Bacon. It’s everywhere these days. People put it in their ice cream. They line their glass rims with bacon salt. Its scent comes in dubious personal care products. They even make air fresheners out of it for the car. Enough I say. Enough already. Bacon does not cure cancer, it does not make mediocre food taste better. It makes mediocre food taste like mediocre food with bacon in it.
Now with that rant out of the way, I have to say that it’s pretty good stuff. Every now and then I get the itch to do a little DIY, so I figured I’d try and make it myself. I got one of those “here we go again” looks from my wife, but she’s a good natured lass and let me at my folly. Anyhow, I set out to cure up some bacon and I thought I’d tell you how I went about it.
First off, you need to know what it’s made out of. Most of us know that it’s a pork product but what part? Bacon comes from the pork belly. As it’s name suggests, it comes from the belly portion of the animal. What sets bacon apart from plain old pork belly (a lovely piece of porcine goodness in its own right) is that it’s cured (and then usually smoked). Plain and simple. It’s not difficult to get and it comes two ways in two flavors – Frozen and Fresh – Skin on and Skin off. If you want to go to the trouble of making bacon yourself, go to your butcher and get skin off, fresh pork belly. He will probably have to order it for you and it will likely be a huge sheet weighing about 11 to 12 pounds. If you want you can cut it into more manageable pieces for working with – you might want to have the butcher do this for you when you pick it up since he can weigh out the pieces.
Now for the curing process. After a little research into curing at “The National Center for Home Food Preservation” (there is such a thing – the NCHFP), I found out a couple neat facts. According to the center (I’ll call it the center because NCHFP is to difficult to type), “Curing is the addition to meats of some combination of salt, sugar, nitrite and/or nitrate for the purposes of preservation, flavor and color.”. Salt plays a key role in the preservation of foods by inhibiting microbial growth. The nerds call this plasmolysis. In other words, water is drawn out of the microbial cell by osmosis due to the higher concentration of salt outside the cell. Fortunately the growth of many undesirable organisms normally found in cured meat and poultry products is inhibited at relatively low concentrations of salt. In days of yore, meat was dry-cured with coarse “corns” or pellets of salt. Corned beef of Irish fame is made from a beef brisket, although any cut of meat can be corned.
Most salt cures do not contain sufficient levels of salt to preserve meats at room temperature and Clostridium botulinum spores can survive. Early on, we started using salt peter/nitrates to inhibit this nastiness, and a side benefit of this was that the meat stayed a pinkish color. Meats cured without nitrates tend to be on the gray side. Fortunately for us home DIY’ers there’s pink salt (or Prague Powder #1) which is salt with a 6.2% sodium nitrite concentration. These days it really isn’t needed unless you plan on cold smoking at 85 degrees after curing (which I don’t recommend). I decided to use it to see what it would do. You use about a teaspoon per 5 pounds of meat.
My cure consisted of 3 pounds of Kosher Salt, 2 pounds of dark brown sugar and a good healthy pinch of pink salt. In order to flavor it, I added about a tablespoon of cumin and half a tablespoon of red pepper flakes. I mixed the cure together in a large bowl with my fingers, breaking up the brown sugar lumps.
I added a layer of cure to the bottom of a large non reactive pan, big enough to hold my Pork Belly. I placed the belly in it and covered the rest with a thick layer of cure, rubbing it into the meat. Almost as an afterthought I drizzled some rum and pure maple syrup over the top of it and rubbed it together into the meat again. Next time I think that I’ll briefly marinate the belly in a rum and maple syrup mixture before I add the cure.
Once the pork belly is sufficiently rubbed and has a good layer of cure on it, cover the pan with plastic wrap and place it in the bottom shelf of the fridge. This is where a garage fridge comes in handy. Here it will live for 7 days. Flip it once each day. Expect a goodly layer of goo to form on the bottom – this is the salt doing it’s thing by removing the liquid from the meat – thereby curing it.
At the end of your 7 days, the belly will be firm and have almost a leathery appearance. It is now cured and ready to smoke. Wash off the cure mixture and pat the meat dry with paper towels. I like to let this air dry for a bit so I set it on a rack on a sheet pan in the fridge for a few hours. Smoke will take better to this surface.
At this point in the process, I get a little less scientific and a little more poetic – perhaps even artistic in my own way. Science has reigned throughout the curing. Plasmolysis gives way to an ice cold beer. I can put flame to wood, enjoy the thin blue curl of smoke wafting through the yard and meditate on abstractions. Gone is the lifeless and cold hunk of pork belly I got from the butcher.
Seasoned and cured, I have dubbed thee bacon, greater than the sum of your meager parts. All that is left to do is subject you to a gentle heat of around 200 degrees and bathe you for a few hours in apple wood smoke while I patiently wait. An internal temperature of about 150 degrees is our green light to remove the prize from the smoker, slice it in a deli slicer and package the remnants for later use. There is something ancient and satisfying in this process. Maybe I have connected with a much more primal and agrarian nature within myself. Humans have been curing meat for centuries just to survive the lean months. Of course you can always go to the grocery store now, but somehow I feel that I have provided for my family – to keep us happy through the coming leaner months of winter.