These days it’s almost cliché to rant about one’s love for bacon. What’s that t-shirt I’ve seen guys wearing? “I’m a vegetarian except for bacon” or “I put bacon on my bacon.” Yeah, yeah, we get it. Bacon is delicious. I love it, you love it, and the poor vegans are left out in the cold yet again, ignorance being bliss most likely. Of course I love bacon. It’s not a fad. It’s not like bacon is Hootie and the Blowfish and I’m in 5th grade trying to get my first kiss. Liking bacon is kind of like asking someone if they like music or sex or breathing air.
So how to take bacon mania to the next level? I decided to try my hand at making some porky heaven of my own. As usual, I grossly underestimated the amount of work that the process would require. It is a bit of a production so let me put the disclaimer out there that one needs about a month of empty fridge space, a smoking device of some sort, and of course, several pounds of fresh pork belly. Good luck finding a 5 lb slab at Whole Foods. I’ve tried more than once, so online is your best bet.
Luckily, I was able to talk one of my bosses at the restaurant into ordering me a whole slab of pork belly as well as the freedom to help myself to the pantry. The production is a bit of a pain, but the process is pretty simple: Rub meat with a cure mixture and store it in the fridge. Once the liquid has been leached out and the meat nice and firm, soak in warm water to mellow out the saltiness. Finally, and if possible (this I highly recommend to give it that extra flavor and help break down the protein), smoke the cured belly for several hours.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally written some time ago and with a very basic understanding of curing and preserving meats. Some of the information in the following section is a bit inaccurate, but the comments following the article shed light on the errors as well as newer, more efficient techniques to making your own bacon. If you are serious about making your own bacon, do not let this post be your only reference point. (6/8/2012)
I went about trying to put together one of the more basic recipes out of Micheal Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, using only salt and sugar. The pink salt he recommends is helpful in keeping the fat from becoming rancid, but his timeline of 5-7 days curing in the fridge I found to be way off the mark, and I gave up on the pink salt after the first week. Granted, this was my first attempt, but I ended up having to cure 11 lbs for a solid 4 weeks, and I could have let it go for longer.
You see, I started off following his method to the letter; weighing all of my ingredients, adding a bit of garlic and crushed peppercorns, but all the liquid that came out just melted my cure right off. After five days I checked the slab and found it swimming in its own liquids. So I re-cured using only salt and sugar at a ratio of about 3 to 1 salt/sugar, and this time elevating the slab on a wire rack to keep it relatively dry. Again, tons of liquid leached out. The cure mix was soaked. Essentially, I found that every 5-6 days I needed to pull the bacon out of the pan, change out the cure for a fresh rub and regularly check the slab for firmness.
So my advice is to keep the slab elevated on a rack of some sort for the first couple weeks until most of the liquid has been removed and then bury it in the cure mix to finish it off and get that nice firmness you want. In the future I also plan to try to work in 5 lbs batches instead of a whole 10 lb slab to help cure more evenly and hopefully more quickly.
Once you are finally done with this step, the slab needs a bath in warm water for about an hour or two. This is a step that I didn’t take and ended up wishing I had. I rinsed the cure off, but the water bath would have gone a long way to mellowing out the overwhelming salty, sweet flavor. The pre-smoked bacon tasted OK, but once I served it with say, eggs, I realized how ridiculously salty the pork was.
At this point you can freeze the bacon and it will keep for months or a couple weeks in the fridge, or…
Smoke that sucker. To me bacon isn’t really bacon without that smoky flavor and I found that a hot smoke helped break down the meat so that once sliced and in a pan, the bacon just melts in your mouth. I sliced mine to fit in my bullet (about 7 lbs) and smoked it for about 3 hours at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit tossing in soaked wood chips every 30-45 minutes. Keep in mind that in order for the smoke to stick to the meat, the belly needs to be dry, so taking the slab from the bath to the smoker is NOT a good idea. Dry the meat the best you can and let the meat cook under low heat for 30 minutes or so before adding the smoke chips. Ideally letting the slab air-dry for a couple days in the fridge would get you the best results.
Finally, and I know this is extremely tempting after all this effort, don’t slice into the belly right after it’s been smoked! Don’t get me wrong, those bites you slice off will be euphoric orgasms of smoky, salty, fatty porkiness, but then the belly is going to leak out all the juices and fat you’ve been working so hard to create. I sliced one small bite off of mine, and almost wept when I saw the fat continue to ooze out 15 minutes later. In the end it didn’t ruin anything, but I hated losing that delicious fat early on.
My bacon didn’t really taste like any bacon I’ve ever had before. Still not sure if that’s good or bad. It was however, unquestionably bacon. The salt hits you over the head and then an unexpected sweetness rounds out the flavor. I didn’t get as much smokiness as I wanted, but the post-smoked bacon dissolves on your tongue so much better than the pre-smoked slab. Like cotton candy bacon…now there’s an idea. Overall, I’m happy with the experiment. A new belly has already been ordered. Now it’s time to start all over again.