Makin’ Bacon From Scratch
September 1, 2012
The first Day of September not only marks the start of Labor Day weekend, it’s also International Bacon Day. Yep, a day dedicated to one of the food world’s finest creations. But don’t think that you can only get your cured pork belly fix at the local grocery store or butcher. Today we’ve got the master of BBQ science, Meathead from AmazingRibs.com, with a lesson in makin’ bacon from scratch.
In case you have been hibernating, I’m here to tell you that bacon has permeated everything from chocolate to mayonnaise. Unworthy is the upscale bar that doesn’t have a cocktail with a bacon swizzle stick. There’s a National Bacon Day and even a popular burger franchise has a baconized a dessert. But until you’ve tasted real honest to goodness old fashioned, sweet, smoky, umami laden, real American-style bacon, made in your home, you’ve never really tasted bacon.
In parallel to bacon’s rise, pork belly, from which bacon is made, has moved from Asian menus to mainstream menus across the nation. The major difference between the two is that bacon is cured with a lot of salt, slightly sweet, and smoked, while belly is often just rubbed or marinated, and roasted without the smoke. But when it comes to both, there’s room for a lot of creativity, and the lines are blurring.
Although there are more and more artisanal bacon producers making killer (expensive) bacon out there, almost all the stuff in the grocery stores is made by huge manufacturers taking shortcuts designed to get the stuff onto the market as fast and cheaply as possible. That’s because, sadly, most shoppers see bacon as a commodity. As consumers, we reinforce this behavior when we shop by price alone. Even the labels with boutiquey names are usually made by the big mass producers.
The big guys who make commodity bacon inject pork bellies with a brine with flavorings such as liquid smoke. Then the slabs are sprayed with more liquid smoke. Then it is baked. The product is delicious, but there is no substitute for the flavors of slowly smoked bacon made the old fashioned way.
Makin’ bacon is surprisingly easy and the results are quantum leaps better than the stuff from large commercial producers. Once you have the basic recipe down, you can vary the ingredients to make a flavor profile to suit your taste. It is a simple two-step process: (1) Curing, and (2) smoking.
Commodity American bacon is usually from the belly and chest where the ratio of meat to fat can be 1:3. My favorite bacon is made from the layers of fat and meat that lie on top of the spare ribs, called “side bacon” or “streaky bacon”. It can be about 1:1 or 1:2, with more meat, depending on the breed of hog, age of the hog, feed, and other variables. When shopping, ask your butcher to order some fresh, unfrozen, raw side bacon. It should look like the picture here.
Make sure you explain that you want raw bacon, not cured. Ask your butcher to remove the skin, but save it for you so you can make cracklins. You can freeze the skin until you are ready to make the cracklins.
Get the really fresh belly, and as soon as you get it home, start the cure because raw pork fat does not age gracefully. It gets rancid and smells funky in only 5 to 6 days. That’s a flavor beloved in many European and Asian countries, but not so much in the US. Once it is cured and smoked, it will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, and it freezes well for up to two months. You need to stick to the recipe when it comes to the salt in order to get a good cure, but you have a lot of freedom with other herbs and spices, and especially sweeteners.
The salt concentration for curing is much higher than the typical 4 to 6% brine used to moisten chicken, turkey, and pork before cooking. Most recipes, including mine, use “pink salt” which contains sodium nitrite. This preservative was needed in olden days before modern refrigeration, and it gives bacon its characteristic pink color. You can substitute other salts and it will taste the same, but the bacon will be brown. Pink salt is available from Amazon.com, Bass Pro, Cabela, and some other sporting goods stores.
Soaking it in brine is called a wet cure, rubbing it with salt is called dry cure. Large manufacturers inject the meat with the brine through rows of tiny needles. The results are usually watery and insipid compared with the real deal. Here’s what it looks like after curing. The black spots are pepper.
When cooking, try not to take it much beyond 150°F. I like it better smoked on a charcoal smoker than others. A gas smoker or pellet smoker is a close second to charcoal.
Use plenty of wood. And when you take it off, cut a slice off the edge. It will be more salty than the innards. Now that you’ve cut it off, just scarf it down. It’s mighty good. Just wait til you fry it in a pan or roast it in an oven. It will keep for about 2 weeks in the fridge, and months in the freezer.
