Project Food Blog 2010, Round 4: Makin’ Some Delicious Bacon

Heritage Pork Belly alongside Heirloom Tomatoes, Bibb Lettuce, Sourdough Bread, and Kewpie Mayonnaise. Click pic for actual size.

I certainly adore a great BLT, but I can hardly ever bring myself to order one in a restaurant. I just feel that this particular sandwich, as tasty as it might be, is a little too simple for a restaurant menu (greasy spoons excluded). When I’m dining out, I’m looking to feel the love, so I’m leaning towards items that require a little more culinary skill, even at lunch. However, when I’m at home, I’ve really learned to value the quick and simple approach, especially when time is tight. Over the years, I’ve found that if you put in the effort to procure the proper ingredients, then the cooking component becomes the easy part, which is why the classic BLT is such a beautifully simple sandwich: Pick up a loaf of fresh sourdough, select some heirloom tomatoes from the local farmers market, and purchase a nice heritage pork belly for curing (the kind of pork belly that you could take home to mom). Sure, I get it. Rather than cure your own pork belly, you could easily buy a package of industrially-produced bacon instead, like most restaurants do. But then again, that really wouldn’t show quite as much love now, would it? And wasn’t love the issue in the first place?

• • •

As I type this entry, I’m intermittently tending a smoldering charcoal fire, teasing out just enough smoke to flavor three pounds of pork belly, but without charring the meat itself (or the beautiful fat cap) on the grill. Slow-smoking a pork belly remains a very zen-like activity for me, and something that shows as much culinary care as making pasta from scratch, shucking English peas by hand, or stirring a two-hour roux. In terms of the actual work involved, I’ll admit that smoking bacon may seem to require less effort than some of these other examples, but I’m on the eight-hour plan tonight, and I’m going to have to babysit this fire every 30 minutes or so. Yes, I’ll be up a little but later than usual tonight, but that’s a small sacrifice for top-level bacon. On the plus side, I can knock out the bulk of this blog entry while I’m nursing the embers, and I can catch up on my beauty sleep while I’m at work tomorrow.

Pork Belly @ The Fatted Calf.

You're coming with me, pal.

Bacon begins at the butcher shop, at least for me. I don’t have the acreage for a Mulefoot hog, but do I know where to find some good pork belly. I usually work with a three-pound slab, which helps to yield consistent results. Ideally, folks who make bacon at home should keep a journal regarding the techniques involved. If you end up with something too salty, for instance, you can consider either a shorter curing time or perhaps a lower salt-sugar ratio within the curing mixture itself. There’s plenty of trial and error involved with making bacon at home, but once you learn to dial it in, the rewards will reveal themselves. That said, I’m always considering different spice profiles to try, so the fine-tuning never ends. But for the purposes of this blog entry, I’ll bring out an old standby.

• • •

Bundle of Bacon Joy

Bundle of pork belly joy.

• • •

Belly close-up

Love is the message: Much respect to the pig himself.

I presume that there’s lots of people out there who may have never seen bacon that wasn’t already sliced and packaged (I’m not judging, I’m just saying). At the moment, that’s the world in which we live, and I don’t even think that Michael Pollan can convince everyone in the United States to eat better, or with a clearer conscience. However, there are still plenty of us out there who might be willing to improve how we eat, and I think that increased awareness is the first step in that direction. At the very least, acknowledging the pork belly in its raw form helps to establish a slightly closer (and improved) connection to the pig himself, and considering that the poor fellow was slaughtered to produce this beautiful cut, it deserves to be treated with respect and consideration, and not just as a simple commodity to be cured, sliced and devoured (although each of these things will still occur, believe me). This respect is the love. How deep is your love?

• • •

The fabulous aromatics: Juniper berries alongside black peppercorns.

Spice is the big variable in the equation, and there are many directions to take, both classic and not-so-classic. If you want to experiment with something a touch more exotic, such as Chinese five spice, then please do. For this recipe, I went with a simple salt rub that consisted of (a) 12 ounces Kosher salt, (b) 4 ounces brown sugar, (c) 1/2 ounce black peppercorns, and (d) 1/2 ounce juniper berries. I ground the aromatic spices in an electric coffee grinder, then mixed everything together in a large bowl, being careful to break apart any lumps of brown sugar in the process. For three pounds of pork belly, I’ve found that this recipe provides just enough curing salt for the job. It yields about three cups in total, and I like to use 1/2 cup per side, repeating this process over three days.

