Salt is used in the production of a wide variety of dry-cured meat products in Europe, which are not only important because of their high economic value, but also due to historical, cultural, and gastronomical reasons. Most relevant examples of dry-cured meat products correspond to dry-cured ham varieties (e.g. Serrano, Iberian, Parma, San Daniele). Besides, many other traditional dry-cured meat cuts are obtained from shoulders (speck), loins (fiocco, Iberian loin), and bellies (dry-cured bacon).
The production of dry-cured meat essentially involves two steps. First, meat is salted for a certain period of time to allow the diffusion of salt to the meat. This first stage is performed in cooled rooms to ensure meat preservation. By the end of the salting stage, meat has acquired the amount of salt that will be present in the final product. The next step in the process involves washing meat to prevent the further uptake of salt, and transferring meat to curing chambers, where the temperature is gradually increased to promote the dehydration of meat, and the obtaining of the final dry-cured meat product. During this second stage, several complex microbiological processes occur, which are responsible for the unique texture and sensory properties of the product.
Despite the overall nutritional and gastronomical properties of dry-cured meat products, and their relevant historical and cultural value in Europe, their high sodium content has become a major concern in terms of public health. Moreover, the increasing awareness of the final consumers in relation to the negative effects of a salt rich diet has increased the market demand for reduced sodium food products.
In this scenario, meat processors must face severe difficulties in meeting these new expectations, due to the technological challenges associated to the reduction of the salt content in dry-cured meat products.