Okay so it’s a little late… yesterday got busy. So… it’s Mailbag Tuesday instead of Monday. Anyway – had a couple really good questions this week, so here they are!
Q: Are nitrates necessary in corned beef? What about all the salt?
A: No, nitrates are not necessary but salt is. Traditionally, corned beef was cured in salt and they found that adding nitrates extends the shelf life quite a bit. You could probably marinate meat in a pickling spice marinade and cook it that way and have a similar flavor, but it would not be long-lasting meat. As far as nitrates are concerned, well they are a great preservative. The problem comes in when we are now finding in modern days that they can be carcinogenic.
Having said that, I try to keep a balanced view of it. I realize that the amount of nitrates used in home-cured and (real) butcher-cured meats is very minuscule and I am not one to live my life in fear. Not to mention that there are natural nitrates in a lot of vegetables and other foods we eat. However, I also don’t think that there’s any reason to unnecessarily risk it – especially considering how much things change all the time… even smoking cigarettes were considered healthy at one point, but then we come to find out it causes cancer.
Meat bought at the grocery store is not terribly healthy, to begin with which is why we see higher levels of nitrates with the curing salt (also known as pink salt or saltpeter) that’s used. That’s kinda like why milk pasteurization is necessary with grocery store milk – it’s unhealthy to begin with, so something has to be done with it.
So my take? I wouldn’t worry about it. I personally make it without nitrates… because I think it’s fine without it (now that we have refrigeration and all) and I don’t want to spend the money to mail-order an ingredient that I haven’t seen locally and I don’t think is necessary, and we don’t *really* know if it’s harmless or not. But if you do choose to use a small amount of saltpeter, it’s unlikely that anything terrible will happen.
PS – I’m still working on modifying and tweaking my corned beef recipe!
Q: Do you leave the door open while dehydrating with an Excalibur dehydrator?
A: Nope, the door is intended to be closed. I realize it’s kind of weird that it is completely removable, and I know I thought it was a poor design when I first used my brother’s Excalibur but I came to realize that it’s actually a lot more efficient than that way!
Being able to remove the door completely and then use both hands to set fully loaded trays into the brackets of the dehydrator is huge… if I had to hold the door up with one hand while trying to set the tray with the other, I’d just have a bunch of food falling all over the place.
Q: How much water do you use in the All American canner?
A: I just put in a couple inches and call it good. Generally speaking, when I do canning, the water comes up to about a third to halfway level of the jars once I have the first layer added and it has worked fine for me. More for longer canning times, less for shorter.
If you are canning multiple batches, though, make sure to top it off each time. I’m not sure if that’s what you do with most canners since I’ve only ever used an All-American (at least, for pressure canning).
The general idea is to have more than enough water to create steam which is what gives the canner its pressure. Boiling water does not create that pressure, so if your jars are submerged, they won’t get the right amount of pressure heat and they won’t be canned properly.