I suppose I ought to backtrack a bit, in order to discuss some alternative curing methods to my basic dry rub. There are many roads that lead to bacon, and some bacon recipes may call for a wet cure — often referred to as a “Wiltshire cure” — which is essentially a brine. The Wiltshire cure is the traditional British technique (if you couldn’t already guess by its name), but the British also rely upon a different cut of meat for their version of “rashers” (bacon). With a nice fatty slab of pork belly, I find that the Wiltshire approach is far less desirable than a dry cure, especially since brining adds water-weight to the meat. I’ve dabbled in wet cures in the past, but not so much anymore, at least in respect to bacon.

As for the curing salt itself, there exists the option to include a small amount of “pink salt” (otherwise known as Prague powder or Insta-Cure) within the dry rub. Pink salt is one part sodium nitrite and 15 parts table salt, and the sodium nitrite preserves the bright reddish color of raw bacon by preventing oxidation of the meat (the nitrite breaks down to nitric oxide, which binds with the myoglobin in the muscle tissue). The addition of pink salt also gives the bacon a slightly different flavor and additional longevity. Most importantly, it helps prevent Botulism in smoked meats. However, given the method I’m using to smoke the pork belly, Botulism won’t present an issue, and so I’ve eliminated the pink salt from the dry cure (you’ll notice that the cooked bacon in my very first photo does not feature the same reddish hue of industrially-produced bacon).

• • •

Curing Belly

Sugar, spice, and everything nice.

The photo above features the pork belly with its first dry cure applied. The salt rub has been pressed firmly and thoroughly into both sides. You might notice that I’ve placed the pork belly on a wire rack to allow for drainage. The belly will leech out a couple ounces of liquid during the first 24 hours, and much less liquid over the following two days. I’ve refrigerated the pork belly during the dry curing process, and the glass baking dish helps to keep things tidy during the process.

• • •

Salted Belly after 24 Hours

After the first 24 hours.

Although it’s a bit difficult to see, you’ll notice in the photo above that a couple ounces of liquid have collected overnight. Along the same line, the dry cure has now assumed the texture of wet sand, since some of the same liquid has leeched into the salt rub. Shortly after this photo was taken, I scraped the salt cure from the belly, and I briefly rinsed the pork under cold water, patting it dry with paper towels afterward. The result is pictured below. Over the next two days, I repeated the curing process, using a 1/2 cup of curing salt on each side of the belly, and rinsing and drying the belly between cures.

One Day Down, Two To Go

Underneath the rub.

• • •

Green bacon.

After the three-day dry cure is complete, the next step is to prepare the bacon for smoking. The key to achieving the best results is to first create a pellicle on the exterior of the pork belly, which requires another 24 hours in the refrigerator. During this time, I kept the rinsed and dried belly on a wire rack, placed in front of a small fan this time, which helped to facilitate further drying. A proper pellicle will leave the exterior of the pork belly quite dessicated, which inhibits the presence of spoilage bacteria. Furthermore, without a proper pellicle, the pork belly will get sooty during smoking. Once a decent pellicle has formed, the pork belly is thus considered “green” (unsmoked) bacon, and it can be sliced and cooked as desired. However, without some smoke in the flavor profile, it’s simply not the same.

• • •

Pork belly on one side, coals on the other side.

The smoking process requires a little finesse, but it’s mostly an exercise in patience. For this eight-hour process, I use a standard Weber kettle, with the charcoal gathered on one side, and the pork belly placed on the opposite side. I begin with a couple handfuls of charcoal, which I contain in a chimney starter until they’ve ashed over (usually 10-15 minutes). Once the charcoal is in place, I keep the grill covered, feeding an occasional handful of charcoal to the fire as needed. The key is to maintain an ambient temperature between 180ºF and 230ºF, which will keep the pork belly at 150ºF during the smoking process (thus ensuring proper food safety). I recommend using a thermometer during smoking, at least every once in a while, just to ensure that the belly itself is not spending any extended time between 40ºF and 140ºF, which is the danger zone for food-borne bacteria.

No thermometer on your grill? No problem. This after-market approach will work just fine (I drilled out the cork before pushing the probe through, much easier).

• • •

Cured, smoked, chilled, and sliced.

After an eight-hour smoke session, I wrapped the belly and refrigerated it overnight. With five days in the making, the bacon is now ready to slice and fry at a moment’s notice. Enjoy. I certainly do.

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