Friday, October 23, 2009

I’m Back In The Saddle Again…..

Seems like any interest in cooking or blogging pretty much went out the door when the summer heat rolled in.

I hate hot weather.

Hate it.

But I do love all the fresh food summertime has to offer… so I guess you take the bad with the good.

I decided to get back to blogging by writing up something that I know fairly well. Over the summer, I got hooked up on Facebook with a lot of old high school friends, in preparation for our 30th high school reunion. As we’ve gotten to know each other again, several have expressed some curiosity about my love of charcuterie in general, and making homemade bacon in particular. I realize I’ve already got a post about making bacon, but:

(a) I did it early on, and I’ve learned a lot since then
(b) I wanted to take the opportunity to do a lot more detail, with more pictures
(c) It’s my damn blog, and I’ll do another one if I want to

So… starting from scratch… first thing you need to do is find yourself a good supplier for the meat. This can be harder than it sounds. I live in a small suburb of the bustling metropolis of Tulsa, and believe it or not, I couldn’t find a single supplier for fresh pork bellies within the metro area. I eventually found a great source about 25 miles up the road, or essentially halfway to Kansas.

Oh, the sacrifices we make for good bacon….

Next thing is to get your curing ingredients. This is MUCH simpler, and a helluva lot cheaper. Basic ingredients are… you might want to write this down…

(a) sugar
(b) salt

Okay… you get all that? Just in case…. Here it is again…

(a) sugar
(b) salt

That’s it. Seriously… For real… that’s all you need to cure the bacon. You can add more stuff, depending on your taste, but that’s the basics. Every time I cure a batch of bacon, I vary something. Either ingredients or process. How else am I gonna get to Shangri Bacon? (for you unenlightened lot, that’s the state of pure bacon bliss… experienced only rarely by those of stalwart stomach, and an intense dedication to all things porky).

For this round, the cure consisted of the following:

(a) 3 pounds kosher salt
(b) 24 ounces white sugar
(c) 6 ounces sodium nitrate
(d) 4 tablespoons hickory smoked salt
(e) 4 cups maple syrup

That’s all. The dry ingredients are enough to cure almost 50 pounds of bacon. In this case, I'm curing 2 whole bellies, each around 12 pounds, so I'll use roughly half of the dry cure shown above. So either use the amounts shown and save the excess for next time (and trust me… there WILL be a next time), or quarter or halve the amounts shown if you’re just going to do the one or two bellies.

But before we proceed, a word about the ingredients. The kosher salt and sugar you can get literally anywhere. The sodium nitrate and dextrose are a lot harder to find locally, so I use a website called Butcher & Packer ( As one might surmise, it’s a website full of butcher, packer, and meat preparation and preservation products. It’s also where I get my natural casings for sausage, but that’s another blog entry.

The pink salt is optional, but the first time I made bacon, I didn’t use it, and was a little disappointed with the final product. When it cooked, it looked like cooked pork. Kinda brown. Not like bacon… which still has that reddish-pink hue to it.

That’s when I realized the difference the nitrate makes. And if you’re worried about the whole ‘nitrates causes cancer’ thing, stop it…. Recent tests have proven that there is absolutely no danger or increased chance of cancer in meats with nitrates. In fact, on a per gram basis, lots of vegetables have more natural nitrates than cured meat. Leave it in, or take it out, it really doesn’t affect the taste one bit. It's more of a cosmetic issue.

Either way, it’s your call, but I kinda like my bacon to look like bacon when I eat it.

The hickory smoked salt is something new this time around. I like a good smoky flavor to bacon, and it’s always a trick getting the smoke treatment just right. Smoker temps tend to get too high, or the wood doesn’t want to smoke enough, or my ADD gets me distracted by the closest shiny object…

Where was I?

Oh yeah… the salt. This is something I’ve started using in the kitchen in cases where I’m too lazy to hit the grill. And it’s not a bad substitute. So, using my knowledge about how the curing process works, I’m betting on the salt molecules to carry the smoke particles into the meat a bit farther than the actual smoking process will, thereby giving me a deeper, if not extra and distinct layer of smoky flavor.

We’ll know in about a week, won’t we?

As for the syrup… if you like maple flavored bacon… use it. If you don’t… don’t. Your call. Personally, I like it.

Oh… and let’s not forget the most important ingredient of all… two whole fresh pork bellies. Otherwise known as slices of porky lovin’…

This is a whole pork belly, skin off, about 12 pounds.

A lovely landscape of porcine pleasure.

The guy I get mine from usually sells whole bellies that weigh in around 12-13 pounds each. The ones I get have the skin removed. I like it that way. I like pork skin, but I don’t like the work involved in getting it off the bellies. Your preference… but without the skin is a darn sight easier. I always get 2 bellies.

