Bacon Curing Systems: From antiquity till now. Eben van Tonder 18 June 2021 (Revised 4 June 2023)
In the development of bacon curing technology, four iconic curing methods stand between the old dry-cured system and the modern system of the direct addition of nitrites to curing brines and the latest development which is the fermentation of meat creating nitric oxide directly from L-Arginine without the use of nitrate or nitrite. In my book on the history of bacon curing technology, Bacon & the Art of Living, the following chapters are dedicated to these different systems of curing.
In my book, I presented the story in narrative form. This style may be annoying to some but it proved to be a very useful investigative technique as it forced me to think through every process in the 1st person and allowed me to see relationships between seemingly unconnected bits of technology in a completely new and holistic way. By, as it were, “living in the moment,” I gained insights I would never have seen if I simply reported the features of each system separately.
Bacon by Robert Goodrich. A man who inspires me more than he can imagine!
The Progression of Curing Systems
Here are different chapters that deal with the various stages in the progression of curing systems.
– Dry Cured Bacon
The bacon curing system existed for hundreds of years and included only dry ingredients and later dry ingredients with wet brine added.
- Chapter 04.00: Dry-Cured Bacon
- Chapter 05.00: Evaluation of Dry Curing with Saltpeter (with and without sugar)
– The Empress of Russia’s Brine
During the time of Catherine, the Great of Russia, salt was heavily taxed. She had a lively interest in the latest developments in food technology and the excessive cost of salt was a major concern for her. It was under her rule that she or someone in her court suggested that instead of discarding old used brine, the brine should be boiled, impurities removed, and it should be used repeatedly. Her brine, called the Empress of Russia’s Brine contained salt, sugar and saltpetre. Bacterial reduction of saltpetre (nitrates) to nitrites in the old brine would have caused the curing of subsequent batches to be sped up considerably.
Westphalia hams were famous for their use of the Empress of Russia’s brine from a time before it was introduced in Ireland and the cold smoking process which was unlike anything being done at the time when “chimney smoking” was the order of the day.
– Mild Cured Bacon
Mild Cured Bacon is the industrialisation of bacon production. Invented by William Oake in Northern Ireland some time before 1837, a key concept namely the re-use of the old brine was a progression of the Russian brine of Catherine.
William Oake’s main progression of Catherina the Great’s brine was “not to boil” the brine between batches and all that was required was to replenish the salt, sugar and nitrates (saltpetre) as was prescribed by Catherine the Great. Interestingly enough, he managed to eliminate curing from a technical perspective by adding sal prunella to the brine which contains sulphites. The result was preservation, but not through curing. The bacteria were impacted by the sulphites and nitrate was not reduced to nitrite. This reduction happens microbially or through enzymes in mammalian physiology. In curing, these enzymes are active in bacteria which reduces the amino acids in the meat protein. This is unfortunately a long process as is witnessed in dry-cured systems where only salt is used. So, in Oake’s system curing did not take place and his bacon was pale.
At the time (mid-1800s) in the UK, a lot of work was done to convince the public that “paled bacon is healthy bacon”. One of the biggest curers to have ever lived, Aron Vecht, described why this was seen as healthier in an interview which I publish in “Interview with Aron Vecht 1894.” He lived through these marketing campaigns as a child in London and he reflects on this in his interview.
Bacteriology was in its infancy and the dissemination of knowledge of them was not universal and in England, the mechanisms and chemistry in curing and the effect of bacteria on the process were poorly understood as you will see if you read Vechts interview. The result of all of this was, as impactful as Oake’s system was on industrialising bacon production, the result was pale bacon.
- Chapter 12.01.1: William Oakes Mild-Cured Bacon
- Chapter 12.01.2: Mild-Cured Bacon and the Curers of Wiltshire
– Sweet Cured Bacon
Invented by Harris in Calne, early in the 1840s, the “sweet” in the name for the system and Oake’s “mild” refers to the same thing namely a less harsh salty taste. Both Harris and Oake, at around the same time addressed the same issue in two different ways. Harris did not reuse the old brine but a combination of smokehouse development, the inclusion of brine soaking in the curing process and the injection of meat allowed them to reduce the salt levels, yielding a “sweeter”, less salty brine.
- Chapter 13.02.01: Sweet-Cured Harris Bacon!
