Beef – ny substitute for saltpeter / sodium nitrate in corned beef brine


I realize there is another question about corned beef from scratch, but the answers don't really cover my question. Many recipes for making your own corned beef still refer to the use of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) or sodium nitrate. From what I've been able to find out saltpeter is never used anymore nor available to the home cook, and sodium nitrate is not commonly available.

Sodium nitrate in the brine gives cooked corned beef its classic reddish color (without it corned beef comes out gray), and it kills botulism spores. I like my corned beef pink (the gray color is somewhat unappetizing), but more than that I'm concerned about the flavor of the corned beef. The last time I made corned beef I tried to use Morton Tender Quick. The cooked brisket turned out beautifully pink and almost inedible. It was terribly salty and actually made my tongue numb.

So, is there anything that can be used in place of the sodium nitrate, if used in the proper quantities does its absence or presence have any effect on the flavor of the corned beef, and is there any good place to get it?

Best Answer

Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, which does not directly cure meats. Bacteria convert nitrate into nitrite, which is the real preservative. Saltpeter can be replaced by a smaller amount of nitrite to get the same curing effect (most commercial cured meats do this), though a prolonged cure that converts nitrate into nitrite can develop more flavor.

Tender Quick is not a direct substitute because it contains mostly salt. I've heard that you can replace the salt in your recipe with Tender Quick, and drop the saltpeter, and have a success. You would have better luck finding a recipe that was meant to use Tender Quick, though.

It is definitely possible to buy (food-grade!) saltpeter. I would check online, or at specialty stores. It's a little more difficult than picking it up at your local grocery store, of course.

(Chemistry lesson, courtesy of McGee: nitrate (NO3) is converted to nitrite (NO2), which then reacts to form nitric oxide (NO), which bonds to myoglobin in the meat, which turns it pink and prevents oxidation. Nitric oxide is also present in smoke, which gives that "pink ring" around the outside of smoked meats.)