Getting to the bottom of what happens to cure in smoked sausage

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hog warden

Smoking Fanatic
Original poster
Feb 10, 2009
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To paraphrase Capt. Ron........."it's the land of voodoo, whodoo and all kinds of weird.......stuff".

So have been pulling together some information in order to do some Texas hot guts smoked sausage........and all was well until I started watching the youtube videos..........and guys are all saying you need to put your stuffed sausages in fridge overnight to:

1. Let casing dry. OK, not buying that but won't hurt anything, and
2. Give time for the nitrite to break down. Dangerous if you don't. Say what?

So that launched a quest to get to the bottom of that one. I have at least three different published books on making sausage and none of them say that, including Rytek. In his description of his smoked kielbasa, he specifically says if you put your linked sausage on smoke sticks, by the time you finish stuffing the first one's will be nearly dry enough to go into the smoker to finish drying out. Nothing about resting anything. Some recipes say put in the fridge overnight, but does not say why. At no place does he mention giving time for the nitrite to convert to nitric oxide to clear from the mix. To the contrary, he says it happens within minutes. And that has been my experience. Once the cure is mixed into the sausage mix, it begins to turn brown and if you fry up a piece, it will be pink. That is withing minutes. That requires the nitrite to break down into NO and combine with the meat. That is the color part of the "cure". But color conversion only takes 5% of the nitrite we mix in to sausage. And that in my mind is a side show. It happens, but is not why we cure sausage.

As to the botulism part, which is 99% of the reason why cure is added to sausage to be smoked, a technical research paper I found describes the mechanism to thwart botulism in great detail, and it specifically mentions "nitrite".......not NO. So by allowing it to breakdown, that would run counter to the purpose.

So why allow it to break down? All the comments in lay and research papers mention the fear of cancer causing nitrosamines. Does not happen in smoked sausage. May not matter if it does. There is research to debunk many of those fears as hokum. Our own body secretes nitrite. It's in our saliva, and in many of the vegetables we eat and in amounts 20X higher than cured sausage.....before that starts breaking down.

So bottom line.......so much of what is out there is confusing, contradictory and largely irrelevant to the task at hand. Very frustrating to wade thru it all to find the truth.
 
and guys are all saying you need to put your stuffed sausages in fridge overnight to:

1. Let casing dry. OK, not buying that but won't hurt anything, and
2. Give time for the nitrite to break down. Dangerous if you don't. Say what?
This is interesting. In the green Marianski book, he says that the purpose of curing accelerators is to shorten the time "required to develop a cured color." This is the Nitric Oxide / Myoglobin interaction. So by smoking your unaccelerated stuffed sausages immediately, and you'll miss out on that. He doesn't mention safety.

Ah, here it is, in a Q&A section called "What will happen if curing time is shorter or longer?"
  • "If curing time is too short, some areas of meat will exhibit an uneven color which might be noticeable when slicing a large piece of meat. It will not show in sausages which are filled with ground meat, although the color may be weaker. If curing time is longer..."
So again, safety isn't mentioned. I think you're right -- it's not a safety problem.

When it comes to botulism, my short review seems to agree with yours in that it's the nitrites directly that inhibit the transformation of botulinum spores.

I do find that resting in the fridge overnight does seem to improve the flavor... So for casing dryness, color, and taste, it still seems like a solid (but apparently optional) move.

So by allowing it to breakdown, that would run counter to the purpose.

I think this part isn't true (fortunately). Mariansky says around 15% reacts with myglobin (color) and 50% reacts with proteins/fats, so my belief is that not all of it breaks down to nitric oxide.
 
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What I read is it's all about antioxidant NO. Nitrate NO3 is an oxidizer. It blows up and breaks down to nitrite NO2 and is an oxidizer and blows up less and breaks down to NO and is now an antioxidant. This gas replaces the oxygen at the heme iron ion so it can't oxidize and turn brown which botulism needs so the iron doesn't rust so to speak and is chemically keeping the natural pink color of myoglobin even after the meat denatures from cooking.
That does sound similar to a study I've seen (see B below).

From the Benedict study (1980):

Inhibition of C. botulinum by nitrite in cured meats is most likely due to several interacting mechanisms:
  • (a) reaction and oxidation of cellular biochemicals within the spores and vegetative cells;
  • (b) restriction of use of iron (or other essential metal ions) through inhibition of solubilization, transport, or assimilation, thus interfering with metabolism and repair mechanisms and
  • (c) cell surface membrane activity limiting substrate transport by the outgrowing cell.
There's another study in 1979 on a similar topic, though both studies assert the above is a hypothesis and "the mode of nitrite's inhibitory action on growth and toxin formation by Clostridium botulinum is still unknown." I would think there'd be a more modern article that describes how, but I couldn't find one. This may be one of those things (like balloons and static electricity) where we are still not fully sure how it happens, only that it does.
 
What I went looking for and could never find was what happens during the 12 to 24 hours these guys say the stuffed sausage needs to rest in the fridge before smoking. The part related to the curing process......not the drying out part. They say smoking is not safe if you fail to give it time to do something. Looking for a documented source for that. It may be the same process that cure accelerators achieve, which again, near as I can tell is conversion of nitrite to NO. Not sure if that is to flood the sausage mix with gas......or to clear the nitrite. If it is related to grind size (coarse vs. fine) then then don't say so.

Right now it sounds like they are just repeating dogma. None of these sources really cover the why of it.
 
You won't killify yourself by smoking without the overnight rest, but in waiting, it not only lets the nitrite convert to do its thing, but also gives all the flavors time to come together.

