Smokey, chewy, crispy; nothing beats homemade bacon.
Bacon is just one of those things. Salty, meaty, fatty deliciousness that everybody, except your cardiologist, loves. Such a loved product that it has a devoted following, to many of whom, Bacon is a bit like crack. After you’ve had it once, it’s something craved and something you find increasingly difficult to give up.
Thankfully, unlike crack, Bacon is legal and easy to come by. However, good bacon is hard to find. Most of the bacon out there is pumped with brine, is pale and generally pretty flavourless; the kind of cheap bacon that oozes that weird white liquid while cooking. Gross.
Real bacon is something completely different. Dry-cured bacon is superior to pretty much everything you could ever buy. Smoked or unsmoked, good bacon should be dense, meaty, chewy and have a good amount of flavourful fat too. It should be salty and taste deliciously porky.
When people hear that you can make it yourself at home, most people recoil in fear. “What about food poisoning?!”, they cry. While it is indeed a risk, with the right methods and attention a similar attention to cleanliness that we use while brewing, curing meat at home is quite safe.
Today’s recipe is for delicious dry-cured bacon. There are numerous cuts of pork that make great bacon, but two of the best are pork belly and skin-on pork loin. My favourite is the pork belly; delicious layers of fat and meat make for succulent and really flavourful bacon. Pork loin, with a large portion of meat and smaller single layer of fat make it the healthier option. When sourcing your pork try to get free-range pork. The colour, flavour and texture will be better, it will likely have a better layer of delicious creamy fat and it comes with the knowledge that the animal it came from lived as pigs should.
The main ingredients in our cure are salt, sugar and spices. There are so many different flavour combinations you can go for, adding whatever herbs and spices you want. Fennel seeds, freshly black ground pepper and bay leaves all work really well. But you can add pretty much anything. You can even sub out the sugar for maple syrup or honey.
The most important ingredient in the cure is the salt. This will help to draw out moisture from the pork and draw the salt into the pork. The effect of this is two fold. The absence of moisture and presence of salt make it difficult for bacteria to live. This makes the bacon safe to eat and store.
There is one more ingredient that can be used. Sodium nitrite. It is used to add further protection to the meat as well as to keep the meat nice and pink, even after cooking. This chemical helps to prevent deadly bacteria such as clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism and is once of the more lethal substances on the planet. Sodium nitrite and its cousin sodium nitrate are often maligned for being carcinogenic. While the jury is still out, the amount used is actually quite low and you’d have to consume a LOT of bacon (even more than you could gorge yourself with). In fact, these chemicals occur naturally in vegetables such as tomatoes. I suggest you use it, but in the end it is optional. If you do choose to add it, it will come as a cure, usually called Instacure #1 or Prague Powder #1. Add it as per the packet instructions.
Smoking is another option you can choose to use or not use. You have two options here: hot smoking and cold smoking. Unless you know what you’re doing, I would go with hot smoking your bacon. This cooks the bacon as well as smokes it, making it safe. Cold smoking doesn’t necessarily mean the bacon will be unsafe to eat, but there is more involved in keeping it the correct temperature during the process. I hot smoke using my old kettle barbecue a few coals and woodchips. You’ll want the temperature inside the barbecue between 80°C and 180°C. Use whichever wood chips you want, fruit woods like apple and cherry are great, as are hickory. Avoid resinous woods such as pine.
|4 kg||Whole pork belly, free-range|
|75 g||Cooking or Kosher Salt|
|75 g||Brown sugar, honey or maple syrup|
|See packet||Pink curing salt #1|
|4 tbsp||Black pepper, coarsely ground|
|2 tbsp||Fennel seeds, coarsely ground|
|6||Garlic cloves, fresh, finely minced|
|5||Sprigs fresh thyme|
|2||Bay leaves, crumbled|
Combine the ingredients in a small bowl. Carefully measure the necessary amount of cure. this will usually be as a certain amount per kilo of meat.
Clean up the pork belly, ensuring that either end has been squared off and trim any excess fat.
Generously rub the curing mix into all exposed surfaces of the pork belly. Place pork belly into a snap-lock or vacuum-sealed bag, with any additional cure, and remove as much air as possible. Place the bag into the fridge.
Cure the belly for 5 – 7 days, flipping the bag once a day to ensure even curing. The curing process will draw moisture out of the belly, which you’ll see as a brine in the bag. This is fine. Over the course of a few days, you will feel the belly becoming firmer. It will be ready after about 5 days. If you are unsure whether the bacon has cured properly, then slice some off, wash it well under cold water and fry it. It should stay pink after cooking and taste slightly sweet and salty. If it goes grey, it requires further curing.
After the curing process has finished, remove the pork belly from the bag and thoroughly wash off the curing mix. Allow to dry and, if smoking, leave exposed in the fridge for the surface to become slightly tacky.
If you decide not to cure your bacon, you can proceed to Step 7. If you want to smoke your bacon, hot smoke it in a barbecue or hot smoker for an hour or two or until it reaches the desired level of smokiness.
Whatever you choose to go with, you will be cooking the bacon. The oven or smoker should be around 150°C, to ensure the bacon is being cooked. Your bacon will be ready when the internal temperature reaches around 76°C.
Once you hit the correct temperature, remove the bacon. Allow to cool slightly before dividing into manageable un-sliced portions and vacuum-packing and chilling. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, you can put the portions into a zip-lock bag and press as much air as possible out by hand.
When cold, the bacon be sliced by hand or electric slicer. If you wish, you can also chose to remove the rind; this is easiest when the bacon is cold. Portions or sliced bacon can be frozen and taken out as needed. Be aware, than because of the sure, the bacon may burn a little bit quicker than the crappy, supermarket stuff. I really like using the bacon in home-made stews and pastas and it adds a great smokey dimension to dishes.