was invented at a time when the use of nitrite was not legal in Germany, places it’s invention at a time before 1916 when nitrites use in foods were legalised in Germany for a short while during the war. This makes Praganda the oldest known commercial curing brine that contains nitrite.
Eva recounts that nitrite was legal for use in foods in Prague, but was seen as being too aggressive and there were problems “to sustain the promile (a tenth of a percentage) in curing salt.” This is a most fascinating comment. Sodium nitrite is very toxic. Its high toxicity made it dangerous to use and dangerous to even have on the premises in any curing operation. It called for a carrier that would “dilute it” and make it manageable. Such a carrier is table salt (sodium chloride).
The reason why it was not widely used in Prague was not the fact that it was not legal, because it was, but because it was difficult to maintain (sustain) the tenth of a percentage required in the curing brines. As I looked at this statement I realised that this was exactly the problem that Griffith reported on in their 1933 and 1936 patent application. How do you ensure an even (homogenous) distribution of such a small percentage in a mixture of salts? How do you maintain an even distribution throughout the mix? Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER must have discovered a way to achieve this in the invention of Praganda, at least 24 years before Griffith presented the exact same invention to the world in their Prague Powder and claimed the invention.
When Praganda was invented, Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER had already 25 years experience as a master butcher. Eva states that her father made Praganda from “four ingredients tested over many years in the trade. All ingredients were tested and authorised for use as food ingredients by the Department of foods and agriculture.”
We know from the current owners of the Praganda brand and formulation, the K+S Group, that Praganda is a mix of salt, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate and sugars. (Concerning Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER and the invention of the blend that became known as Prague Salt) In a region where tradition is valued and time stands still, I can well imagine that the formulation has not changed for almost a hundred years.
The taste profile delivered by Praganda, seen in conjunction with the fact that NACHMÜLLNER was a master butcher, now becomes key. Eva wrote that the use of Praganda ensures a quick curing time and “excellent taste.” It re-enforces the fact that Praganda did not have associated with it, the taste problems experienced by Griffith with the Prague Salt which they imported from Germany that were simply mechanically mixed salts (sodium chloride, sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate).
The master butcher who invented Praganda would not have claimed a superior taste profile if this was not in actuality the case, nor would it have been so popular in a region where the average citizen, till today, is a food connoisseur and knows their processed meats very well.
Huge production volumes was not the object of curing in Prague as it was in Germany due to the demands of the war. The same volume pressure was present in the Chicago meat packing plants of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The exact same motive sparked the development of tank curing in Denmark who relied on the supply of bacon to the English for the survival of their massive pork industry and the English in turn had to supply not just their own nation with bacon, but the soldiers at war as well as their extensive navy. For the master butcher, taste and a progression of the art of curing would have been the key objective and a product that did not deliver an excellent taste profile would never have survived in the very demanding and mature market of Prague.
If confirms the notion that at a time before 1915, NACHMÜLLNER used a technique in the production of his Praganda salt that did not result in the product separating in the salts which would have delivered a very unsatisfactory taste profile.
In a future article I will develop my thesis on how he possibly achieved this and how in essence it may have been similar to the methods used by Griffith in the 1930’s when they developed Prague Powder. For now, it is sufficient to conclude with a possible timeline of events.
THE FULL STORY
Taking all the factors thus far developed into account, in this article as well as in my previous articles on nitrite, a clear narrative starts to develop.
The three articles I refer to are,
The facts, currently at my disposal develop the following narrative:
Between 1891 and 1908 there were key scientific discoveries, unlocking the mechanism behind meat curing which NACHMÜLLNER, a master butcher from Prague, stayed abreast of. He developed a curing mix based on these discoveries. He omitted the use of potassium nitrate due to its negative effects. He probably replaced it with sodium nitrate. To this he added sodium nitrite, sugar and salt. Relying on local expert knowledge on salts and the fusion of different crystals, he or scientists that he collaborated with, worked out a way to fuse the four main ingredients of his new curing mix which he called Praganda. It was probably a mix of sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, salt and sugar.
In 1914 World War 1 broke out, but despite this, by 1915 he had a successful business, selling Praganda as a replacement for potassium nitrate. Not only did it not have the negative flavour characteristics associated with potassium, but the curing happened much faster and resulted in an overall better flavour profile (probably as a result of the added sugar, the omission of potassium and the right proportions of nitrate and nitrate).
At the time, the sale of Praganda in Germany and other European countries was prohibited due to the fact that the use of sodium nitrite as a food additive was illegal in these countries.
In 1916 the German Government authorised the use of sodium nitrite as a food additive. Before the end of the war this was repealed due to many poisonings that occurred as a result of the high toxicity of nitrite. This later ban was not heeded and following the war, Germany reversed the ban.
Even though it is conjecture, it is easy to see how this would have made Praganda a very popular curing salt in Germany during the war. Especially because of its quick curing action and the fact that it was far safer and easier to handle then the very toxic sodium nitrite. It is not far fetched to see how this may have been known colloquially during the war as the curing salt from Prague or Prague Salt.
Up till this point, the invention was driven by a master butcher for whom a proper flavour development was as important as the fast curing action. Germans, facing unprecedented meat shortages during the war did not want to solve flavour development issues, but, as attested by the Griffith documents, their priority was speed of curing. This was probably what was focused on in discussions between the Germans and Griffith.