Time. 2 hours prep, seven days of curing, 2 hours of smoking.
Makes. About 25 thick slices
Ingredients 1 pound of pork belly 1 1/2 teaspoons Morton’s kosher salt 1/2 teaspoon pink curing salt 1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar 3 tablespoons Grade B maple syrup 1/4 cup water
Asian Bacon (without the pink salt)
Ingredients 1 pound of pork belly 2 teaspoons Morton’s kosher salt 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce 2 tablespoons honey 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon powdered ginger 1 teaspoon powdered garlic 1 teaspoon Sriracha or other hot sauce 1/4 teaspoon 5 spice powder 2 tablespoons water
About the maple syrup. I like using real maple syrup, but it is expensive. If you wish you can use other syrups such as sorghum, honey, Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Steens Cane Sugar, or even molasses. If you prefer, you can use granulated sugars such as brown sugar, plain white sugar, or maple sugar. Now beware, each of these sugars is slightly different in sweetness and taste, so substituting one for another will yield a slightly different flavor profile. For example, molasses is a very strong flavor. You need to experiment to get the blend you love. But this is a fun experiment. I recommend you stick to my formula for your first batch.
About the Morton’s kosher salt. Remember all salt is not the same so you cannot substitute pickling salt or table salt without doing a little math. Kosher salt is simple sodium chloride. You can use table salt but I prefer Morton’s kosher salt because it has fewer additives. Other kosher salts are more or less salty, so see my article on the Zen of Salt for the conversion tables if you don’t have Morton’s kosher salt.
Optional. For your next batch you can adjust the quantities of maple syrup or black pepper, and if you wish you can add fresh garlic or dried garlic, citrus zest, herbs such as thyme, bay leaf powder, celery seed, chile pepper, fennel, or coriander. Don’t use dried onion, it can smell too sulfury.
Do this 1) If the skin is still on, remove it and use it to make cracklins. It is sometimes hard to tell if it is still there. You should be able to make a cut in fat with your thumbnail. Your thumbnail will only make a dent in skin. Removing the skin can be tricky. Sometimes you can grip a corner and with a knife peel it back by running the knife between the skin and fat. Sometimes you just have to shave it off with a sharp knife. Put the skin in the freezer if you want to make cracklins but can’t use it right away.
2) Pour everything except the meat into a zipper bag large enough to hold the belly. A 1 gallon bag is fine for a 3 pound slab. Zip the bag and squish everything around until well mixed. Now add the belly, squeeze out the air as much as possible and squish some more, aggressively rubbing the cure into the belly coating all sides. Put the bag in a pan to catch leaks and place in the fridge at 34 to 38°F for at least 7 days. If the belly is thicker than 1.5″ add another couple of days. More time won’t hurt it. The belly will release liquid so every day or two you want to gently massage the bag so the liquid and spices are well distributed, and flip the bag over.
3) Remove the belly from the bag, throw the liquid away, rinse it with cool water removing most of the cure from the surface or it will be too salty. Pat dry. Most recipes tell you to let the slab dry for 24 hours so the smoke will stick better, but, as the Amazingribs.com science advisor Dr. Greg Blonder has proven, smoke sticks better to wet surfaces, this extra step isn’t necessary.
4) If you are using a grill, set up for 2-zone cooking. Smoke over indirect heat at 225°F until the internal temp is 150°F, about 1.5 to 2 hours. You can use any wood you like. Hickory is the tried and true. I’m partial to cherry and applewood. You should slice off the ends which may be very dark and more heavily seasoned, and taste them right away. The fat will be a bit stringy, but you’ll love it all the same.
5) Now let it cool on a plate in the fridge. Cold bacon is easier to slice. Slice on a slicer if you have one, or use a long thin knife to slice it. Try some thin and some thick slices. You can also cut bacon in cubes to make lardons and use them like bacon bits in salads, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, baked beans, in sauces or to garnish chops, or roasts.
6) Wrap it tightly with several layers of plastic wrap, not foil, and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 3 months. Do not wrap in foil because it can react with the salt.