Why Saltpeter Is Important For Making Corned Beef

Bright pink corned beef stands out from all the other cuts of meat in the butcher case due to its distinctive color, which lasts even after it's been cooked. Let's face it, a classic Reuben sandwich wouldn't be the same stuffed with slices of brown meat and even canned corned beef would seem strange without its rosy hue. The color comes from a complicated reaction of the meat with preserving salts used in the brine that also creates some of the other characteristics of cured beef.

Preserving salts such as saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and sodium nitrate are important ingredients in the creation of processed meats such as corned beef because they effectively kill deadly bacteria like botulism while it's being brined. The nitrates in the salts get converted into nitric oxide in the meat, killing the bad microbes and altering the flavor and texture, giving it the characteristic dense grain and savory background taste.

It's not corned beef without curing salt

The term "corned" comes from the kernels of salt that were originally used to brine meat for preservation before widespread refrigeration was available. Salts with higher naturally occurring nitrates were found to be more effective at preserving meat, which is how they came to be in widespread use in salami, sausages, pastrami, and corned beef. These food items are treated with the product to keep them safe for later eating.

Because these ingredients have gotten some bad press lately, you may have noticed items you can now purchase at the store that are free from nitrates and nitrites. However, there are certain things you should know before buying nitrate-free bacon. Rather than using traditional curing salts, producers turn to vegetable juices that have a high amount of naturally occurring nitrates and those meats might actually wind up with more of the compound. 

Ultimately, this age-old method of preserving meat is what gives corned beef and other meat products its complex texture and color. Without the saltpeter or sodium nitrate curing agents, these items just wouldn't be the same.