So… I last stated that my next project would be bacon. I meant to have pretty pictures for you. This did not happen. Out of respect for the life of my digital camera, and the fact that manhandling a 4 pound slab of pork belly really makes one appreciate the saying “It’s like wrestling a greased pig,” there will be no bacon pictures.
My desire to make homemade bacon was sparked by a fellow food blogger, and much, much more experienced chef. I actually stumbled across Gareth Mark’s bacon post when I was looking for his entry for Xocolatl Sorbet. Suffice to say, I was intrigued. And like many foodies, the idea sat there in my head, and it niggled at me until I sucked it up and decided to do it. I started digging deeper and now I’ve really become interested in the whole art of charcuterie. The fact that I’ve learned that the temperature is just about right in winter to hang a prosciutto off of my back porch has nothing to do with it. Of course it doesn’t! Ahem. Anyway… bacon.
If you want to see pretty bacon pictures, I’d highly suggest going over and checking Gareth’s post at StumptownSavory.com. Michael Ruhlman, author of “Charcuterie”, and sometimes judge on Iron Chef America also has a bacon entry at Ruhlman.com.
I will tell you this, it’s easier than you’d possibly believe. The bacon does most of the work itself. Finding curing salt is perhaps the hardest part, and likely you’ll have to order it online unless you’re lucky enough to have a butcher shop in your town. I just happen to be ever so lucky. The curing salt itself is cheap – I got it for $3 for a pound at Rodriguez Butcher Supply, so you may end up paying more for shipping than for your product unless you manage to bundle it into an Amazon.com order. There’s certainly no reason to pay nearly $8 for a 3.6oz jar from Williams-Sonoma though. Curing salt comes under many names, the most common of which is “Insta-Cure #1″. Do NOT buy Insta-Cure #2. This is a different formulation for dried meats such as salami.
Pink salt is 6.25% Sodium Nitrate and the rest is regular salt. It is colored pink to prevent it from being confused with table salt. In SMALL AMOUNTS it has been determined safe to use for curing meat. The small amount of risk associated with sodium nitrate (which has replaced saltpeter) far, far outweighs the risks of botulism. Using it as table salt, however, would be bad. Consider that 4 ounces of Insta-Cure #1 is enough to process 100 pounds of fresh sausage (Roughly 1 teaspoon per 5 pounds of meat), and you’ll quickly figure out that putting it into your salt shaker would be bad news. Curing salt can be found under different names, too, such as Morton’s Tender Quick and also LEM Cure, which you can buy at Bass Pro Shop. It sounds like an odd source, but all that venison sausage hunters make needs curing salt, too!
My next obstacle was finding pork belly. I had to call around, but if your local grocery doesn’t carry it a dedicated butcher shop will. It will also likely be much cheaper at a dedicated butcher. Central Market was very proud of theirs at $3.28 a pound while Culebra Meat Market wants a mere $1.49 a pound. That said, I haven’t really vetted the latter store, and safety over cheap, always!
I did a twist on the recipe that Gareth used. For one, I don’t keep sugar around the house. I had quite a bit of brown sugar, though. I decided to go all the way towards sweet and used regular molasses instead of blackstrap, which is much somewhat bitter compared to regular molasses. For my bacon I ended up using:
1/2C brown sugar
1 T Molasses
2 T kosher salt
1 t Insta-Cure #1
2 t freshly ground black pepper.
I trimmed my pork belly up until it was roughly square and rubbed it on all sides. Unlike Gareth’s, mine came skin on, and that’s just one of the things I ended up writing to him about. Leave the skin on, then go ahead and peel it off once it’s smoked. It may make the curing take an extra day or so since the cure has a harder time getting through the skin, but having it on is going to make life easier in the long run, and Gareth says he thinks it makes for a better flavor. I, myself, found it makes for a good bit of structural integrity which makes handling the meat easier. Once the bacon is smoked, the skin is tightened up and easily peels off.
Once my pork belly was rubbed I put it in a 2 gallon ziplock and pushed out all the air I could. I flipped it each day, sometimes twice just in case I forgot, but let it spend most of its time meat-sized down, skin-side up since the cure was going to have an easier time getting in that way. I left it in there for about 6 days, and, I’ve decided now that it probably could have gone longer, but scheduling was being a bit iffy with the fact that I needed to smoke a pastrami as well and that was going to be an all-day project.
I waffled for a bit, especially after seeing the picture in Ruhlman’s post about the forgiveness of cured meat. His looked much more leathery and darker than mine, so again I talked to Gareth. Many of the posts say to pull it when it’s “firm” and “not squishy.” Gareth further elaborated that it should feel like poking your forearm rather than poking yourself in the cheek. This made it clear that if my bacon wasn’t ready, it was -darn- close, and it was so much more helpful than “firm.”
Out of the bag that bacon came to be rinsed and patted dry. I could already smell the sweetness of the brown sugar that had cured into the meat and darkened it up. Just for good measure I decided to give it another dusting of freshly cracked black pepper as I’ve always been a fan of peppered bacon. With that done it went out onto an honest-to-goodness smoker where it cooked over a combination of charcoal and hickory wood for about 3 hours until the a thermometer stuck in the thickest part read right about 160F.
I will say that that bacon didn’t make it off the smoker unmolested. There was this little piece hanging off, so of course, I had to try it while it was still hot. It was a bite of heaven. Juicy, smokey, salty pork.
On the topic of salty, homemade bacon is much less salty than store bought bacon. Store bought bacon is brined – which means it’s soaked in a saltwater solution. This draws both water and salt into the meat. This is also why store bought bacon shrinks by a good bit when you cook it.
This stuff? It doesn’t shrink. It doesn’t taste like a pork-flavored salt lick. It tastes like smoked pork with a hint of sweetness, pepper and salt. It’s a totally different experience than store bought bacon, and it’s so easy that I may never go back again.