a home cook with notions & an appetite
Of all the things I make at home, the one thing that brings about the most in terms of comments and requests for free samples – the bacon. I don’t hand out samples willy-nilly (you have to be family or close-enough-to-invite-over to be eligible), but I always offer the same advice. With arm outstretched, I say, “if you can do this, you can make bacon.” At which point, I simply flip my outstretched arm over a few times. No one seems to believe that it’s this easy. It is.
I’m an absolute follower of Ruhlman’s Charcuterie method. I’ve had a supply of the Basic Dry cure on hand in my cupboard for years now. (Sealed in a moisture-resistant container, this cuts down even further on anything “complicated” with having to make bacon.)
But let’s start at the beginning. Where to procure pork belly in Columbus? If you’re guessing we’re in good with the Thurn’s folks who will set aside one in their order for me, you’d be right (and he’ll trim skin if I’m not dying to save it for later), but that’s not the only place we’ve gotten pork belly. Schuman’s Meats has had nice pork bellies on-hand, but frozen (nothing wrong with that, it’s just that you’ll need to wait a day or so before starting your project). We’ve also ordered pork belly from the Ohio Meat Outlet as well. You can also special order it from Rife’s Market and Bluescreek Farm Meats. And while we haven’t asked them, they were willing to find us a hog’s head…so I’ll toss in Mosely’s Meat Market as well. Honestly, no excuse…and I’m sure I’m leaving out tons of places that will order it for you in a day or two. I’ve never had anyone charge me more than $2.50/lb for pork belly and it’s usually closer to $2.00. A typical full belly runs 14-18 pounds (we did have one push 20 once…that was nice).
Anywaywho, the cure:
There’s a version with dextrose in the book, but I’ve not gone over to the dextrose side as of yet. You will not use all of this for a single slab of bacon. Nor is this all you can use when curing bacon.
You don’t cure the entire pork belly at once, only 3-5 pounds per batch. When we get a pork belly, this means we cut it into thirds, freeze two of them and then work on one at a time. We square off the belly to make it nice and uniform. Years ago, we found our go-to-recipe for pork belly trimmings – Thai Style Braised Pork Belly from a blog that sadly hasn’t been updated since 2007.
The lifesaver for this recipe (mentioned in the book, but not praised enough) are the 2-gallon ziploc bags. I actually do all of my prepwork in the bag. I do wear gloves while I do this – between the pink salt, salt and pork, it is a messy affair (and the general stickiness of sugar). I generally end up using 1/4-1/2 cup of cure for the belly with the key being to rub the cure over every single surface of the belly you can find.
This is also where you can get creative. I have tried the following:
Maple syrup: Add 1/2 cup of pure maple syrup (not that crap that is sold as syrup but is made with high fructose corn syrup and flavorings) to your bag of belly and cure. Swish around to coat.
Maple sugar: Add 1/2 cup to your cure and rub in with the cure. Not quite as flavorful as maple syrup, but nice and subtle.
Ancho chile powder: Add 2-3 tablespoons to cure and rub in…I don’t recommend doing this with cayenne. Something about the smoky heat instead of heat-heat goes really well with bacon.
Pancetta seasoning: I was going to do a pancetta, but we need to set up more friendly air-curing areas. But the additional seasoning – 4 cloves garlic (smashed), 40g ground black pepper, 10g juniper berries (crushed), 4 bay leaves (crumbled), 4g fresh nutmeg, 5 sprigs fresh thyme – mixed into the bag was really good.
Jack Daniels: 1/2 cup. Do not do this…it was terrible. Even if you really like JD, it’s some kind of awful. It soaked more into the fat than anything and just tasted “off.” You can buy wood chips made from Jack Daniels barrels – it’s not a strong whiskey flavor, but more of a smokey oak – and this would be a much better route to take.
At this point, you find a bigger dish (we have a 13×17 roasting pan that does the job nicely) to put the bag in (in case of leaks) and set your bagged pork belly in the refrigerator. Every other day or so, you’ll flip the bag to redistribute cure – it becomes more of a cure/meat juice slurry. You’ll do this for 7 to 10 days until the belly feels nice and firm where it’s thickest. Honestly, it’s this easy. Thoroughly rinse the guy off at the end of the 7-10 days and you’re nearly there.
I smoke my bacon. You can also bake it in an oven. The above photo is applewood-smoked bacon. One of our Farmer’s Market vendors sold me 20 pounds of applewood chunks for $12. I’ve also got a log of hickory that was a gift that I’ve been working on for the better part of two years. You basically smoke this (I smoke at about 200 degrees) until the bacon reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees. You can bake it at 200 degrees and get to the same place without the smoke. Take the skin off while warm (it takes a while to get the technique down…you can see our raggedy cuts above), let it cool (you can taste it warm out of smoker/oven) and test a slice. Know you’ll never go back to that pre-packaged thin-cut bacon again.
A note on cooking bacon: I always cook my bacon on medium heat. It takes longer, but it stays flatter and I don’t get those random spots that are burnt combined with the spots that aren’t quite cooked. I’ll also flip each piece individually at least twice just to get them evenly cooked.