Savory Bacon

If you like bacon you really must try making your own. Homemade bacon puts supermarket bacon to shame and you know what is, and is not, in it. The simplest cure is nothing but salt, sugar, and sodium nitrite. The last comes in the form of pink curing salt #1, sometimes called Prague salt, available online from sausage making suppliers. Do not use curing salt #2 which also contains sodium nitrate and is used for dry-cured sausages like salami. And note that it is not the same thing as Himalayan pink salt which is ordinary salt with some trace minerals. This recipe,one by chef, author, and charcuterie expert Michael Ruhlman, adds spices making for a really tasty product similar to pancetta. In fact, you can turn it into pancetta by drying instead of smoking it. If your supermarket does not carry pork belly or side ask the butcher if it can be special ordered, or try an Asian grocery.

A note about sodium nitrite: Back in the 1970s studies showed that at very high temperatures some sodium nitrite could be converted into potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines leading to wide-spread panic about the safety of the centuries-old preservative. And in any event the danger from nitrosamines is far less than that of the botulism. As it happens, you would have to char the bacon to a black cinder for this to occur. For a more complete discussion read this article by Ruhlman.

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds pork belly or side
  • 2 ounces, about ¼ cup, kosher salt (do not use iodized salt)
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pink curing salt #1
  • 4 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons juniper berries (optional)

Note: I grind the bay leaves and juniper berries in a coffee grinder reserved for spices

Method

Using a large, sharp knife remove the rind, or have your butcher do it for you. (Don’t throw the skin away; set it aside for making pork rinds.) Rinse and dry the meat. Cut it crosswise into manageable slabs. Square up the slabs as best you can.

Mix together the cure ingredients and rub generously on all sides. Wrap each slab of the meat tightly in plastic wrap or place in a large freezer bag. Refrigerate for seven days, turning each day. Liquid will accumulate; do not remove it.

At the end of the curing period, remove the bacon from its wrapping and rinse well. Pat dry and let stand to come to room temperature. At this point you can choose to dry the meat into pancetta, bake it, or smoke it. I much prefer to smoke it. See Ruhlman’s recipefor the other techniques.

Most commercially made bacon is smoked over hickory but you can use any of a variety of other woods, especially mesquite or fruit woods. In some parts of the U.S. bacon was traditionally smoked over dried corncobs. My personal favorite is apple wood. Whatever wood you use, soak it well before use. Traditionally bacon is cold smoked at a temperature under 100°. Since I do not have a cold smoker I use my electric smoker but leave the lid ajar to keep the temperature as low as possible and pull the bacon when it reaches 150°.

Store the finished bacon, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to a week or freeze for later use.

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