This is one of the few methods of preservation that does not require a cure of the foodstuff before hand, so please excuse the title, continuity and all that.

There are two very traditional methods of extending the life of meats and fish by using fats. The first is the French method confit. Originally confit would be a meat, usually a waterfowl, that was first poached in it’s own fat and then stored in the same. This would be kept in jars and could last for over a year on the shelf. The second method is potting as in Morecambe Bay potted shrimps. The food is first cooked and then covered in melted, clarified butter. This seals in the shrimps and again drastically extends shelf life.

A more modern method of preservation is to keep food in oil. This can be to either preserve the food such as in canned tuna or to flavour the oil. Both of the techniques leave a flavoursome oil but neither are without their dangers. Oil does not necessarily carry any toxins but it can help anaerobic organisms thrive on other foods. A pathogen like botulism can be carried on garlic that has not been prepared properly. Basic food hygiene eliminates such risks, so keep it clean and happy preserving.



PH Scale

Life loves balance, often best in the middle. The level of acid or alkaline is a prime example of nature taking the centre line. On the pH scale above, it starts at 0 (most acidic) and goes up to 14 (most alkaline). Human blood sits just above 7, anything of a slight difference either way and this are serious health implications.

At the start of the salami, or any fermented sausage, making there is a short period when the product is made more acidic. This is achieved by adding a starter culture which contains acid producing bugs. These are almost identical to the bacteria that get yoghurt going. The salamis are kept in a warmer environment to start with, to encourage the culture to perform a process of fermentation. This creates a hostile environment for any harmful bacteria and adds to the overall defensive structure of the preserved meat. The cumulative effect of all of these methods of charcuterie help to create great food with a long shelf life. Matured cheese shares a number of these secrets …



What’s the one food that doesn’t need salting or brining before smoking? …



Just about every smoked food requires a certain amount of salt to allow a key to develop on the outside and to cut down on the moisture that could interfere with the process. Even soft cheeses like mozarella can be smoked if they have a light brining first.

Smoke does two basic functions on it’s own without any of the  secondary benefits of heat / cooking. First was one of the original uses of smoke, to fumigate the food.This is not that relevant these days. The second curing function is the build up of a chemical defence. The smoke itself contains many natural chemicals which are hostile to microbes and act as preservatives, an example being formaldehyde. As well as this, it contributes to an acid bias on the food which is very hostile for bugs.

Smoke is not just smoke though, plastics and petrochemicals may produce smoke but not the stuff we want on food. Seasoned wood is used for generating smoke for food and this mainly comes from a selection of woods that impart different flavours as well, There are the more assertive smokes of hickory and mesquite which give rich, barbecue like tastes. At the other end are fruit woods such as apple or cherry which work well with game.

To illustrate the powerful effects of smoke as a critter deterrent, check the inside of a smoker. We operate one unit outside and insects could have an opportunity to get in. Given that this has been outside for nearly three years, no bugs have dared the journey. This goes back to the principals of fumigation and preservation.

Smoked food has been around for centuries, the flavours are a testament to the patient and craft of times past.





Brining is the addition of food to salty liquid. At a lower concentration of salt the fluid penetrates most food, but especially meat. This lower level brining results in added moisture. It is particularly popular for poultry before it goes into roast. The difference in texture is very noticeable and it doesn’t necessarily introduce any extra saltiness to the meat.Adding something less than sea water strength brine to chicken works well. Sea water is about 3.5% dry salt to water, or 7 level teaspoons to 1 litre of water, about the level needed for brining. This measure is used with fine tablesalt. Brining should be for about 1 hour per lb, not exceeding 12 hours.

The more concentrated the brine solution the closer it becomes to matching or exceeding the balance of the cells osmotic weight. Osmotic balance indicates which way fluid will flow through the cell wall. If the inside is lower weight the fluid will flow outwards. This is the level at which brining can then be used for preservation purposes. The amount of salt would be about twice that of the above brine and the meat would be stored in the solution for days rather than hours.

Salt can vary a lot in weight to measured volume. This be double between fine and coarse sea salt. The only accurate way to do this is by aiming for a target salinity. A floating measure called a brinometer is used for this, which looks like the specific gravity measure for beer.




Lack of salt would have wiped out the human race centuries ago. Not only does it provide the essential electrolyte sodium it also preserves food. Without the ability to preserve food, we would not have faired as well during harsh winters and seafaring would have been a challenge. Salt does get a bad rap as it is can be unhealthy in large doses. In moderation, it’s a very good thing.

Salt does two things for food preservation. First it helps to dry out the meat and bacteria do not flourish in these acrid conditions. Secondly, it forms a hostile environment which could effectively implode simple organisms.

One of the after effects of curing with salt is the sticky key left on the meat. This is called patina and is pretty much undercoat for smoking. Without this cling the smoke will not hold.

So next time you hear someone decrying the health properties of salt, remember that is saves lives too.


If I was to say that we are going to inflict death by imploding cell walls, exposure to acid, gassing, rubbing in salt or poisoning, you would possibly be fair in thinking of medieval executions. The truth is that every day, food curers and charcutiers do just these things to preserve food. All of the processes are natural and most of them have been around for centuries. When ships set sail across the oceans a staple dish was salted cod. All the moisture had been drawn out of the cod and it could be reconstituted and cooked up months into the journey. It is also rumoured to be one of the origins of “Salty Dog” as a reference to an experienced sailor. What would have happended if the same piece of cod had not been preserved?  How long would it have lasted in the ship’s galley? Also, how heavy would the food supplies on board have been?

Over the next few blogs, we are going to look at how some of these techniques work, the science and maybe some history to go along with it. If you have ever tried fresh pastrami and enjoyed it’s rich flavours, then you will have experienced the benefit of at least three of these tactics of chemical warfare.

Salt …

 Food Facts  Comments Off
May 112011

Salt has to be one of natures greatest gifts. In Roman times it was given to legionaires as part of their pay, this is where the term salary came from. Its sheer value and long shelf life made it a very tradeable commodity. In more recent times, the prices dropped sharply through availabilty. Salt can be dried in large beds by the sea to produce a product with a higher iodine level. Sea salt is seen to be more healthy and it’s production does mean that it also carries a premium over mined salt.

In Staffordshire and Cheshire, salt mining and extraction has been a local industry for centuries. Mining for salt has been accomplished by either cutting away the rock salt or by using water to dissolve it out of boreholes. Water was then evaporated in metal pans measuring several square feet. Originally these were made of lead which gave rise to high incidents of poisoning. With the advent of available coal the pans had to be replaced with iron as the lead units would often melt. This also had it’s problems with deteriation of the pans through rusting.

For the smoker or charcutier, salt has two distinct advantages. Firstly the level of salt used to cure the food reduces moisture which makes it a harder place for bacteria to thrive. The drying leads to a stickiness which a smoker would call a pellicle. This gives a tacky layer which helps the smoke to stay on the food. The other reason for using salt in curing is osmosis. When two different concentrations of fluid meet across a permeable membrane, the two sides try to average out. If you are a bug, this membrane is your cell walls and the outside salt draws out the cellular fluid, killing the bacteria.

Cure for bitter coffee? Try a tiny pinch of salt, maybe only a couple of fine grains, to reduce or remove bitterness. This also helps to bring out any existing sweetness.

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