What’s Prague got to do with it?

Prog Rock legends Spinal Tap

What do you think, when you hear the words Prague Powder?

For some, it makes them think of prog rock,* the 1970s rock music genre that sought to “elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility,” but sometimes came off as just pompous and bombastic.

But that’s not what we’re talking about.

Others might hear “Prague Powder” and think of Prague, the Czech Republic’s capital, and home of internationally beloved poet / revolutionary leader / former President Vaclav Havel.**  The historic city of Prague dates back centuries before its eponymous castle (pictured) was built in the ninth century, and today is a hive of cultural, academic, and economic activity in central Europe.


You’re getting closer (sort of), but that’s not Prague Powder, either.

So: what is Prague Powder?

Prague-Powder-1Prague Powder is a “curing salt,” an important ingredient used in food preservation. It serves to prevent or slow down food spoilage (and food poisoning, ew) caused by bacteria or fungus (double ew). Generally, curing salts like Prague Powder are used for pickling / preserving meats in particular, as part of the process to make sausage or cured meat.

One strange thing about Prague Powder Number 1 that you should make note of is that it’s mostly made of table salt, but it contains 6.25% Sodium Nitrite. Sodium Nitrite is the ingredient that imparts the unique flavor of Prague Powder, and is also the stuff that makes the curing salt pink.  The vivid pink color is to prevent users from accidentally confusing it with regular table (or Kosher) salt. Eaten straight, on its own, Prague Powder is actually toxic! This is why you won’t find Prague Powder #1 on the shelves at AllSpice — we keep it behind the counter to minimize confusion.

Not all pink salts are created equal. And even though Prague Powder is pink, cooks shouldn’t confuse it with another pink salt, Himalayan Pink salt. Himalayan pink salt is pure salt with naturally-occuring trace elements that give it a pink color. TL;DR: Prague Powder Number 1 is NOT edible on its own – it’s meant to be used in curing meats. On the other hand, Himalayan Pink Salt is edible (it’s delicious, in fact) straight from the jar.

What’s Prague got to do with it? People have been using some form of salt to preserve food for thousands of years. It took until the early 20th century for scientists to discover the connection between use of flavor-enhancing (and natural preservative) nitrates and nitrites with the suppression of the bacteria that cause food poisoning. With that understanding in hand, in 1925, a guy named Karl Max Seifert applied for a US patent for his Sodium Nitrite + table salt preservative, which helped prevent food poisoning, that he called Prague Powder.  No record exists as to what inspired him to give his concoction the name Prague Powder, though.  Why Prague? Nobody has any idea, and it doesn’t make any sense. Sorry to get your hopes up.

The how and why. Anyhow, Prague Powder Number 1 ($3.95 for a 1/2 Cup jar) is essential for short-term cures, wet cures, or for making cured meats that will soon be smoked, cooked, or canned such as sausages or corned beef (St. Patrick’s Day, anyone?). The Prague Powder #1 imparts a distinctive flavor to cured meat, and it’s also necessary to prevent food poisoning.  Here’s why: The natural cooking environment for cured meat creates a habitat for growing bacteria, causing botulism — food poisoning. Prague Powder Number 1 is the ingredient that prevents this from happening.

Use Prague Powder #1 in recipes for sausage, hard salami, jerky, ham, fish, pastrami, bacon and corned beef. For every 5 lbs of meat, use 1 level tsp of Prague Powder. A 4 oz bag contains 20 tsp of Prague Powder # 1. To make a pickling brine, add 3 oz of Prague Powder to each gallon of water.

Smarty-pants footnotes, for those of you who always go for the extra credit points:

prog-rock-yes-fragile* Drawn from classical, jazz, and world music, prog rock songs boasted long solos, non-traditional song structures, and lofty (or very esoteric) subject matter, sometimes extending to encompass entire albums. You might recognize the key features of the prog rock style listening to the iconic eight-minute Yes song, “Roundabout,” in which “mountains come out of the sky and stand there.”

photoblog - NBCNews.com** In addition to leading the anti-Soviet Velvet Revolution that led to the toppling of communism in 1989, and then serving as the first post-revolution president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel was a beloved writer and prolific poet. Among his many gems: “Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.”

If you call it Prague Powder #1, is there also a Prague Powder #2? Yes. Yes there is. It is a similar curing salt, but with Sodium Nitrate thrown in with the Sodium Nitrite. The sodium nitrate found in Prague Powder #2 (also called Pink curing salt #2) gradually breaks down over time into sodium nitrite, and by that time a dry cured sausage is ready to be eaten, no sodium nitrate should be left. For this reason Prague Powder #2 is recommended for meats that require long (weeks to months) cures, like hard salami, pepperoni, prosciutto, and country ham. (We don’t stock Prague Powder #2 at AllSpice. We aren’t patient enough to make long-cure meats, so we stick to the short-term, wet cure recipes).

Prague Castle photo credit

This Is Spinal Tap photo credit: Photo by: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection(10344154)