There is also the option of adding sodium erythorbate which speeds the conversion of nitrite and also acts as a preservative.
 
Lets the nitrite convert to do it's thing? We may be getting somewhere.

What thing is that?
 
Just so all are understanding my questions, what I'm trying to figure out is if all the sausage books ever written and all the recipes are leaving out some critical last step........or if this 12 to 24 hour waiting period for nitrite to do its thing is hokum.
 
Just so all are understanding my questions, what I'm trying to figure out is if all the sausage books ever written and all the recipes are leaving out some critical last step........or if this 12 to 24 hour waiting period for nitrite to do its thing is hokum.
Part of "doing its thing" involves color and flavor, so I think in that regard it's not hokum. If they claim other reasons, then possibly hokum.

For what it's worth, the Mariansky books don't have that waiting period in most recipes. Those that do are either for flavor/traditional/color/dryness reasons, I'd think.
 
I get your questions and thoughts.
Early in my curing meat venture, I found an article that stated meat would regain the the pink (fresh) meat color on smoking/cooking that was not fully cured meaning the pathogens aren't fully retarded. I think it related to whole muscle, but I cannot find it to the best of my searching.
You read the Kutas book explaining the FSIS regulations and the use of nitrites? Residual nitrites are required to suppress any further pathogen growth. Accelerators are added to injected belly bacon to deplete the nitrites to lessen the nitrosamines when high temperature cooked wheres most sausage isn't high temp cooked.
 
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Just so all are understanding my questions, what I'm trying to figure out is if all the sausage books ever written and all the recipes are leaving out some critical last step........or if this 12 to 24 hour waiting period for nitrite to do its thing is hokum.
It takes time for sodium to diffuse through osmosis. Since the nitrite that’s being applied is sodium nitrite it acts just like other sodium and diffuses. It’s the process of the water in the meat rushing to its surface to balance the high sodium and the sodium rushing inside the meat to balance the low sodium environment. So it takes time for this to happen. It’s generally accepted that sodium travels in meat at 1/4” per 24 hours from all sides applied. So with sausage and most grind sizes 12 hours is sufficient for meat to come to equilibrium with the sodium ( however if the mix is left at room temp and comes to room temperature only 3-4 hours is needed) This is because nitrite is temperature sensitive, the warmer the faster it acts, the colder the slower. 24 hours is better for flavor development of spices and just a better balance.

The Polish avoid this by cubing their meat in about 2” chunks and applying the salt and cure, sugar if used, mix well and refrigerate for 72 hours, then grind, mix and stuff the sausage. At this point smoking same day isn’t an issue because the meat it pre cured.

As to nitrite and what it does. Nitrite interacts with meat proteins and breaks down into different things, one is nitrous acid and the other is nitric oxide. It is largely believed that the nitrous acid is what neutralizes the bacteria. The nitric oxide fixes itself to the iron molecules in myoglobin and helps fix the red color of myoglobin. So you see there is a lot going on here and don’t forget it all has to diffuse into the meat, again this takes some time.

Curing accelerators like sodium erythorbate do speed up the break down of nitrite but it does not speed up diffusion. The main reason some will tell you to add it to sausage and stuff right away and smoke is because erythorbate being the sodium of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) it neutralizes the nitrite from forming nitrosamines. So to say the product is now safe. Not in so much because it speeds up the process but more because it’s a buffer.

There is more but I’ll stop here.
 
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It’s generally accepted that sodium travels in meat at 1/4” per 24 hours from all sides applied.
I've seen this figure referenced, but only when talking about dry curing hunks of meat. Wouldn't the mechanical act of thoroughly mixing the meat achieve the necessary dispersal of nitrates after a much shorter period of time (e.g., 2 hours or less)?
 
I've seen this figure referenced, but only when talking about dry curing hunks of meat. Wouldn't the mechanical act of thoroughly mixing the meat achieve the necessary dispersal of nitrates after a much shorter period of time (e.g., 2 hours or less)?
Not necessarily. Diffusion is what it is, it’s a natural process, not battery powered, so the osmotic effect takes the time it takes. But, temperature is a huge factor. At refrigeration temps the process is slower and warmer temps it speeds up. Kinda like fermentation in this way.
 
All of your answers can be found here:
https://genuineideas.com/ArticlesIndex/diffusion.html

https://genuineideas.com/ArticlesIndex/nitritesafetylevels.html

^^^^written by a pH.D. scientist. This is a legit source.
Yes, good information but while both stir the same pot as every other source (and like most other sources, also get cross threaded by using nitrates and nitrites interchangably when they are not) they do not address my question, which is how much time does it take for the nitrite in the cures we use in sausage to convert to nitric oxide and that to attach to the ground meat in sausage to make it safe from botulism when we smoke it? I get the part about time with large pieces of whole muscle. I'm trying to get to the bottom of time when making sausage.

If color change alone is the indication, then it happens within minutes.......not hours. At least it does in the sausage I make. It has already turned brown by the time I'm able to stuff it and the entire sausage turns pink after I smoke it to a temp of 150F.

If that is true, then most of the sausage books are not wrong, they just fail to clarify leading to misleading and confusing conclusions.

Critical endgame is a safe product to eat.
 
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BTW, as far as process goes, curing issue aside, if one is making 10 pounds or more, grinding and stuffing one day, then letting stuffed sausage rest overnight and smoking next day is not a bad plan. Doing it all in one day, along with cleanup, makes for a very long day.

If it then improves quality from curing and allowing time for flavor development, then if that is the preferred process for a variety of reasons, it ought to be outlined and described as such.
 
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