Monday, November 19, 2012

Makin’ Bacon (Adventures in Home Curing)

The photo to the right is three pieces of bacon my son Karel and I just finished up yesterday. Looks great, doesn’t it? That was the response yesterday when I posted the shot on Facebook as a sort of a teaser for this post. The thing is, the bacon tastes as good as it looks, but the news is: it’s very easy to make your own bacon.

And you should. Here’s why:

Obviously, this rather scary video leaves out some important pieces of information, such as what exactly is in the “flavorings” they’re adding to your bacon. Look at a package of supermarket bacon and you’ll find out. Here’s what’s needed to make your own bacon at home: salt. That’s it. Cure the meat for several days and you’ve got bacon. I’m not saying that the taste will be the best ever, but if you only used salt, you’d have bacon and it would taste pretty good, especially if you purchased pork belly of superior quality (farm raised and pastured). The sugar (or whatever sweetening you use) is there to mitigate the harshness of the salt, as well as giving the cured meat a good flavor. So, I’m not advocating that you try bacon without some sort of sweetener, just that you could use just salt and cure the meat perfectly well. In other words, salt is the active ingredient in the curing process.

In the manufacturing process outlined in the video above another thing they don’t tell you is when they’re injecting all those flavorings, they’re also injecting water. Bacon manufacturers would tell you they need the water for the process. They do, but not for the reason you may think: water adds weight and weight means more profit with very little added cost. That’s why this kind of bacon shrinks and sputters in the frying pan. The water is evaporating away.

So have I convinced you that there are good reasons to make your own bacon? Don’t have time? Think it’s too complicated. Can’t do anything in the kitchen but boil water? I’m here to tell you that anyone can make bacon. It isn’t hard, doesn’t take many minutes of actual work, and the result can be (and will be, if you follow my directions) utterly fantastic. The only thing I haven’t worked out is how to make it safe for you to eat it large quantities – because you will want to. So if you value your waistline and your arteries, proceed with caution. There be sharks in the waters ahead…

As mentioned above, bacon can just be cured. It doesn’t need to be smoked. So if you don’t want to go there, you don’t need to. That being said, smoking your bacon makes it so utterly fantastic that you should seriously consider doing it. In any event, we’ll deal with this in two steps: the curing process followed by directions for smoking.

To cure any meat, it needs to have contact with salt, either a dry cure by rubbing salt on the outside of the meat and allowing it to soak in over a period of days and react with the meat at a cellular level, or salt in the form of brine in which you submerge the meat. For bacon you don’t want to expose it to more water; you want to draw water out of the meat, so you use a dry cure.

The cure for bacon usually involves sugar of some sort (although you can make savory bacon). For this recipe, we’re going to be using maple sugar as well as maple syrup for additional sweetness and flavor.

[Sidebar: Actually, this time out we used birch syrup which is quite delightful and different than maple syrup. First of all, it’s not as sweet, but it also has a more pungent flavor. We stumbled on this twist by accident. We were about to start curing the pork belly and discovered we were out of maple syrup! Since we’d already started the process and the stores were all closed, I dug through the fridge and happened on a small bottle of birch syrup I was given by friends. Some of the best things happen by accident. The resulting bacon tastes fabulous. Try it if you can get your hands on birch syrup. It’s not widely available and it is expensive since it takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make a single gallon of syrup (due to the lower sugar content than maple). Check on line to find where you can order it.]

Now we get to the sticky part. Most recipes also recommend using a bit of what’s known as curing salt to remove the risk of botulism, as well as other bacteria and fungus. Curing salt is salt mixed with a small amount of sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate. Both additions do the same thing. In the fantastic book, Charcuterie, authors Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn advocate also using curing salt for the flavor it adds to cured food. Here’s the rub, though: many people have adverse reaction to nitrates and/or nitrites. And in large quantities (way more than we’re using here), it can be dangerous.

If I were making cured/dried sausage like salami or csabai, it could be downright dangerous not to use curing salt do so, but some people (usually very experienced at curing) will even leave it out here.

Bacon, however, is less dodgy since it is a whole piece of meat, plus you will also be cooking it before eating. So unless you plan on eating your bacon raw, you can leave the curing salt out of the cure if you wish. But just use your head, okay?

This post is going to deal with curing your bacon. Later this week (after your bacon has had time to cure, I’ll lay out the smoking portion. And please note, you don’t need a fancy (read: expensive) smoker. In fact, you can probably do it right on your barbecue as long as it has a cover to contain the smoke.

Maple-Cured Bacon
(Makes as much as you want)

Pork Belly (Bellies are generally about 10-12 pounds each. Get a smaller piece.)
10 gr Kosher Salt per pound of meat
2.5 gr Curing Salt per pound of meat
10 gr Maple Sugar (or you can use dark brown or demerara sugar) per pound of meat
12 ml Maple Syrup per pound of meat

1. Mix the appropriate amount of dry cure (salt, curing salt, and sugar) for the weight of the pork belly you’re curing. This is why I suggest you don’t rely on volume measurements but use weight. It’s far more accurate. (A small kitchen scale can be gotten pretty cheaply.)

2. Coat the pork belly thoroughly with the dry cure, rubbing it well into the meat on all sides. Now place the belly in a plastic freezer bag. This is far easier than using a vessel of some sort to hold it (although you can, just make sure there isn’t a lot of excess room in it). Next, pour on the maple syrup and distribute it on all sides of the meat.

3. Refrigerate for up to a week, turning the meat every day and redistributing the cure on the meat, rubbing it in well. It will throw off water as the salt pulls it out of the meat. This is a good thing and you want to use that self-created brine to help cure the meat. Curing is finished when the meat portion of the belly feels nice and firm. Charcuterie (where this recipe originates) recommends curing for a week. We find this creates a bacon that’s a bit too salty for us. As we’ve gained experience, we know what fully-cured meat feels like, so we remove it at that point rather than waiting a full seven days. Remember: the thicker the pork belly, the longer it takes the salt to do its work. A one-and-a-half-inch thick belly generally takes between 4 and 5 days.

4. When you feel the meat is cured, take it out of the bag (or vessel) and rinse it thoroughly to remove the salt on the outside of the belly.

That’s it! Your bacon is ready to eat, if you wish. Fry up a bit and taste it. Lovely, yes? Now for that exceptional flavor, you’ll want to smoke it. The bacon you buy in supermarkets is generally only cured with maybe some liquid smoke added to give you a sort of smoky taste. I suppose you could add some if you don’t want to or can’t smoke your bacon.

A tip: get the meat nice and cold to firm it up before slicing. It will be a lot easier. If you don’t like rind on your bacon, now is the time to carefully slice it off by running a sharp carving knife just underneath it. If you’re going to smoke the bacon, wait to de-rind and slice until later. Before you slice, though, square up the piece of bacon by trimming any bits sticking out, but keep those trimmings for things like soups and stews. We also cut the rind into pieces and freeze those as well for flavoring soups and stews. Waste not, want not!

Next post, I’ll tell you how we smoke the bacon for maximum flavor. Stay tuned.

Note: The reason pork belly in the photo at the top was cut into thirds was so that Karel could use a slightly differently cure (he added a BBQ pork rub to the one on the right ) and because one end of the belly was thicker than the other and got an extra 12 hours of curing.

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