Monday, July 16, 2012

Home curing: “The Smoked Bacon Report”

I’ve been going through “meat-curing withdrawal” since it’s way too hot in our basement at the moment to make much of anything that requires a hanging period in a cool environment. Fortunately, we made enough guanciale in our last batch to last into the fall, so we’re good to go there, but our lonzino is nothing more than a fond memory at this point and it will be late November before we have another taste of that. Now at least there’s a good reason to look forward to cold weather!

All smoked and ready for slicing!
Down at the SLM last weekend, my son and I dropped by our friends at the Sausage King where Ben showed me a gorgeous piece of pork belly when I mentioned we were thinking of smoking some bacon. I could not resist.

Back home, I pulled out Charcuterie (link in the RH column), a fantastic recipe book/treatise that covers home curing, smoking, drying, terrines and patés, etc. Not only does it tell you what to do, it tells you why to do it. I like that.

Anyway, we decided to start slowly, make the most basic recipe, and save the messing about until we gain enough experience. I also only bought half the amount of pork belly specified in the recipe (2.5 pounds instead of 5). We made up our cure consisting only of kosher salt, pink salt (curing salt) and dark brown sugar. After spreading it evenly over the pork belly, everything was put into a freezer bag and refrigerated for a week, turning it every other day and redistributing the cure over the meat, so it would progress evenly.

Once 7 days had passed, I thoroughly rinsed the meat, dried it with paper towels and then set it on a cake cooling rack in the fridge to develop the pellicule (tackiness of the surface to which the smoke will stick). Next day we began the smoking process.

The real issue was not knowing our new equipment. I started with a modest charcoal fire (no lighter fluid!) and let that build up heat. Having read some online articles, I decided pretty early on that wrapping our soaked applewood chips in aluminum foil was the way to keep them from burning too quickly. Poke holes in with a cooking fork, and the little packs (about 1 cup of chips in each) smoked for about 40 minutes.

The smoker came with a very basic thermometer, so I picked up a cheap and far more accurate one (also dishwasher proof!) at our hardware store so I would know what 200°F was, not some “Ideal Range” that looks to be anywhere between 190° and probably 230°. Our smoking probably took a bit longer than it should have because I was trying to figure out how much charcoal to add and when in order to keep the temperature nailed at 200°. The answer was a good-sized chunk every 20 minutes or so.

Three hours later came the crucial taste test. The chunk of bacon came out of the smoke with an attractive gold patina and it smelled fantastic. Cutting off some nice-sized chunks, we popped them into our mouths and chewed reflectively. The apple added beautiful notes to the overall flavor and we will definitely go with it again. It may be because of the smaller piece of pork belly used, but we all felt the bacon was a tad too salty. Since from the firmness of the meat I had felt it might be done after 6 days in the cure, I think we’ll drop that seventh day and see what we get. We could also soak the cured bacon in water for an hour or two to leach out some of the salt before drying it overnight prior to the smoking process. I’ll have to get back to you on this one after we try the recipe a few more times.

We will freeze our share of the bacon for use in cooking (clam chowders, a few or our stews, etc.) where the slight saltiness of the bacon can be compensated for with less salt elsewhere in the recipes.

The plan now is to try amping things up by doing maple smoked bacon. My son Karel really loves anything maple flavored, and we have the recipe for a slightly sweeter bacon made with both maple sugar (replacing the brown sugar) and 100% maple syrup. (Anyone out there ever used maple wood chips for smoking?)

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

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