Go big or go home, right?

Some things to think about before you just jump into this. Make sure you have a large pan/tray/something to dredge the bellies in. I use a large plasticware thing that was intended for large party trays or something. Whatever it was in a former life, it’s now my bacon curing pan. Also, whatever you use, you might want to make sure it’ll fit in the fridge. Preferably on the bottom shelf, or whichever one has a fair amount of vertical space.

Second, a large cutting board and large, sharp knife are a must. Clear a good workspace on your counter… you’ll be glad you did. And get some 2 gallon zip top freezer bags.

Okay… on to the fun…

Make the cure using the above dry ingredients. DON’T add the syrup, unless you really like being coated in a sticky, unmanageable mess. Trust me on this one. I did that once, and threw the whole mess out and started over again from scratch. (no, not the meat, silly… just the cure). The syrup goes on last, by itself.

Get the cutting board and secure it to the counter. I use a large, clean dish towel under mine.

Lay out one of the bellies on the cutting board and trim one end more or less square. This helps in the final cutting. Measure the size of your 2 gallon ziptop bag, and cut the belly more or less in half, so that each piece fits in a ziptop bag. Make whatever adjustments you need, but you want each bag to have 1 large piece of belly in it. Trim the other half of the belly to square also. Set these aside, and repeat the process with the second belly.

By now you have a pile o’ pork bellies, 4 in all, and a nice little pile of trimmings, which we’ll come back to later.

The 2 pork bellies, halved and squared.

Lots of lean on these bellies. Can't wait till they're smoked.

Get out your large pan to apply the cure. In a worst case scenario, you can use one of those large rectangular foil pans from the grocery store. I don’t like to, simply because I’d rather wash than waste. Also, get your 4 ziptop bags opened and spread out. Keep em close, because you’re gonna need em in a few minutes, and your hands will be covered with salt.

Put about 1 cup of your mixed up cure in the bottom of the pan, and spread it around. Don’t get too hung up on it being perfectly even. In a couple of days, you’ll understand why I tell you neatness and precision have no place in making bacon.

Toss in one of the half-bellies, fat side down. Spread another cup of the cure on top of the belly, and press it fairly firmly with your hand. This will also press the cure into the bottom side. Using your hand, spread the cure on all four sides too. Again, this isn’t critical, but you should at least make an effort. Hold the belly up by one end, and very lightly shake off the excess cure back into the pan.

A half belly in the curing pan, lightly coated with the cure.

Here's a good shot at how the belly should be covered with the cure. A heavy coating isn't necessary.

Transfer the belly to the ziptop bag. This sounds easier than it is if you don’t know ‘The Trick’.

G’head… ask me… you know you want to…

Okay… here’s ‘The Trick’… fold the belly in half, with both ends in your hand. Using your other hand, spread the ziptop bag open and slide the folded part in first. About halfway in, let one end of the belly go, and nudge the corners of the meat into the corners of the bag. If you measured properly in the beginning, it should be a nice comfortable fit without the belly sticking out of the bag. Don’t seal the bag, just set it aside for now.

Here's a belly in the bag, waiting for the syrup treatment.

Repeat this process with the other 3 bellies. I usually use just about 1 cup of cure on each half belly. I can’t stress enough that you’re not trying to entomb the meat in a salty sarcophagus… you’re just trying to get a generous amount of salt on the meat so that the salt molecules can adequately penetrate the meat and carry out the process of curing.

When this stage is done, you should have 4 ziptop bags, each with a decently salted half-belly inside.

Now is when you whip out the maple syrup. Also, if you want to take on a peppered bacon, or similar, you can spread the ground pepper across the top (meaty side) of the belly, and press it in by pressing on the outside of the bag. Less mess that way, don’t ya know?

I usually use 1 cup of good old imitation maple syrup to one half belly. I’ve tried the hoidy toidy Pure Vermont Certified Organic Holistic Extra Premium All Natural Maple Syrup before, and it isn’t any better than the good old run of the mill imitation pancake syrup.

Griffin's... it's what I grew up on.

One cup of imitation maple goodness.

Pull the bag open, and pour the cup o’ syrup onto the belly. Try to get as much air out of the bag as you can and close it. Don’t worry about achieving a total deep space vacuum. Close enough is good enough. With your hand, just gently spread the syrup around the top of the belly. Trust me… this is good enough. Repeat this on the other bags… and guess what? YOU’RE DONE!

See how quickly the syrup starts to spread around. No need to make a big deal of it.

Here's the 4 bags of bellies off to the fridge. Note the bag tops are folded up to help prevent leaks.

Just wrap up the leftover cure in an airtight bag or container for next time.