The reality of life after the war where Germany was forced to pay for its own war debt, took the fate of the cure mix out of the hands of a master butcher and transferred it to the hands of chemists, politicians and accountants. They had to dispose of the unused chemical stockpiles and generate much needed revenue. Again, flavour development was not a primary concern.
They identified the enormous packing plants on Chicago as a lucrative market. Not only was it a lucrative market, but as early as in 1905 the packing plants have been experimenting with the use of sodium nitrite. They knew the product and knew that they needed it.
It may have been the powerful packing plants in Chicago who set Griffith up to handle the import of sodium nitrite based curing salt. Despite the fact that it has been legal since 1906 to use sodium nitrite as a food ingredient, the public opinion was still very much stacked against its use as the milling industry discovered when they incorporate it for “bleaching” flour. This may explain why the packing plants decided to handle the import and distribution of sodium nitrite at arms length instead of handling it themselves.
The fact that so much happened in 1925 all seem to be too well coordinated to have been the doing of relatively young company like Griffith Laboratories. In Oct 1925 the Bureau of Animal Industries legalised the use of sodium nitrite as a curing agent for meat. In December 1925 the Institute of American Meat Packers, created by the large packing plants in Chicago, published the document, The use of sodium Nitrite in Curing Meats. In 1925 Hall was appointed as chief chemist at Griffith and in the same year Griffith started to import a mechanically mixed salt from Germany consisting of sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite and sodium chloride.
Griffith may never have heard about Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER. The crude mix, consisting of only salt, sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, points away from the involvement of anybody from Prague with high standards in meat quality and flavour development. The picture fits the involvement, on the one hand, of agents of the German state or chemicals industry post WW1, who had to dispose of enormous chemical stockpiles. On the other hand, they would have orchestrated this in collaboration with the powerful meat packing industry who stated that their goal was, through the Institute of American Meat Packers, “to find out how to reduce steers to beef and hogs to pork in the quickest, most economical and the most serviceable manner.” (The Indiana Gazette. 28 March 1924)
Why did it take Griffith till 1933 to develop the technology that Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER probably used already in 1915 to “fuse” the salt crystals to prevent separation in the curing mix? An obvious answer is that the import of the sodium nitrite, -nitrate and -chloride mix was initially done for the sole purpose of the large packing plants.
As the packing plants were slowly losing their powerful and dominant grip on the meat industry in the US, it would make sense for Griffith to read these signs and to start developing alternative markets for their Prague Salt. If one mixes large batches of brine, it does not matter if the ingredients separated in the bag since they would all dissociate in any event in the water and form a homogenous mix. The problem of separation of the salts of a mechanical mix is only a problem for small scale usage such as home use and use by farmers and butchers.
This shift in Griffith away from the large meat packers as their main source of income precipitated the development of Prague Powder. By this time legislators were dealing with the toxic nature of nitrite in a completely different way namely by ruling that sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate and its carrier, sodium chloride had to be packed separately in a separate bag and be coloured pink in order to distinguish it from ordinary table salt. Other spices and sugar had to be packed in separate bags and added separately when mixing the brine curing mix.
A good way to see the plausibility of the development that is presented is to view the development of nitrite in meat curing chronologically. Here is the list of the important dates and a short description of events.
The story of Prague Powder and its forerunner, Prague Salt is one of the most fascinating stories in chemical and meat curing history. Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER, a proud master butcher from Prague, created a legendary curing salt, Praganda and by 1915 had already solved problems that would be re-discovered and patented by Griffith in the 1930’s.
Capitalising on supply opportunities from post-war Germany of low cost sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite and demand by the enormous meat packing industry in Chicago, they started to import a product that was probably colloquially called Prague Salt by the Germans, referring to the famous Praganda, which was coming from Prague.
The evidence does not support a scenario where Griffith bought Prague Salt from NACHMÜLLNER. It seems to have been a crude mix that was produced in Germany, but named only as a reference to the famous curing mix from Prague. This crude mix was later refined to be closer to the superior Praganda of NACHMÜLLNER when Griffith launched their Prague Powder in 1934.
In the end, a truer reflection of reality is not Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER vs The Griffith Laboratorie, but Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER and The Griffith Laboratorie – both credible businesses who played their role in the bigger movements of the time. After almost a hundred years the full story finally starts to unfold and two proud stories emerge. One, confirming an iconic true American story of entrepreneurship and the other, an “old world” tale of a proud master who elegantly applied the latest technology of the day to centuries of tradition.
What I have uncovered fill me with pride in the industry where I make my living and inspire me to imitate the spirit of both Griffith and NACHMÜLLNER.
(c) eben van tonder
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It further states that “for the advantage relating to avoiding the separation of mechanical mixtures the invention in process and product concerns sodium chloride grains carrying nitrite alone, nitrate alone, or nitrite and nitrate combined.” “In carrying out the process it is necessary to consider melting points of nitrites, of nitrates, of mixed nitrites and nitrates, and also solubilities of the same in water. (US2054625)
Ladislav Nachmüllner vulgo Praganda, Nachmüllnerová, Eva Editor, Nakladatelské údaje: Tábar : OSSIS, 2000
Prague Powder, Its uses in modern Curing and processing. 1963. The Griffith Laboratories, Inc.
All pictures by Willem Klynveld for Woodys Consumer Brand (Pty) Ltd.