The Danes took the development where nitrites are directly applied to curing, in one very particular direction. They invented the “mother brine” cure. The English imported this Danish invention as early as the 1910’s and called it tank curing. Tank curing later became the famous Wiltshire curing process. (The Mother Brine and C & T Harris and their Wiltshire bacon cure)
In this process, a nitrite and salt brine is prepared and injected into meat. The brine that inevitably runs out of the meat (exudate) contains nitrate that has been turned into nitrites by bacterial action. When the meat is finally removed for smoking, the leftover brine is collected. It now contains nitrites.
The next batch of meat is injected with fresh salt and nitrates and placed in a tank with the old brine which contains nitrites. The old brine that is re-used is called the mother brine. This method is particularly effective in terms of final product quality due to the action of enzymes, but again, the subject is for another article.
There was another easier option in the early 1900’s. Nitrites were already being used in a large, industrial process since the end of the 1800’s in the form of sodium nitrite. This made it generally available.
Sodium nitrite was used in the production of azo dyes. It was available in every country and city where there was a large dye industry. This was part of the new and booming new industry of coal-tar dyes. The late 1800’s and early 1900’s was the birth of the age of chemistry and chemical synthesis, a development that directly resulted from the dye industry. (Concerning Chemical Synthesis and Food Additives)
A direct consequence of this development (chemical synthesis) was the creation of new preservatives and colourants which flooded the market and offered to improve food safety through chemical means. In reality, it became a way to disguise inferior products. There was an uproar from consumers around the world and governments reacted by introducing food legislation. (Concerning Chemical Synthesis and Food Additives)
Unscrupulous producers cheated the public but many food scientists and producers had noble intentions. Populations in Europe and the UK were booming and the race was on to find a way to feed them from produce from the new world. Chemical preservation was one of the options of making it possible to supply the old world with meat from the new. This was before refrigeration solved the problem definitively, early in the 1900’s. (Ice Cold Revolution) The general public’s perception about sodium nitrite was, however, that it was part of the chemicals dye industry and that it had no place in food preparations.
There were nevertheless early scientific flirtations with the use of sodium nitrite in meat. A laboratory in Germany, founded by C. R. Fresenius, records in 1848 experiment with sodium nitrite to preserve meat. (Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER vs The Griffith Laboratories)
An article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 1 March 1870 where it lists the methods of preserving canned meat in use at that time. Included in the list of “antiseptic agents” are “sulfurous and nitrous acids, sulphites and nitrite. (It also lists sodium and “other substances having a special affinity for oxygen.”) It was explained that “these agents are not applied to meat itself, but are used simply to absorb oxygen unavoidably left within the tins and pores of the meat.” As far as the preservation of fresh meat is concerned, the world saw it as a race between the use of chemicals or cold. (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1870, p4)
The major obstacle standing in the way of a chemical solution was perception. Those of the general public and the governments of the world alike.