Salt cured pork belly, otherwise known as bacon, has experienced quite the increase in popularity of late. And its easy to understand why. It's mind boggling just how good it is; with chocolate, with pancakes and syrup or just by itself. Salty goodness with pork fat!
I tried to make bacon a couple years ago. I was brand new to meat curing (well, I guess technically I still am, but I've made corned beef a couple times and even a pastrami) at the time and it looked so easy from Michael Ruhlman's book, "Charcuterie". You just rub a big pork belly down with a mixture of salt, sugar, and curing salt, stick it in a ziplock, wait a week, and you're done. After that you can cold smoke it, hot smoke it, or fry it up as is. What could be easier.
I tried it. And the results were... salty. Like WAY too salty. Not to mention that I'd intended to hot smoke it in the Big Green Egg until it reached about 150 degrees. But it rained the night I was planning to do it so it went into the oven to cook. But I left it in too long and it got to about 175 degrees... to make a sad story short, I chunked it as inedible.
Fast forward to a couple weeks ago and my first adventure in pig butchery. I now had about 12lbs of pork belly to figure out what to do with. As I mentioned in this post about my post butchery plans, I was going to do bacon in two different methods.
This time, per the advice of another bacon maker, I used Ruhlman's basic cure mixture at a ratio of 4% by weight to the belly. I can't remember what this section of belly weighed but lets say it was about 4lbs or 1800grams. 4% of that weight would be 1800 grams x .04 = 72 grams. So using that method would call for 72 grams of the basic dry cure to be rubbed. So... that's what I did.
Then I put it in a ziplock bag and put it in the fridge to sit for 7 days. Over that time, I flipped it everyday. From other descriptions of the process, I expected the cure to draw out a great deal of moisture which would form something of a brine in the bag. However, I didn't experience that at all - as a result, flipping the bag every so often was kind of pointless (as the idea is to make sure that all sides of the meat spend quality time in the brine). However, I could tell the meat was curing as it was getting quite a bit firmer. By about day 3 or 4, it was pretty rigid.
|Rinsed and dry|
A pellicle is a tacky film of sorts that will form on the surface of meat as it dries. Its very helpful in making sure the smoke adheres to the meat. If you smoke wet meat, you wind up with something that sort of looks like splotchy ashes.
So, into the fridge it went. The next morning, I pulled it out and it felt tacky as I'd hoped. Unfortunately, I learned a little something about my fridge. I'd put the belly on the top most shelf (as the whole bottom of the fridge was filled up with brine buckets), right below where the cold air comes in from the freezer. So there were a few parts that got overly dry and I wound up trimming those off.
|After 12 hours of cold smoke|
|After resting in the fridge after a day of smoke|
|Sliced bacon is a lovely thing|
|Trying out the new slicer.|
Then I started up the smoker (my Big Green Egg combined with an A-Maze-N Pellet smoker tray) and in the bacon went for about 12 hours.
After coming out of the smoker (which had a blend of hickory, apple and maple pellets), I let it rest in the fridge (not the top shelf this time) overnight.
I fried up a slice in a skillet to see how it came out. While a little saltier than I'd prefer, it had great flavor - strong pork flavor with a touch of sweet/salt. My wife (who is less sensitive to salt) loved it.
I got to give the new meat slicer a workout. While it wasn't perfect, it certainly sliced in better than I could have with a knife.
Certainly the thinner the slice, the less salt you get in every bite. Slicing it by hand would have yielded slices that were too salty for me to enjoy so having the meat slicer kind of saved me,
I vacuumed up 1lb portions in the Foodsaver and then put all the trim/end pieces in another pack to use in beans or soups and such. Too nice and smoky a flavor to toss out.
All in all, I'd call this a great success. The cold smoking process is easy with my rig and I think it really adds a great flavor. I meant to take a picture of the final product fried up but I was too busy eating it!
As a side note, since this bacon is cold smoked, its not safe to eat until fully cooked. So when handling it, treat it as if it were raw (in terms of cleaning up and washing hands etc...).
I still have two more slabs in a brine that I'll give the same treatment to later on this week. This time I plan to smoke a little longer and with just maple pellets. Looking forward to it.
The problem will be having the patience to wait until I can try all the different recipes for bacon that are out there. Maple extract, bourbon, brown sugar, molasses, jalapeno... Too much bacon, not enough time!