Mild Cured Bacon Celebrated Eben van Tonder 23 September 2021
Traditional dry-cured Irish bacon by the English Master Butcher, Robert Goodrick.
Irish Mild Cured Bacon was invented by Mr William Oake of Ulster sometime in the late 1820s/ early 1830s. Some believe it to be the first technical development away from traditional dry-cured bacon that was practised for millennia. It was replaced by the modern high injected, industrial bacon following World War 1. The use of needles to inject brine into the meat tissues was incorporated into the system very early on. Needle injection itself was invented in c. 1850, also in Ireland. Here I do a short comparison with Sweet Cure Bacon and then celebrate Mild Cure Bacon by listing interesting mention of it in newspapers from the 1840s until the early 1900s.
Brine was prepared and sterilised. Meat was soaked in liquid brine for 7 days. After brine soaking, it was rested for up to three weeks and smoked. Cold smoking was done for between 24 and 48 hours.
The simple brine make-up was:
10 lb salt (54%)
8 lb of dark brown sugar (43%)
1/2 lb of saltpetre (2.7%)
Total brine: 18 1/2 lb. (100%)
Dilute it in water, but it must be able to float an egg.
Mild Cured Bacon was a huge success and further in this article, I list some of the mentions of it in newspaper advertisements of the time. As is often the case with these things, processes are invented at various places and various times and are often intimately connected with the prevailing level of technology. Another issue that came into play is that different people called the same thing by different names. This is why I relied heavily on the Oake family and the Harris family from Calne in their naming policy. They are two families who gave their curing inventions different names, thus clearly distinguishing their inventions.
It also happened that the same outcome was later accomplished using different curing techniques. This was the case with mild curing. At first, mild curing referred to the system of William Oake. Later, the same outcome of a less salty bacon was later achieved when refrigeration was incorporated into curing. At first, it was called ice cured bacon but later it was also called mild cured even when tank curing was not involved in the process or the re-use of the old brine.
Sweet Cure vs Mild Cured Bacon
The first major development following Dry Cured Bacon is not Mild Cured Bacon, but Sweet Cured Bacon. The Harris brothers invented Sweet Cured Bacon and I dedicate an entire chapter in Bacon & the Art of Living to, Sweet Cured Harris Bacon. In this letter, I concluded that “sweet cured bacon was cured with less salt and saltpetre, with or without the addition of sugar and smoked immediately after curing in a built-for-purpose smokehouse which resulted in less moisture loss (and therefore tasted less salty); liquid brine was injected with a single needle injector into the meat which further allowed for reduced salt levels and cover brine may or may not have been used.”
The essence of Mild Cured Bacon as invented by William Oake was the use of old brine which already had nitrites. The secret behind the speed of the curing is accomplished by the fact that nitrites are present in the brine from the beginning of the curing, created through bacterial fermentation of nitrates to nitrites.
For a detailed treatment of the inspiration of the invention, the history of the actual invention, a detailed process description and recipes where the invention is used I refer you to the following articles:
An enduring account I often come across is how sweet cured bacon was invented in Ireland in the 1880s. Ruth Guiry, for example, in her landmark work, Pigtown, A History of Limerick’s Bacon Industry, writes, “By the 1880s a further development in curing occurred in Limerick when due to a shortage of money on the part of some producers, short-cuts were made in the accepted curing process, so the meat was turned out in a ‘half-cured’ condition. The fortunate result was a ‘sweeter’ and less salty meat which created the unique sweet taste that made Limerick bacon famous.”
This is a good example of how the terms “sweet” and “mild” were later used interchangeably to simply refer to bacon that is less salty. It lost the technical reference to a particular method of curing and both came to mean the same thing. This will be clear when I list some of the newspapers advertisements where, for example, Denny’s bacon is called “mild cured.”
The Harris brothers from Calne invented the first Sweet Cured Bacon based on the application of brine injection and the use of a specially designed smokehouse. Another way that salt was later reduced was through the application of cold which Harris called Ice Cured Bacon. If the temperatures where bacon is kept can be kept sufficiently low, microbial activity is retarded through cold long enough for even little salt to dry the meat out. Harris is also credited for bringing this invention to England. See my latter to the kids, American Ice Houses for England: Year-Round Curing. They patented the concept of refrigeration through a clever way of using ice. Refrigeration, therefore, started to be incorporated into curing plants across the world in the mid to late 1850s.
It was this invention that allowed curers around the world to reduce the amount of salt in their curing process and the Irish seized on this as described by Guiry and many others. The fact that they called it sweet cure should by no means be confused with the method employed by Harris for the first sweet-cured bacon invented by them. Years after the Harris invention, the Irish (along with others around the world) also achieved the same reduction in salt through cold.
There is one other point that must be made about the Harris ‘Sweet Cure Method.’ In later years, they achieved less salty bacon, not only through the application of brine injection or refrigeration but also using heat in drying the bacon. (Harris Bacon – From Pale Dried to Tank Curing!) The heat not only dries the bacon out but very importantly also facilitates the diffusing of salt through the meat and the subsequent water-binding affected by the salt and sugar in the cures. Therefore, it is still good practice to hot smoke bacon after curing, even if the curing was done in a cold environment.
The invention of Mild Cured Bacon, however, belongs to William Oake from Ireland. Henry Denny did invent the automated singeing of the pork carcass which further allowed for less salt. It was done at a time when different firms achieved a mild cure or a sweet cure in different ways and the exact process is essentially lost in the final product.
Superior in Every Way
Newspapers started tracking the price of Mild Cured Bacon from 1842. It shows the place it occupied as superior to any other system and its legendary status. Mild Curing was finally abandoned after the First World War when it was replaced by quick curing, high volume, high injection modern bacon processing methods. See my work The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – the Master Butcher from Prague and The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – The Spoils of War where I record this history. It is safe to say that following the war, it endures in the English Tank Curing system.
Here are a few quotes about it followed by the actual article or advertisement in celebration of this system
Mild Cured Irish Hams and Bacon – “The best ever sold”
Widely advertised and “Mild Cure” used as the key product feature.
Often repeated – adverts like this appeared countless times.
Mild Cured Bacon – “Greatly praised by purchasers”.
Mild Cured Bacon – “met by good sales.” In comparison, “scarcely any business has been done” in competing, “inferior” products.
“Choice Mild Cured Bacon”.
“Brisk demand” for “mild cured meat”.
“Bacon market dull .., except for choice. . . mild cured bacon“.
“Bacon market flat, . . . but “mild cured is much sought after.”
These 1842 references to it are some of the earliest in any newspaper.
The grandeur and magnitude of producing these legendary foods cannot be overstated. Sweet Cured Bacon is definitely not an original Irish invention, but Mild Cured Bacon is! It lives on in English Tank Curing. The invention is Irish, as is the injection of meat with needles. To the Irish belongs the credit!
(c) Eben van Tonder