Nitrates, nitrites, nitrous… makes me think of big industrial fertiliser companies, laughing gas, and that wheee sound the cars in videogames used to make when you gave them an extra burst of speed.

They also raise a flag as something to be consumed in moderation, or not at all, because of various reports over the years showing links between high consumption of processed meats containing nitrates, and cancer and other long term health problems. Of course, nothing is ever that simple, as I discovered when I began to research the issue .

A little background: Nitrates in the form of saltpeter have been used to preserve (cure) meats since at least 1700; it is transformed in food to nitrite, and these days industrially processed meats use synthetic nitrite, skipping this step. Organic standards (US and Canadian) forbid the use of synthetic nitrites and nitrates, but allow products with naturally high occurring levels of nitrates, such as celery juice, which is widely used in “nitrate-free” cured meats. Whether or not this lowers the health risk from nitrates/nitrites is still under debate – certainly the most obvious link is when cured meats containing nitrite are cooked at high heat, as this produces chemicals that are known carcinogens. This is mitigated by the addition of vitamin C and other compounds, (which are naturally-occurring in nitrate-containing veggies.

So far so good, but the jury is still out on whether the nitrite present in the organically-cured meats is safer. The meat industry is quick to point out that our bodies need nitrates, and that the levels allowed in cured meats are miniscule relative to, say, a stick of celery.

Then there are groups such as Dietitians of Canada, or the World Cancer Research Fund, who both suggest limiting or avoiding processed meats because of the links between industrial nitrites and cancer.

By this point, I was beginning to lose my appetite, which was very healthy only a short while ago as I was pondering what to do with my pigs once they are done their current job of rooting up the garden. I had been thinking they would combine nicely with a neighbour’s moose in salami form. When I asked a friend whom I consider quite knowledgeable about all things meaty (he raises pigs and always brings the most meltingly delicious pork products to potlucks) he raised a finger in caution and said, “Remember, this is how you kill people.”

Then he proceeded to give me some tips and recipes that left me positively slavering – all of which did include nitrites.

I tend to err on the side of homemade is healthier, which is by no means always true, but at least I know what I put in things. It feels easy when I look at buying food, but as far as making it it feels like the option to gamble with immediate death by botulism or long-term suffering with cancer. Using a celery concentrate and a starter culture as per organic practices feels like a bit of middle ground. Then there is the French chef in Devon, UK, who made a video about making salami. He said in his thick accent “We don’t use those nitrate things, if it goes off – f*** it, we toss it.”

Hmm. I shall leave you to ponder yet another meaty question, and in the meantime offer a recipe that I have used with no fatal results, sans saltpeter.

Moose Bresaola

Bresaola is a good entry point to curing meat because there is no grinding or chopping, which increases surface area and thus the potential for contamination. I have used a variety of moose roasts with this recipe with good results. The spicing, as always, can vary according to local availability and preference.

3lb moose roast

1 ¼ lb non-iodized salt

2T sugar

½ c red wine

4 cloves garlic, chopped

Chili powder, black pepper and herbs, eg: thyme, rosemary, Labrador tea

Mix all ingredients in a ceramic or glass container and rub well into roast. Tie with string and let sit in the cure for one week, turning and coating once a day. Remove and wrap in several layers of cheesecloth. Tie up again and hang in a cool dry place for three weeks to a month until hard and dry. Store in a cool dry place and slice thinly into soups and place atop salads, omitting salt from your recipes.