Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Bacon Report

And believe me, this tastes as good as it looks!
I am constantly surprised by people’s response when I tell them that we make our own bacon. It’s as if they think it is some arcane art, or subject best left to professionals who have dedicated their whole lives  to the study of bacon production.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Here are links to some previous posts on the subject of bacon here on AMFAS (Home curing: “The Smoked Bacon ReportMakin’ bacon: Adventures-in-home-curing & Smoking bacon). If you haven’t read them, please take the time to do so. I’ll go cook up some bacon while you’re reading…

There. Now does anything about making bacon seem particularly difficult or onerous? Yet probably not one in 10,000 people here in North America has ever tasted homemade bacon, let alone done some up themselves.

I wonder why that is? Yes, it does take several days for it to cure, but the actual production time can be measured in minutes. Karel and I made up a beautiful six-pound piece last week, and I’ll bet in actual “work time” we spent all of ten minutes on the job – not counting the smoking, and that was only a bit time-consuming because we like to do it over a charcoal fire. If we used an electric burner assembly that’s readily available for our little smoker, we probably would have spent a total of twenty minutes to finish the job.

If you don’t want to, or can’t smoke foods (if you live an apartment, that will be the case), you can still cure bacon that will taste fantastic. All you need is a pork belly, some salt, sugar and that’s it. The rest is all fancy stuff to jazz it up. Rub the dry cure (salt and sugar) into the meat, seal it in a plastic bag, throw it in the fridge, and in a matter of days, you will have bacon that will knock your socks off. When you cook it, it won’t spatter because you haven’t injected it with water (under the industry’s guise of “getting the flavor right into the heart of the bacon”). For the same reason, it also won’t shrink very much when you cook it. Hell, if you can’t smoke your bacon but demand that smoke flavor, throw some liquid smoke in with the cure, and voila! Your bacon will have a reasonable approximation of having spent several hours in a smoker. That’s what’s been done to that “Genuine Old-Fashioned Hickory Flavor Bacon” you bought at the MegaMarket last weekend.

The biggest problem you’re going to face in making your bacon is sourcing a really good pork belly. In these days of factory farming, nothing is more factory-farmed than pork. The conditions in which the pigs you generally eat have to live in is really quite horrendous. Go online and do a little research, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. We don’t purchase that pork anymore – ever. I’d rather go hungry than support that industry. Sure, we have to pay more for meat from pastured pigs, but so what? The pigs led a good life that hopefully ended humanely. The meat is of far better quality and flavor. We simply eat less of it.

Once you’ve found a good source of pork, all the other ingredients are readily available.

The rewards of making your own bacon are more than well worth the effort. You’ll have bacon with superior flavor and texture, no chemicals, and it will be cheaper than most supermarket bacon. Ours, all-in, cost about $7 a pound.

If you’re thinking, How could anyone eat six pounds of bacon before it goes bad? the answer is simple: bacon freezes very well and keeps for a very long time. What we now do is wrap a meal’s worth of bacon in plastic wrap, bundle all the portions into a freezer bag, suck out the air and throw it in the freezer. Even if you take it out at the last moment, ten minutes in hot water will thaw it more than well enough to allow you to separate the rashers and cook them. We also freeze chunks of bacon so that they can be cut up as lardons or for other uses. Try doing that with thinly sliced, supermarket bacon! Lastly, you have the rind. We cut it into four-inch squares and freeze those. Whenever we’re making a stew, we throw one or two of those square in for added flavor. In a crock of homemade baked beans or in cassoulet the results are amazing.

So what’s stopping you?

Our bacon made this weekend was the best yet. Karel and I have been experimenting with double smoking. In the case of bacon, this means cold smoking it for a number of hours (we like the results of eight hours of this), then hot smoking the bacon for probably an additional four hours (the temp internal temperature of the bacon needs to get to around 155°). We cook low and slow so that the bacon gets the maximum time in the smoke, but then we like things really smoky.

This piece of bacon was cured using kosher salt, maple sugar, birch syrup and a bit of ground black pepper (Karel’s brainstorm). Since the belly we purchased from Ben Gundy at the Sausage King was on the thin side and very lean, the curing took only four days, followed by a day of drying in the fridge. For the cold smoke, we used applewood pellets in our A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker and doubled up in the smoker with some medium cheddar for four of the hours, followed by two pounds of almonds for the remaining four hours. Next day, Karel hot smoked the bacon for three-and-a-half hours over a combination of apple and maple chips.

The results are absolutely spectacular: not too salty, wonderful round smoky aroma and flavor and just the perfect amount of sweetness (the maple sugar coupled with the birch syrup is a knockout combination). I honestly don’t see how we could improve on it. Sadly, both of us forgot all about taking photos. Sorry ’bout that!

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