It’s an understatement to say that bacon is one of the most cherished and sought after ingredients in my home kitchen. Its added to so many things, I can’t even begin to list them. But we have always had a small problem in that my youngest daughter is allergic to nitrates. I’ll spare you the details, but lets just say it’s been enough to put her off most processed meats “just in case.” It’s also affected my grocery bill. No run-of-the-mill ham, charcuterie or bacon for us. Nope — just the good stuff!
So that got me thinking: I’m a chef and a mom, with a backyard cob oven and an assortment of barbecues. It’s time to make our own bacon!
Step One: research, research & more research
So how DO you make bacon? What are the various cure processes, times and ingredients? How long do I smoke it, with what wood, and at what temperature?
All these questions led me to many wonderful online bacon references that I used to piece together a bacon plan. (see end of post for a list)
Step Two: meat + salt & other stuff + time = “when do we get to eat it?”
I took a friend to a wholesale market, and on the way I explained the bacon plan. I had not thought about actually looking for the pork belly yet. I mean, after all, I hadn’t settled on a cure!
As we toured the meat section of the market, she stopped in her tracks and said, “Hey, Polly, is this what you are going to use for your bacon?” Yup, there it was: one single pork belly (half) sitting right there. I couldn’t believe that I had just walked past it, not even giving it a second glance.
So, now the pressure was on. I couldn’t ignore the pork belly, and I had a witness. Given that she had to listen to all my glorious planning while in the car, I had to do it. No choice. Buy the belly.
salt & other stuff
I had not yet ordered any curing supplies, so I scrambled down to my pantry and found a bunch of kosher salt, black pepper and sugar. Internet, don’t fail me now! In good seat-of-the-pants chef style, I put together a dry cure recipe and set out to start the bacon project.
Each day I checked the cure, drained off liquid and reapplied the mixture. This went on for four days. Admittedly, I am still unsure of this actual step and look forward to playing around with time and the cure recipe. It looked good, smelled very nice and thankfully the look of a slab of meat covered in salt seemed to keep the teenagers at bay. But I did learn something. This type of project, as far as teenage appetites are concerned, is like taking a long road trip. It’s a culinary version of “are we there yet?” just transformed into “when do we get to eat it?”
Step Three: smoking
When the bacon was ready, or at least when I thought it had sat long enough in the cure, it was smokin' time. Before you can start to smoke the bacon, it has to dry. Putting wet meat into a smoker is definitely not an option. The meat needs to air dry so that a nice pedicure of proteins form on the surface and allows the smoke to penetrate.
The thought of air drying the bacon slabs in my wine cellar was appealing in sort of a romantic way. After all, it's cool, has good air flow and who doesn't fantasize about having a cellar full of wine and air dried meats....but I digress.
My cellar is probably a fine place for the bacon, but it was winter and the pantry is next to the cellar, but boasts of a finished floor and ceiling. The pantry won out.
The ambient temperature of the pantry was pretty cold, but I installed a small fan just to keep the air moving. The next problem was where and how to hand the meat. I had a handful of "s" hooks, so I knew I could hang it, but what to hang it on? Solution: an accordion style laundry drying rack. Perfect!
When the meat was dry, I put it back into the refrigerator before setting out to create the smoke.
Before I invest in a dedicated backyard smoker for the foreseeable vast volumes of bacon I will ultimately need to produce to satisfy the teenagers, I figured I would try to transform my gas grill into a temporary bacon makin’ machine. Since it has a thermometer on the outside and staggered inside racks, I reasoned that this would allow me to “hang” the bacon and watch the temperature without having to lift the cover and let out the precious smoke. I started with soaked apple wood chips smoldering away in a heavy tin. Once I placed the bacon and closed the lid, it was time to wait it out.
Handfuls of chips and 4 hours later, we couldn’t wait any longer. It smelled so good; we just had to get to that smoky slab. We took the pieces out and put them into the refrigerator to firm up before trying our hand at cutting strips.
The belly firmed up and was a beautiful creamy color, not very “smoky” looking, so we cut it into strips with a very long, sharp slicing knife. It was pretty difficult and each family member figured they could do it the best. The result: a stack of scraggly looking, irregular bacon strips. No matter, once in the frying pan it all just starts to look delicious.
Good. Nice pork taste and color but very salty and not quite as smoky as we would have thought. I expected the meat to turn browner than it did since I didn’t use any type of saltpeter. Compared to store bought, run of the mill bacon, ours took longer to render the fat and it seemed to go from limp to crispy in a flash.
All in all, this was a good result for the first attempt. Over the next few weeks, we made our way through the slabs, making sandwiches, breakfasts and stir-fries. The rind was sliced off and put into stews, soups and pots of beans. The fat from all our cooking was collected and stored for a future tamale project.
We will definitely try again, very soon in fact. I plan on lining up a dry vs. wet cure-off. Our days of playing with bacon are here to stay.