Cured meat color: Part 3

The cured meat color of processed meats is formed through complex reactions.

Have you ever made your own sausage and wondered why it turns colors while you are making it and while it is cooking? Meat color is a very dynamic and is impacted by many factors. Myoglobin is a key part of creating the cured meat color nitrosylhemochrome. But many additional factors come into play in forming cured meat color.

Curing meat involves adding nitrite or nitrate among other ingredients such as salt, sugar and spices to fresh meat. Most commonly nitrite is added to meat because the cured color reactions occur faster and more reliably than nitrate. The nitrite, usually dissolved in water, causes metmyoglobin to be formed, which causes the meat to turn brown. Eventually, the brownish colored meat will form the cured meat compound, nitrosylhemocrome, when the product is heated. The nitrosylhemochrome is a pink colored pigment that is heat stable. This pink “cured meat” color will continue to be pink when it is cooked as well as if the meat product is reheated multiple times.

The cured meat color is, however, subject to fading of the pink color when exposed to air and light. Thus, most all cured meats are vacuum packaged to prevent color fading.

In addition to creating the cured meat color, nitrite is also responsible for creating a “cured meat” flavor. Nitrite prevents the formation of “warmed-over flavors” typical of reheated cooked meat. Finally, nitrite in cured meats plays a critical safety role as it significantly reduces the chance of botulism. The amount of nitrite that can be added to meat is strictly regulated.

Michigan State University Extension has resources on fresh meat color and cooked meat color as part of this series.

Other articles in this series

The color of meat depends on myoglobin: Part 1

Cooked meat color: Part 2

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