When making sausage, getting the acidity (or the pH level) of the meat and spices mixture right will play a pivotal role in determining the product’s flavor and shelf life.
Dry curing meat releases lactic acid naturally during the fermentation process. However, encapsulated citric acid (ECA) or other curing agents can mimic the natural tang and replicate the preservative function of lactic acid near-perfectly if you want to save time.
If you’ve ever wondered what encapsulated citric acid is, don’t worry. It’s pretty simple once you understand the basics of curing meat. It’s a citric acid that has been coated, aka encapsulated in hydrogenated vegetable oil (usually cottonseed) or maltodextrin. Read on to learn more.
What Is Encapsulated Citric Acid?
Encapsulated citric acid is coated (or encapsulated) in maltodextrin or hydrogenated vegetable (typically cottonseed) oil. Citric acid itself naturally occurring, commonly associated with lemons, oranges, and limes.
It’s a powerful acidulant that lowers the meat’s pH level and subtly changes its texture by breaking down connective and tissue fibers.
When used during sausage making, citric acid is one of the best and fastest methods to impart the traditional tangy flavor associated with fermented or dry-aged foods.
While there are subtle differences between citric acid and lactic acid (the chemical released in the fermentation process), careful processing and portioning allows ECA to replicate the taste almost perfectly.
The hydrogenated vegetable oil or maltodextrin coating provides a heat- or water-soluble barrier between meat and citric acid. This is vital in ensuring the acid doesn’t start working immediately upon mixing with meat and other spices since it can change the sausage’s texture and make it less palatable.
However, after mixing it correctly, cooking the sausage, reaching at least 135° F or 150° F (depending on the product) will melt the coating. This allows the citric acid to start working its magic, lowering the pH level, preserving meat, and imparting flavor.
Encapsulated citric acid is suitable for sausages that are heat-processed rather than dry-aged.
Since the coating needs to reach a specific temperature to melt, cold or air drying will keep the capsules separate from the meat and won’t achieve a desirable result.
The encapsulated acid comes in the form of a whitish powder, and about 4 oz. of it is enough to process 25 lbs. of meat.
Citric acid reduces the meat’s pH level and provides a barrier against bacteria. The pH level indicates the acidity of a certain mixture or liquid.
A slight drop in pH levels, by as little as 0.3 to 0.5, can significantly impact meat’s shelf life and bacteria inhibition. For example, summer sausage typically has a pH level of 4.7-5.1, while fresh meat doesn’t usually go below 5.4 pH.
However, citric acid will drastically drop the pH level to prevent bacterial growth. A pH level as low as 4.2 will ensure the product is safe to eat and doesn’t develop pathogens.
As the summer sausage stays in the open, its pH will rise slowly until it can grow bacteria. This is why the curing method is pivotal in ensuring a product that can last without worry and can withstand changing temperatures.
Since citric acid is one of the more powerful weak natural acids, it doesn’t take too much to make a noticeable change in the meat’s pH level and develop that familiar tangy taste associated with summer sausages.
Is Encapsulated Citric Acid a Cure Accelerator?
Unfortunately, no. Encapsulated citric acid can enhance the shelf life of cured foods and helps in the cooking process. However, citric acid is not a reliable cure accelerator and can’t replace curing salts (nitrates).
During the dry-curing process, the nitrates turn into nitric oxide below the ECA dissolution point, leaving the powder encased in the capsule and essentially inert.
If you want to cure meat, you can add some encapsulated citric acid to prevent spoilage, but you’ll need to mix in a proper curing agent.
Sodium erythorbate or smoked meat stabilizers are excellent choices. Alternatively, you’ll need to add regular citric acid.
If you don’t have unencapsulated citric acid and need to prevent spoilage while curing meat, you can dissolve it in hot water and mix it that way.
By itself, ECA (when broken into its ‘pure’ form) won’t guarantee a stable shelf-life but can lower the meat’s pH level to the point where it’s effectively cured and can last much longer than regular, cooked meat.
