I don’t know anyone that doesn’t salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at the smell of frying bacon. These days a bacon breakfast is a meal fit for a king, as the price of industrially produced bacon hovers between eight and ten dollars per pound. I avoid buying it at the market price, occasionally my favorite brands will go on sale and I stock up then…or at least I used to.
Now I am making my own bacon. Back in December I purchased a whole hog and had it processed at a local meat locker. Getting meat processed in the late autumn like that takes planning because most processors are very busy processing deer during the deer hunting season. I set my appointed date and the rancher took my hog in and it was my job to call the processor with my cutting order. I knew that I wanted to make my own bacon so I ordered that the processor brine and smoke one half of the belly meat, but to leave the other half raw so that I could try doing it myself. The locker brined bacon was good, but it was far sweeter than what I like.
I had already purchase the great book “Charcuterie:The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing” by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn. Reading the section on bacon gave me the idea that there is nothing magic about making bacon, that it was something that I had more than enough skill to do. This isn’t surprising, because just about everything we buy at the store is really easy to make yourself.
There are only a couple of things that you will have to get that you probably don’t already have in your pantry. The most important ingredient is “pink salt”. You have seen a pink salt in the spices section of the store, BUT THAT IS NOT THE RIGHT ONE. That one is just salt, himalayan salt. I don’t know why it’s pink but it’s not a meat cure.
Curing meat requires that you use a form of potassium nitrite. The street name for potassium nitrite is “saltpeter”. You can find saltpeter at the pharmacy, or in some of the better health food stores. You don’t have to buy saltpeter, but if you do, a bottle will last you a very long time. What you do need to buy is “pink salt” or Prague Cure #1. With your pink salt in hand, mix up a dry cure. One pound of kosher salt, eight ounces of sugar, and two ounces of pink salt and blend the dry ingredients together. This recipe makes quite a bit and you won’t use it all. It keeps forever in your pantry. Morton sells a product called ‘quick cure’ that may also work in this application, but I would recommend you look it up on the internet to see what they recommend for curing bacon with Morton’s.
Another thing you are going to need is the belly meat. If you have a butcher that you like you can order the belly meat from there. You might be able to find a grocer that can get it for you, but the best way to come up with it is to get it from your local meat locker. The meat you get from there will be more ‘expensive’ measured in dollars, but it will be less expensive because the meat won’t be from a confinement operation, where the hogs spend their entire lives living cheek to jowl, being fed only grains and antibiotics so that they will get to market weight unnaturally fast.
Finally, get a two gallon plastic zip top bag to do the curing in.
Now you are ready you cover the pork side in dry cure. You measure the amount of cure out based on the weight of the meat. It is important that you get the right amount of potassium nitrite on the meats..as this is the ‘cure’ that gives it it’s pink color and distinctive bacon flavor, and keeps the meat from spoiling rapidly in the fridge. For a five pound side of meat it takes about a quarter cup of your dry cure mixture. Put the meat in the bag, pour in the dry cure, seal and shake to distribute the cure onto the meat (shake and bake style) and put the bag in the fridge. Every day you turn the bag over, and you will notice that water is coming out of the meat. Turning the meat every day makes sure that the whole thing is incorporating the cure. After about ten days to two weeks, (longer is not a problem) feel the meat and it should be firmer than the raw meat was. This is due to the curing and the loss of the water. Once the meat has cured long enough you remove it from the bag and rinse the salt off the outside. If you have time you can put it back in the fridge uncovered for a day to dry. This causes a sticky layer to coat the meat and then when you smoke it the smoke adheres better. I did not do this this time. If you are not going to smoke the meat you don’t have to do this either. By the way, it’s at this point that cured meats are dried. You can take cured meats and hang them in a cool dry place and they keep basically forever. That’s another article, maybe I will try that with my next pork side.
Smoking the bacon is entirely optional. I don’t know why you wouldn’t do it if you have a smoker. The normal wood that we smoke meat with is hickory. Of course I didn’t use hickory. My favorite smoking wood before this batch of bacon was oak. I have three big old oak trees in my yard and they are constantly dropping hundreds of pounds of free smoking wood for me to use. This time, though I used pecan shells. Earlier this year I bought a huge quantity of Missouri pecans from a roadside stand selling nuts and wood from pecan trees. I have a new favorite smoking wood. If you like hickory, both oak and pecan give a much more subtle flavor. Hickory has a sharp bite in my opinion. It is great for smoking ribs and pork shoulders and I keep hickory on hand for those meals. I use oak for poultry. I am going to use pecan for bacon. It is OMG delicious.
So when you smoke the bacon you aren’t going to smoke it until it is ‘cooked’, but only until the bacon gets to 150 degrees in the middle. This is done enough for the smoke to permeate the outside quarter inch or so of the meat, enough to carry the smoky flavor into your kitchen and recipes. After smoking, wrap the side in plastic wrap and put in in the fridge for another day (or so).
I have a slicer, but this is optional. You can slice off bacon as you need it from your side. You can also leave some of the bacon in big chunks, because bacon does not have to be consumed in strips. You can cook shoestrings of bacon and you can use bacon in these ‘shoestrings’ (google lardons) also called lardons. Lardons are a great way to add flavor to tasteless meats like turkey breast instead of injecting brine into them.
Believe me when I tell you that the bacon you make yourself is far and away better than the industrial meat you get from your grocer. Corners are cut making that bacon in every possible way so that they can sell it to you for the ‘cheap’ price of ten dollars per pound. there has never been a time that screamed ‘do-it-yourself’ like the present. Charging lordly prices for a mediocre product makes home made bacon a deal. Most of the work is done by time as you wait for the cure to do it’s thing. Try doing this and thank me later.