At this point the bellies will cure in the fridge for anywhere from 4-7 days. I overhaul mine once in the morning, and once in the evening. This means I literally turn the bag over, and then put it back in the fridge. This makes sure things don’t settle in the bag. The amount of curing time strictly depends on how salty you want your bacon. Since this bacon isn’t like your great grandpappy’s bacon, and will stay in a refrigerated or frozen state until it’s cooked, you don’t need to keep it in salt for 6 months. I’ll add a couple more tips in a few paragraphs.

Here’s some of the things that most of the blogs I researched didn’t mention…

During the curing process, as the salt and water in the belly trade places, the ziptop bag will literally be full of salty, syrupy cure water. This is a good thing. If this happens, it means things are working as they should. But this also means that any pains and efforts you took to get exactly 3/32 of an inch salt covering on all 6 sides of the meat, and a perfectly even distribution of maple syrup in the bag was pretty much a waste of time. As I said before, don’t sweat it. Let nature and chemistry do the work.

Here’s another little tip. Bags leak. Always. Even the expensive ones. So, when it comes time to put the bags of porky heaven in the fridge for the better part of a week, use a leakproof container (now you see why I mentioned making sure your cure pan would fit in the fridge).

I typically cure for 5 days. Then I do something that none of the blogs I researched mentioned. I ‘de-cure’ for 24 hours. Before I started doing this, the bacon was good, but damn it was salty. After talking with some older people who grew up curing meat the old fashioned way, I realized that the old country folks would boil or soak the salted meat overnight to draw out the excess salt, since it was really only there for the curing purpose. So that got me to thinking about a ‘de-cure’ step. I tried it, and it made ALL the difference. The salty flavor is still there, but it accentuates the meat, it doesn’t dominate it. So, on the day 6, I get 4 new 2 gallon ziptop bags. I remove each belly from it’s bag, quickly rinse it off, and put it in the new bag. Next I add about 2 cups of fresh water and seal the bag, removing as much air as possible. Repeat for all 4 bags, then back in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

On day 7, I take the bellies out of the bag, and arrange on racks in the refrigerator to give the surface of the meat a chance to dry out. This is a crucial step. This allows a pellicle to form on the meat. In simple terms, the pellicle is formed when the water soluble proteins and sugars on the surface of the meat are allowed to air dry. A good pellicle formation is dull and slightly sticky to the touch. Contrary to what you might think, the meat won’t be ‘dry’ to the touch. It just won’t be wet. If you can’t manage to adequately dry the bellies in the fridge, you can resort to drying them on the counter with a fan. But make darn sure the temperatures don’t get too high. Even with all the salt in the meat, bacterial contamination is an ever present danger. If your meat doesn't form a good pellicle, the smoke won't have anything to stick to, and your bacon won't taste nearly as good, nor will the color be nearly as uniform.

On day 8, fire up your smoker. At this point, use whatever wood/sawdust/etc you’re partial to. Applewood is awesome on bacon, just as hickory is. There are several places on the web where you can get sawdusts from different woods for this type of smoking. At this point, I’m going to assume you know your way around a smoker. If you don’t… learn. You’ll be glad you did. Smoke your bellies anywhere from 4-8 hours, depending on the smoke volume, desired flavor, etc.

There’s no rules here. You just go with what you like. The only real rule here is this: Don’t let the smoker get above 100 degrees and stay there. Actually, 90 degrees is pretty much as hot as you want it to get. You’re doing a cold smoke here. This means imparting the preserving qualities and flavor of smoke without actually cooking the meat in the process.

Once this batch gets smoked, I’ll post a follow-on entry to this one. Some things to think about having around for this step are (a) a good meat slicer, and I don’t mean a sharp knife; (b) a vacuum sealer. One of these is worth its weight in gold… trust me.

So… now you know all you need to know about the curing portion of making your own homemade bacon. It’s not magical, metaphysical, or really even difficult.

Tonight’s effort at curing took me about 75 minutes, including cleanup. I usually pay about $2.75 a pound for pork bellies, and have less than $5 worth of curing ingredients for 25 pounds of bacon. That’s about 20 cents per pound for the cure, bringing the total per pound to right at $3. And I know EXACTLY what’s in my bacon.

The trimmings; The small pile of fat gets saved for sausage... the pile of lean can be used for stirfry, or just fried in a pan for a snack, and the wrapped piece is going to get soft frozen, then sliced for fresh fried side meat. So... total meat waste.... zero.

Sure you can get some bacon at the store for less than that per pound, but if you’ve ever seen how commercial bacon is made, then you know why it’s that cheap. You also know it’s not worth the trouble it takes to cook it.

Plus, it’s way cool to be a Bacon Snob and turn your nose up at those store bought packets of porky paste.

More to come………………..