Curing, brining, and salting in general are historically some of the most popular methods of preserving meats and fish. Currently they still are popular for preserving to an extent, but due to our better refrigeration and freezing, they are more often used to add flavor and texture to meat.
Throughout history, salt has been used. Even in the Bible, salt has been used in many sacrifices (Lev. 2:13), covenants (Num. 18:19; 2 Chr. 13:5), seasoning food (Job 6:6), providing hospitality (Ezra 4:14), and even childbirth (Ezek. 16:4). The Romans are some of the first people we know that used salt to preserve fish, olives, cheese, and meat. They even used salt as part of a soldier's wages, which is where the word "salary" came from.
Most chefs know that you need to cure or brine meats before smoking them, but why is that? When smoking meats, the heat and smoke eliminate almost all the oxygen, the meats are moist, and the meat is cooked slowly through the ranges of 90 to 160' F (32 to 71' C) - which all make for a perfect environment for growing our favorite food-borne poisoning, botulism. And botulism is one of the few bacteria that show you pretty much no signs of its existence, as it's both odorless and flavorless. Curing inhibits bacterial growth when cooking (and spoilage in general) by reducing the water content that bacteria needs for growth in meats.
The curing methods that are commonly used are dry curing, brine curing, combination curing, and the sausage cure method.
Dry curing is accomplished by applying a dry salt and seasoning mix directly to the meat and letting it cure in the refrigerator. This is used in curing salmon, ham, bacon, duck (generally legs for confiting), and other smaller cuts of meat. After rinsing thoroughly, the meat is usually cooked after curing, but not always (such as in cured salmon).
Brine curing is mixing the salt and seasonings with water to make a form of pickling liquid. This is done by soaking meats and poultry such as a ham, turkey, or beef (pastrami and corned beef) in the liquid, letting it cure in refrigeration, and finally rinsing and cooking it as well. Larger cuts of meats are often injected with the brine as well. The ratio for this is generally 1 gallon (4 L) of water to 1 cup (240 ml) of salt to 1 cup (240 ml) of sugar with your desired added seasonings for one night with small cuts of meat.
Combination curing takes place mostly with hams, but sometimes other meats too. This combines the dry rub directly on the meat with an injection of the brine. This is done to shorten the curing time. Also, as the inside and outside are cured at the same time, it reduces the chances of spoilage.
Finally, there is sausage curing. This is quite different from the other curing and brining methods, as the salt and spices for this cure are mixed with the ground meat.
Have you ever noticed that cured and smoked meats generally stay a bit pink no matter how much they are cooked? That's because a gas is formed, nitric oxide, which binds to the color pigment in meat (myoglobin), causing the pink color to form after cooking. Therefore, check the doneness of your meat with a thermometer, NOT by color. Otherwise you'll have some overcooked, dried-out meats coming your way.
God bless, and try out a couple of the following recipes to add a new twist to your food and menus. Do some research on your own to make pickles, olives, jerky, ham, sausages, and more.