What Is the Difference Between Encapsulated Citric Acid and Citric Acid?
Unlike regular citric acid, ECA is coated in hydrogenated vegetable oil or maltodextrin. The coating dissolves in hot temperatures, allowing for greater control when mixing citric acid and meat.
If you put citric acid directly onto meat, the acidity will immediately dissolve the connective and muscle tissue and change the meat’s overall texture. Mexican chorizos are a good representation of what the final product might look like.
Using regular citric acid or mixing encapsulated citric acid too early in the preparation process won’t make the meat unfit for human consumption if it’s adequately cured.
However, it can have a drastic effect on taste and texture, potentially making the sausage unpalatable. In addition, it can make the meat dry, white, and crumbly, preventing it from forming into a proper sausage shape.
Citric acid can be mixed with water and used on fresh meat (typically game) to prevent bacterial growth and seal it in a layer of acidity that staves off rotting and decay.
Since encapsulated acid only starts working in temperatures higher than 135-150° F, it’s unsuitable as a first treatment. You can melt the capsules by using hot water instead of in the mixture.
How Do You Use Encapsulated Citric Acid in Sausage?
If you’re wondering what encapsulated citric acid is doing in a sausage recipe, the answer is to save time. It significantly cuts down the cooking time by altering the meat’s pH level and making it more receptive to spices.
The important thing to note is that citric acid on its own will react with the meat immediately to dissolve tissue, changing its texture and appearance.
That’s why encapsulated citric acid should be added last to the meat with minimal mixing to ensure an even spread and proper dissolution when being smoked.
When you want to make the sausage with encapsulated citric acid, follow these steps:
- Grind the meat well before adding any spices or ECA.
- Mix in the spices you wish to add to the sausage and work them thoroughly into the ground meat.
- Measure between 3-4 oz. of ECA for every 25 lbs. of meat being cured (12-16 oz. for 100 lbs.). Lower amounts will make the flavor less tangy and acidic. However, we don’t recommend going below 3 oz. per 25 lbs.
- Add encapsulated citric acid to the mixture. Don’t mix for more than a minute, or you risk damaging the capsule and releasing the citric acid too early in the preparation process. If you add ECA and grind the meat more afterward, the resulting mixture is usually perfectly edible but will have a different taste and texture. Citric acid usually makes the meat whiter and more crumbly, preventing it from forming a tight sausage.
- Immediately stuff and cook all the mixed meat. Putting any of the meat away for later use might lead to breaking the ECA coating and an earlier release of pure citric acid into the meat.
- Maintain the temperature indicated on the package (typically 135-150° F) for over an hour to ensure all the coating has melted off and citric acid has bonded with the meat adequately.
Sausages prepared with encapsulated citric acid have an extended shelf life but aren’t always perfectly shelf-stable. You can add curing agents to the mixture to improve the sausage’s durability. Using more ECA will improve the sausage’s shelf life and stability.
The recommended 4 oz. per 100 lbs. should provide the sausage with a low enough pH level to last on the shelf.
If you’re not familiar with the curing and sausage-making process, you can always keep the prepared product in the fridge and extend its shelf life further.
Due to the heat-dissolving casing, encapsulated citric acid is unsuitable for sausages that aren’t prepared with heat, i.e., dry products. For those sausages, you’d need to use a starter culture or a curing agent to begin the process.
When appropriately used, sausage with ECA added is nearly indistinguishable from fermented and dry-aged summer sausages. The citric acid adds a tang remarkably similar to that of the lactic acid and gives the final product a relatively stable shelf life.
Now that you know what encapsulated citric acid is, you can prepare delicious, shelf-stable meals from anything you catch or purchase on the market.
The citric acid will deliver a tang similar to a lengthy fermentation process in only a fraction of the time. As a result, your sausages will be a hit at any party and be invaluable during camping or hunting trips.
Don’t forget to follow the recipe on the product you purchased to the letter, and you should have a safe sausage that you can be proud of with minimal effort.