What’s Shakin’, (Homemade) Bacon?
Most couples who have been in a relationship for any length of time have their signature fight. Often, it has to do with an ex-partner who smugly remains on the scene as a “good friend”, or differences in behavior when it comes to a shared space. For example, one partner might think that it is perfectly acceptable to have a cemetery of smelly, balled up gym socks in a pile beside his or her bed; the other might disagree. One partner may think that it is appropriate to do all the laundry in scalding hot bleach soaked water to “remove the body bacteria”; the other, of course, might think that cold water green works detergent is perfectly acceptable. If I were to air our smelly gym socks, they would be:
- I am dying to travel to India, Beirut, Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia. Mike would like to keep all his body parts where they are currently, attached to his body, and visit the rolling hills of a sleepy town in the UK instead.
- Mike can go for three days on nothing but a peanut butter sandwich and vodka cokes. I need to snack approximately every three hours and am quite vocal about my thoughts on his “starvation diet” every time I go out of town for more than 18 hours.
- I want to make sausages. Like, more varieties of sausage. I want to make all the sausages in the world! In particular, I want to make fermented sausages that cure and dry inside the house.
That last one, of course, is actually one of the biggest points of contention between the two of us. At least once a week, we have a conversation that goes something like this:
Tina: “Oh, hey, so I was just thinking about that salami that I’m going to make….you know……the salami…..”
Mike: “For God’s sake, Tina. YOU ARE NOT hanging stinky sausages inside our house.”
Tina: “Well, it’s just that I could hang them maybe in the crawl space where they’re out of the way….”
Mike: “We have cats. Do you really think that’s a good idea?’
Tina, whining: “Lots of people have cats and THEY hang sausages….”
Mike: “Look, it’s not going to happen. It’s like you’re just asking for our house to be overrun with vermin.”
Tina, hissing: “Maybe the cats would eat the vermin. If only they knew where to look.”
Mike: “Stop it! Conversation over. We ARE NOT curing meat in the house.”
Tina: “………YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!!”
Yes. As an otherwise moderately mature and rational adult, most conversations involving curing meat in the house result in me informing my husband that he is not the boss of me. This is quite the emotional issue, people.
I’m not sure when I became so fixated on charcuterie, deciding that if my life did not involve cured meats than it wasn’t worth living, but that’s basically where we’re at. Therefore, it was time for me to get creative. You know, ease him into the idea of curing meat. First in the fridge and then, eventually, other (moisture and temperature controlled) parts of our property.
For years now, I have been curing fish in the fridge and smoking meat in the garage, so clearly makin’ bacon was the next logical step in this transition. After all, bacon is bacon. I knew that he would be helpless to resist the siren song of salty, smoky, sizzling pork.
As a first step, I ordered up a whole pork belly from a local butcher shop, asking for one that was organically fed and raised, hormone and antibiotic free and butchered responsibly. My attitude towards this was that I could buy the equivalent of a whole pork belly from several grocery stores, and to hell with where it came from, but if I was going to all the trouble of making my own bacon than I was going to do it right. The butcher gave me a pork belly ETA of the following Friday (8 days later), but that wasn’t such a bad thing because it gave me time to plan. You know, to plan how I was going to break it to my husband that I just bought 10 pounds of pork belly that I intended to cure.
The next issue at hand was how to safely cure the bacon, because for a first attempt at bacon I had two main goals in mind:
1) Don’t give people food poisoning
2) DON’T GIVE PEOPLE FOOD POISONING
Most bacon contains those nefarious nitrites and nitrates that we’re all fearful of, and they’re what gives the meat its signature pinkness but also prevents botulism and food borne illness. My personal feeling is that in small doses the nitrates contained in home smoked bacon are somewhere between “negligible” and “manageable”, with a heavy dose of “botulism free”, so I set off to finding some pink salt.
Pink salt, by the way, is so called because the color used to be pink to distinguish it from regular salt, because sodium nitrite is a controlled substance. In Canada, pink salt is white. My country doesn’t always make sense, but just go with it. Before you think that Canada just doesn’t care about the health and wellness of it’s inhabitants, however, I should tell you that although the salt is white and sold over the counter, it is also exceptionally difficult to find.
Pink salt is a dog of many names, including “Prague Powder”, “Sure Cure” and a general “Cure” by whatever company has produced it. For example, LEM produces “LEM Cure”. After a few hours of searching online, I found a not-too-far hunting superstore that sold LEM cure, and a few fishy looking businesses online that promised to deliver the miracle cure to me in an undisclosed length of time. Then, surprisingly, I also found a very local company called YES Group that sold mostly in bulk for manufacturing, but was also open to the public. The only caveat, of course, is that the smallest portion I could buy was a 2 kilogram.
At only $10 for that much salt, I have to say that this was a relative steal. However, I also now have 5 pounds of pink salt on hand and there is no way on god’s green earth that I will ever get through it. So hey, are you struggling to find pink salt? Drop me a line and I’ll ship you some for free. Seriously. Cross my heart. I don’t care what continent you’re on, this is share and share alike.
