I love bacon.
Most people love bacon. The smell of bacon, and the sound of it sizzling in the pan, has done more to stem the twin scourges of vegetarianism and veganism than anything else. It is just so hard to resist. Bacon is why I could never be a devout Muslim or an Orthodox Jew. I could probably eschew the other parts of the pig (not happily, mind you, but I think I could do it) but God/Yahweh/Allah Damn It! I am not giving up bacon!
Think about it: If someone says “I don’t like bacon” do you trust that person? Or do you make sure to count the silverware after they leave? I would never date a woman who refused to eat bacon, and although marriage and I do not mix well, if I ever do marry again, it will be to a woman who loves bacon. A guy has to have standards.
Yeah, I know it is not the healthiest food (although it appears bacon’s health risks have been overstated), but it is so delicious, and adds so much flavor, that any risks are far outweighed by the benefits.
Mister JK, noted friend of Tilting Suds, is a big fan of Benton’s Hickory Smoked Bacon. It is damn fine stuff. The fat that renders off it is liquid gold, smoky and sweet, and surprisingly light and subtle. I have a mason jar of Benton’s bacon fat hidden away in a pantry, and I break it out for special occasions. It is my secret ingredient in many dishes.
I have such a love affair with bacon, that I (along with my brother-in-law, Jeff, who no matter how outlandish my food ideas are, always says “sounds good, let’s do it”) have started curing and smoking our own bacon. It is surprisingly easy to do. All you need is a pork belly, a few other easily obtained ingredients, time, and a smoker. Here, in consecutively numbered steps, is how to make bacon:
STEP ONE: STEAL A PIG – OK, you don’t have to actually steal a pig. I have never stolen a pig, but do you realize how awesome bacon made from a pilfered pig would be? Pretty friggin’ awesome, I’d say! You could tell people that “this bacon is homemade” and when they ask “where did you get the pork belly from?” you come back with “Stole it. Old Man Johnson’s Farm. Raided the place one moonless night. Made off with a pig, a chicken, two ducks, and some weird piece of farm machinery that I don’t know how to use.” Pretty sweet, right?
STEP TWO: OBTAIN PORK BELLY – Bacon is made from pork belly, which has that perfect combination of tender meat and delicious fat that we have all come to know and love. You want to find pork belly that has some thick bands of fat running through it as there is no point in making lean bacon. If you have sunk that low, you might as well go with turkey bacon, or that shit made from soy. If you are not going to be super awesome and totally cool and steal a pig as suggested in Step One, you can usually find pork belly in Asian markets and Hispanic markets. If there are no such ethnic markets nearby, the butcher at your local supermarket can probably get it for you, but you may need to order ahead. This should be obvious, but the quality of your bacon is directly related to the quality of the meat you start out with, so get the best meat you can find.
STEP THREE: MAKING THE CURE – I follow the basic recipe from the Charcuterie Cookbook by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn, although I have tweaked it from time to time. It is simple: kosher salt, brown sugar, maple syrup and pink salt. The pink salt (also known as curing salt) is essential to the curing process. It is salt with nitrite added to it, and it is usually dyed pink (hence the name) to avoid any confusion with regular salt. The nitrite does a few things: it improves the flavor of the meat, it preserves the color of cured meat, and it prevents nasty bacteria from growing, in particular the bacteria responsible for botulism. Pink Salt can be hard to find. Some specialty shops carry it, and you can find it online, but do not leave it out of the cure. In addition to those main ingredients, you can add an almost infinite variety of flavoring agents: Black pepper, chipotle or ancho or habanero chili powder, garlic, fresh or dried herbs, anise, juniper berries, etc.
STEP FOUR: CLAQUEMENT DU TRAITEMENT SUR LA VIANDE– In classic French cooking, claquement du traitement sur la viande* is a term you see quite often, but don’t let the fancy French words scare you off. The concept is simple. Just spread the cure all over the surface of the pork belly. Massage the cure on to the meat so that it adheres to the pork belly. Your hands will get messy, but that is part of the fun of cooking.
STEP FIVE: TIME – Once you have done the claquement du traitement sur la viande with the cure and the pork belly, pack everything into ziploc bags. The cure will cause water to be released from the meat, forming a brine, and it is vital that the meat soak in this brine for the curing process to take place. Put everything in the fridge for about a week, turning the ziploc packages every other day or so to make sure that all parts of the meat have contact with the brine.
STEP SIX: FORM THE PELLICLE – After a week, the pork belly will be firm to the touch. Take it out of the ziploc bags, rinse the cure off, and blot it dry. Place the meat on wire racks and put everything back in the fridge to dry overnight. This causes the surface of the meat to form what is called the pellicle, which is a tacky surface for the smoke flavor to adhere to. This step is important. I have forgotten to do it on occasion, and just tossed everything on the smoker after rinsing the cure off, and there is a clear difference in flavor. Go ahead and let the pellicle form. It makes for better bacon.
STEP SEVEN: SMOKE – Hot smoke the bacon to an internal temperature of 150 degrees. This should take no more than three hours, depending on the thickness of the meat. I use hickory, oak, and/or pecan wood, as that is what is readily available, but if I could get my hands on some maple I’d like to give that a try to see if it accentuates the flavors from the maple syrup.
STEP EIGHT: COOL AND REMOVE THE SKIN – The skin is too tough to eat, but save it and use it as a flavoring agent in soups, stews, beans, etc. It imparts a wonderful smoky sweet flavor, and the fat that melts from the skin adds another level of flavor as well, because, duh, it is pork fat.
STEP NINE: SLICE, COOK, AND EAT – I weep for those of you who have not had my bacon. I have seduced women just by describing the aroma. Dogs sit with rapt attention while it cooks, hoping for a slice of it. The world slows down as it sizzles gently in my cast iron skillet. It is divine.
* Claquement Du Traitement Sur La Viande is not an actual cooking term. I just made it up. I plugged “Slapping the Cure on the Meat” into google translator, because “Slapping the Cure on the Meat” sounded so gauche, and this blog is fucking classy.