Chapter 16.04: Vegetable Dies

** Under Constructions **

Vegetable Dies

Before saltpetre could be used in curing brines, it had to become generally available as fertiliser and a key ingredient in gunpowder. Before we look at this, another development is clouded by history, but once I identified it in Turkey, it became easy to spot it through the pages of culinary history. It is the practice of using vegetables in meat curing, and one particularly noticeable record comes to us courtesy of German and Austrian cookbooks pre-1600s. It reveals that vegetable dyes were used to bolster colour in the context of salt-only-curing. It is well known that the Germans and Austrians were familiar with nitrate curing. I will argue that they would have also been acquainted with sal ammoniac as a curing salt, but it was not always available.

When I learned of this practice years ago of using vegetable dies to colour the meat, I thought, probably like the author who wrote about it, that vegetable dyes were used for their function as a dye. Since then, I have tried several of these vegetable dyes in meat curing and to my surprise, I still need to find one that adequately colours the meat to look appetising. Most of these lose their colour upon cooking and turn brown. I now suspect the real reason for including vegetable components in meat curing is to access the nitrates, which are inherently part of the makeup of many of these vegetables.

An excellent case in point is beetroot. One may think it is added for the purple colour, but it fades upon heating. It is packed with nitrates, which follows the same process as we are very familiar with, namely the conversion of nitrates to nitrites through bacterial reduction, after which chemical reduction or through bacteria, the nitrites change into nitric oxide, which cures the meat when it reacts with the proteins. We can, therefore, say that vegetable curing was done many centuries ago and that the “modern” trend of using vegetables to cure meat is not that “new” or “modern” after all. It is of the most significant importance that including these vegetables not only adds the nitrates required but also performs a vital antioxidative role, which reacts with free radicals in the meat, thus making it healthier. We will look at free radicals in a bit more detail later. For now, all you must remember is that free radicals are generally our enemies.

A beautiful anecdote comes from the Danish company CHR Hansen about the development of plant-based fermentation curing in recent years. They initially developed this into a formal product where they sold the starter culture, and the client had to add this to a plant material containing nitrates. This would be a central component in the brine and replace nitrates and nitrites as the starter culture bacteria would do the conversion to nitrite, and the meat would be cured.

This never took off. Instead, spice suppliers did the work for the clients by taking the plant-based material, doing the fermentation and selling the plant-based material where the fermentation already had taken place as a brine solution to the bacon and ham factories. The European Union stopped the practice, forcing clients who want to go this route to do the fermentation in-house.

The reason why clients were interested in this was not for health reasons, which I will touch on in a minute, but because, in this way, they only use a “natural product” and do not add sodium nitrate or nitrite directly to the brine in which case it must be declared on the ingredient list. This gave the suppliers a “clean” label, meaning fewer e-numbers on the ingredient declaration and no mention of nitrates and nitrites. It is a ruse because nitrates and nitrites were still added to the meat, albeit this was done “indirectly” through the plant material used.

The change in EU legislation gave the CHR Hansen project new impetus. An incident occurred in 1977, which put the approach back on the map for them. They tell the story as follows. “By coincidence, the idea got a renaissance some years later. Producers of “white sausages” such as “Münchner Weißwurst“ or “Nürnberger Bratwürstchen” had occasional problems with a red centre of the sausages – in particular when there was more time between stuffing and heat treatment than usual. Analyses showed that also in “white sausages”, especially in recipes with added herbs, significant amounts of nitrate were found. In sausages with a red centre, there was nitrite found as well. Microbial analyses of such sausages showed an exceptionally high number of Staphylococci before reaching 45°C in the centre. All those observations and the growing scepticism of the use of nitrite, as well as the declaration of nitrite as a preservative, led to the idea of utilizing the reddening effect of “white sausages.” (CHR Hansen)

Some producers possibly (probably) moved to use plant-based fermentation curing to remove the words nitrate and nitrate from their ingredient lists and not for any inherent health benefit. The fact is that there are tremendous health benefits in the approach, and it is something to consider for precisely this reason. Remember that we said that we must consider the overall curing environment.  Adding vegetables with strong antioxidative ability to meat curing is a highly productive thing we can do to improve the overall “health score” of meat. Note that I did not say processed meat because iron in meat, especially red meat, can oxidise and form free radicals. Chemicals added to meat can also form free radicals, but it is essential to know that meat does this independently, especially when we fry it. What applies to ingredients added to meat also applies to meat itself. To make the curing process the villain is unfair and ill-informed! The matter needs more careful consideration, which is one of the reasons for this work. 

When we look at adding sugar to curing brines, we will return to vegetables added as curing agents as they go hand in hand. Let’s look next at a salt-only curing recipe that comes to us from Roman times.




CHR Hansen – pamphlet and private communication, 2021 and 2022.

Fernando, R. A Comparison of Reducing Sugar vs. Non-Reducing Sugar. Food Science

Gill CO, Penney N. Penetration of bacteria into meat. Appl Environ Microbiol. 1977 Jun;33(6):1284-6. doi: 10.1128/aem.33.6.1284-1286.1977. PMID: 406846; PMCID: PMC170872.

(c) eben van tonder

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