I think we've all at some point in our lives wondered what cured bacon actually means and how it's differed from uncured bacon. Isn't all bacon cured? What is uncured bacon? Well, read on to find out.
The difference between cured and uncured bacon
Curing is the food preservation and flavoring process that uses salt as the curing agent. Salt curing decreases bacon's water activity, thereby making it less hospitable for the microbe growth that causes its spoilage. This doesn't make it safe to eat raw though. You can increase bacon's shelf life by drying it after curing.
Bacon curing process often involves smoking, spicing, cooking, or the addition of combinations of sugar and nitrite (found in Cure #1). Cure #2 (which contains nitrate) is not permitted for bacon curing.
When it comes to uncured bacon, you can think of it as being one of the two products: plain raw pork belly or bacon that was 'manufactured without the use of nitrite' as required by USDA Bacon Safety Regulations. USDA requires that such commercially produced bacon must be labeled "Uncured Bacon, No Nitrates or Nitrites added" and bear the statement "Not Preserved, Keep Refrigerated Below 40 °F At All Times".
But wait a second, isn't salt a curing agent itself and you don't need nitrite for curing? That's correct. However, labeling bacon cured without nitrite as 'uncured bacon' serves as a warning for consumers to treat it as raw meat that needs to be cooked and prevent them from getting sick.
The difference between salt pork and salt-cured bacon
Salt pork, also known as salt-cured pork, is pork belly, sometimes pork back fat, cured with salt and spices. Salt-cured bacon is, in fact, a kind of salt pork. Some butches sell them interchangeably. But not all salt pork is exactly like bacon. Often salt pork is much saltier and needs to be rinsed before using. Butches to make salt pork from the lowest part of pork belly, which is fattier, with less meat. Salt pork, since it contains no nitrites, is never smoked.
In case it's of interest for readers, the reason for including nitrite in the cure for smoked bacon is that the smoking environment (having little to no oxygen) is hospitable to clostridium botulinum - the anaerobic microbe responsible for botulism poisoning and nitrite inhibits c.bot. In short, the regulatory rationale is safety.
Further, for those commercially produced 'uncured' items, though the ingredients do not include nitrite as such, in most instances the ingredients include some vegetable-based source of nitrite which is functionally equivalent.
Victor @ Taste of Artisan
Thanks, Dan. Safety is number one. But, undeniably, nitrite cured meats have better appearance and color too. They also tend to have a longer shelf life. Good point on uncured classification - even though bacon or sausage may include naturally occurring nitrites USDA still requires to classify them as uncured. Should we call it uncured cured bacon? 😉