Now then, on to the cure. For my fist attempt at bacon, I looked to the Meat God himself, Michael Ruhlman. In Charcuterie, Ruhlman give measurement for a basic dry cure that could be used for many purposes, including bacon, and that is what I followed:
Michael Ruhlman’s Basic Dry Cure
- 450 g kosher salt
- 225 g granulated sugar
- 50 g pink salt
You guys, I used a scale and everything. I totally feel all profesh and stuff.
Start by rinsing the belly and patting it dry. You can leave the pork belly whole, but if you quarter it into manageable pieces it makes the curing and slicing process much easier.
Ahhhh, look at that. Maple Leaf be warned: after even this brief tryst with pork belly, you and I have a lot of things to talk about.
Sprinkle the cure evenly on all sides of the pork belly and gently press it into the flesh. The cure starts to draw fluid to the meat almost immediately, creating wet areas where the meat was white just moments before, and that is a good precursor for what is to come.
This may have been my first time making bacon, but I still knew that I wanted to experiment. After quartering the pork belly, I tucked one inside a freezer bag as is. To the second and third pieces I drizzled on 1/2 cup of maple syrup after they were tucked inside freezer bags, and then I gently massaged the meat to really spread the Canadian flavor all over. For the last quarter, I coarsely ground black and pink peppercorn with a few allspice berries, coriander seed, cloves, bay leaves and a bit of granulated garlic.
Each portion of rubbed belly was sealed snugly in a plastic freezer bag and tucked in the fridge for seven (7) days. Each day, the packages were flipped over and gently massaged to make sure that the meat was staying in constant contact with its juices which were releasing into a brine.
After a week, significant amounts of liquid (at least 1/3 cup) had released from each piece of pork belly. The meat had darkened and firmed to the touch.
The final step in making bacon is to roast or smoke the meat. Of course, since I look for absolutely any opportunity to use my smoker, it was option #2 for me. Either way, rinse the meat well to remove any excess salt and pat it dry. The peppercorn is more tenacious than the salt, so if that still adheres to the meat it is absolutely fine.
If you are roasting the bacon, set the oven to the lowest temperature (appx 200ºF) and roast the meat, uncovered, for approximately 3 hours, or until the internal temperature is 150ºF.
If you are smoking the meat, first pat the meat dry and set it on wire racks for air circulation. Leave the belly to dry, preferably in the fridge, until the outside of the meat is dry and slightly tacky to the touch, which is known as the “pellicle”.
Set the temperature of your smoker to a low-moderate heat, 180º-200ºF. Smoke the meat for 3-4 hours over a low smoke until the internal temperature reaches 150ºF. I used cherry wood, but alder, oak or maple would be delightful.
When the meat comes out of the oven or smoker, leave it to rest at room temperature for an hour, and then chill the meat for at least three (3) hours before slicing.
To slice the meat as thinly as possible, it helps to first flash freeze the bacon for 15 minutes and slice it when it is firm. I am almost a little bit shy and embarrassed to say that I’m lucky enough to have a meat slicer that Mike bought me as a Christmas gift last year, and it can produce bacon that is paper thin or 1/4″ thick depending on how I feel at the time.
Speaking of slicing the meat, this is possibly the best part of curing your own pork belly. There will be some areas of the belly which are thicker, meatier, or more marbled. Each of these areas may have a different purpose for you. For example, one section of the meat which was only an inch thick was sliced into thin rashers and also thickly sliced and diced into lardons. Really fatty areas, or the outside scraps which were smokiest but dry, were cut away and reserved for other purposes such as rendering or soup stock.
The meatier parts of the belly can be sliced for bacon or slowly roasted/braised into an unctuous pork belly treat.
But of course it is the balanced fatty but meaty sections that make bacon so blessed delicious, and remind us of why this was worth seven days of waiting.
After eating the bacon as is, then again as is, and later that day in a delicious late summer BLT sandwich, the next logical step was to fry up the bacon and serve it on the side of sprouted multi-grain bread slathered with tomato basil jam, braised kale and softly poached eggs.
For a first go at bacon, I have a couple of thoughts in terms of what went right and what I might change in the future.
- the bacon was the perfect consistency and overall quite delicious
- We loved the variety in terms of cut, slicing most into bacon and some into lardons or scraps for stew
- It is incredibly satisfying to know that you cured your own meat and also know what went into it and how it was butchered
- “Real” bacon will render out fat but won’t shrink significantly the way that water packed commercial bacon does
- For a pork belly that cost $36 CAD and yielded approximately 9 pounds of cured bacon, the costs is roughly equivalent to buying commercial bacon but MUCH cheaper than buying equivalent organic bacon.
- the bacon was saltier than I expected
- Neither the maple or the spiced bacon had a strong or distinguishable flavor; both were very understated and difficult to detect
- Although the racks were rotated as they smoked, for some reason the spiced bacon absorbed more of the smoke than the other flavors, and the smokiness was slightly more pronounced than I would prefer
- Okay, seriously guys, there is no ugly. The bacon was rich, flavorful, varied in fat and flavor, and utterly delicious. Also, it was mine.