- Chapter 13.02.02: Robert Henderson and the Invention of the Smokehouse
– Pale Dried Bacon and Wiltshire Curing or Tank Cured Bacon
Pale dried bacon was invented under John Harris in Calne in the 1890s and without a doubt in response to the success of mild cured bacon by William Oake and the marketing campaigns which persuaded the public that pale bacon is healthier bacon. In pale dried bacon, the bacon is dried without smoking it. Over time the curers in Wiltshire with the help of work from the University of Bristol “corrected” the Oake system by removing the sulphites and further used the system almost completely unchanged which yielded what became known as Wiltshire curing or Tank curing in the closing years of the 1800s or early 1900s.
Wiltshire Cured and Ice-Cured Bacon
Before the Wiltshire cure was firmly established, the Harris operation launched Ice Cured bacon which incorporates refrigeration technology into meat curing.
– Auto Cured-, Rapid Cured- and Tank Cured Bacon
Auto curing was invented by William Harwood Oake, the son of William Oake from Limerick in Ireland who invented mild curing. William Harwood Oake brought mild curing to England when he opened a curing operation with two partners in Gillingham, Dorset. He invented auto curing which is a progression of Rapid Cure invented by Robert Davison, an Englishman working in America.
– The Vecht’s Curing Method and Mild Curing by Henry Denny
Henry Denny from Ireland invented a mechanical method of singeing pork and used refrigeration to achieve less salty bacon. His process was effectively copied by the Dutch Orthodox Jewish master curer, Aron Vecht, who incorporated this into the Oake’s system, retaining the use of sal prunella and yielding pale meat. His intention was not always to produce bacon as he was responsible for supplying what was called mess pork to the shipping industries. He used the system to create bacon also and established curing operations and bacon brands in New Zealand and Australia. He did not only copy but also made important progressions based on the use of refrigeration.
- Chapter 14.02: Introduction to the larger-than-life, Aron Vecht and other tales from New Zealand
- Chapter 14.03: The Jewish Master Curer and the Prince of Ireland.
– The Direct Addition of Nitrite
The work thus far was focussing on an “indirect” formation of nitrite. Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER invented the first curing brine legally sold containing sodium nitrites directly in 1915 in Prague. The system was made popular around the globe by the Griffiths Laboratories. The direct addition of nitrites to curing Brines is covered in two chapters namely:
- Chapter 15.03: The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – the Master Butcher from Prague.
- Chapter 15.04: The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – The Spoils of War.
– Grid Bacon
A system pioneered in Germany in the early 2000s. This final article of interest is not part of Bacon & the Art of Living, but it fits here because it represents the latest thinking about the most modern curing system.
– Bacterial Fermentation of Meat
Where nitrite was previously accessed in England through brine fermentation, it has been discovered in recent years that bacteria are able to ferment the meat itself and create Nitric Oxide from the proteins in the meat to effect curing. I dealt with this probably the most extensively in Chapter 02.00: The Curing Molecule.
Doing this summary made me realise that I need to add the following chapters.
- A chapter dealing with the quest to “commercialise” a brine system using bacterial fermentation. Together with Richard Bosman in a South African company we appropriately called Oake Woods (Pty) Ltd, we are actively involved in this pursuit.
- I realise that I also must do a chapter dealing with plant-based curing where nitrate is accessed through bacteria to produce nitrite and thus cure meat. There are major benefits to this system, but Richard and I are not satisfied with it but seek to provide nitrite-free bacon through continued bacterial action. Like the fermentation brine, our work is housed in Oake Woods. We commercialise this through BeetBacon.
From Antiquity Till Now: Health Considerations and History
The final chapters of Bacon & the Art of Living put the health considerations and the future development of bacon in perspective. Even though Richard and I are heavily involved in creating nitrite-free bacon, the fact is that nitrite itself is not something to be frowned upon under all circumstances. In the closing chapters, I deal head-on with this matter and provide the vision and road map to changing bacon into a super-food.
- Chapter 16.04: Finally – From Mummies to Nitrosamines
- Chapter 16.05: Finally – Nitrosamines
- Chapter 16.06: Finally – Nitrite is Physiologically Vital
- Chapter 16.07: Finally – The Human Nitrogen Cycle – Basis for Nitrite’s Physiological Value
- Chapter 16.08: Finally – Bacon, the Superfood
The Story of Bacon
I summarise the development of curing in one chapter in Bacon &the Art of Living:
Generally, what you have in Bacon & the Art of Living is the most complete work on the history of bacon in existence! I have to say something about the plotline. The story takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. The characters are modern people, most of whom are based on real people and they interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this. As the title indicates, it is far more than only the history of bacon as it relates these events to a personal quest to find purpose in life through the pursuit of bacon. In the process family, friends and concepts such as nationalism and faith are examined in a way relevant to the pursuit of excellence.
The index page to Bacon & the Art of Living: Bacon & the Art of Living
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The complete history of bacon.