One of the unintended consequences of eating a high protein, high fat diet was an interest in cooking I never knew I had. For so long I became used to eating bland chicken breasts with a side of brown rice and broccoli. I can power through anything but I was never excited about making a meal. It was just a means to provide me with sustenance. Making this type of food day in/ day out was boring as hell, and it lacked the richness of what could be offered by a more traditional way of cooking.
After researching and realizing that saturated fat is good and healthy for you, a whole new world of culinary delight has embodied me. Finally, taste is back and it isn’t derived from some weird chemical cocktail of ingredients made by some processed food giant. Just meat and fat and combinations of ingredients that have been around for hundreds of years. Not only does this food nourish my body, but it keeps me lean and healthy in the process. Awesome!
Today I am writing about bacon. I have always bought it from the store but after reading Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, I decided to give it a shot. When I heard how much better homemade bacon is than store bought, I was sold.
Acquiring the ingredients was pretty easy. The salt can be purchased at any grocery store, and the dextrose and pink salt (sodium
nitrite) can be found at the sausagemaker.com or amazon.com. The pork belly (the main ingredient) I got from a butcher down the street from me. I have read in some forums that acquiring pork belly can be difficult. Some people commented on being able to get them at Asian markets but when I spoke to the local butcher, he said he could order it for me and I had it in a few days. In my case it was fresh, not frozen. So find a local butcher or farmer and they should be able to help you out.
Now, the pork belly I purchased was very likely from a conventionally raised pig, especially at the price point of $2.99/lb.
Nonetheless, this gave me the experience of learning to make bacon and I feel the quality is still far superior to store bought. I am currently having a pig raised so once I get the belly, I will be able to make a comparison in quality.
The first thing you need to do once you have all the ingredients is make the dry cure. This gets shaken over the entire surface of the pork belly. I even rubbed it in a little bit making sure to cover the surface evenly. The recipe called for 2 oz of dry cure for each 5 lbs of pork belly. You can either shake it onto the surface or dredge the belly in the mixture set on a cookie sheet. Since I had never done it before, I was afraid of making it too salty so I weighed out just the right amount and shook it. Now that I have done it I realize this does not have to be an super precise process, and yes, I tend to be a control freak. Here are the ingredients for the dry cure. You will not need all of this for one pork belly so save it in mason jars and it will last a long time.
Dry Cure (courtesy of Charcuterie)
- 1 lb/450 grams kosher salt (I used pickling salt since that is what I had on hand)
- 13oz/425 grams Dextrose
- 3 oz/75 grams pink salt
One note: make sure to use a scale to weigh all ingredients. The particle size of different types of salt will quantitatively measure differently if using volumetric means. Weighing everything is the way to go. If you don’t have a digital scale, buy one. They are inexpensive and invaluable in the kitchen.
The Pork Belly
The pork belly I purchased was about 10 1/2 lbs and I cut it in half to make it more manageable (and actually fit it into my refrigerator and smoker). Make sure to buy it with the skin still on. After smoking, and while the meat is still hot, it is fairly easily removed with a knife and some pulling. Since each slab was about 5 lbs, I used 2 oz of dry cure for each slab. Just make sure to cover all sides fairly evenly. Once you have coated all surfaces, place each in a 2 gallon ziploc bag making sure the bag stays in close contact with the meat. This is to make sure that as the pork belly starts to give off liquid due to the salt, it will stay close to the meat to continue to cure it.
The length of time to cure the bacon can vary depending on the thickness. The book says to feel the belly by pressing on it. Once it is firm in the the center it is done. Since I had nothing to compare it to, after 7 days, I pulled it out.
Rinse the pork belly under water and dry it off. Preheat your smoker to 200°F and get it smoking well before putting in the belly. I put mine in skin side up with
the theory that the under skin fat would help keep it moist. Smoke it until you reach an internal temperature of 150°F using a meat thermometer. If you don’t have a smoker, you could use your oven; you just wouldn’t attain the smoke flavoring. Either way, it will be quite good.
After removing the pork belly from the smoker you will need to pull the skin off while all of the fat is still soft. I did have to let it cool a little bit, but this is a greasy operation. I actually used a paper towel to help me grasp a corner of the skin and while I pulled, I used a knife to help remove the skin. This was not hard to do, just hot and ‘fatty’. After the skin is off, find the direction of the muscle fibers and slice perpendicular with a knife. This makes the slices as tender as possible because the thickness of the slice contains very short muscle fibers.
The bacon can be eaten straight out of the smoker or oven but I take it one last step. Get out a pan and fry it up to create a beautiful, crunchy exterior and a soft, chewy interior. It’s bliss!
One thing I did learn from this experience is not to fret too much about the amount of curing mixture you put on the pork belly. I used the recommended 2 oz per 5 lbs and the bacon and to be honest, it could have been a bit saltier. There is a salt box method where you basically dredge the pork belly in the mixture and shake off the excess. This would no doubt have added more salt and maybe the end product would have been saltier. I also did not get much liquid evolving out of the pork belly during curing and this may have been increased if more salt was added. This liquid turns into a brine of sorts and helps cure the belly. Hey, there is always a next time. Now go get a pork belly and give it a try!