It happened sort of by accident and it started with a vegetable garden. When we moved into our house three years ago Erik, who had gardening experience, suggested we try it. At that point I had only watched my dad grow cilantro and jalapenos a couple of times and my only personal experience with growing things started and ended with sprouting a bean in a milk carton full of dirt in the first grade. (I’m a city girl born and raised though now you might not be able to so easily read that in me). The first time I snipped my own herbs to cook with, pulled potatoes and peas out of the ground for dinner, I was instantly hooked on this whole “I don’t have to get every single thing I use in my daily household life from the store” thing. Growing my own food led pretty quickly to dissatisfaction with grocery store fruits and vegetables. I started paying close attention to where foods I bought came from and I didn’t like that they’d often been shipped from India, China, etc. While I don’t expect every single item I own to come from the US, for foodstuffs, it’s a lot better for me if they do. That led to jam making (I’m now an expert, and yes that is a mighty big brag), becoming more proficient in yeast baking (I make our bread a lot of the time, our hamburger/hot dog buns, rolls, baguettes and so on), preserving fruit and making pickles. We compost voraciously and every year the veggie garden gets bigger and bigger. I make our salad dressings, I’ve made our butter, I even make some of our cleaning supplies. It can be a time consuming venture, sure, but it has saved me a ton of money and gives me an “I’m so super cool and self sufficient” feeling that I don’t get anywhere else. I don’t do it as a form of nostalgia, my family did not do these things while I was growing up, but I enjoy doing it. It gives me a sense of purpose and it makes me feel less reliant on anything other than myself to provide foodstuffs for our enjoyment.
So with all that in mind, we started smoking meats with some frequency this year and got it into our heads that we needed to forgo the grocery store bacon – that limp, pumped with saline solutions and preservatives, shrink to 3/4s of its size when cooked bacon. It took us about a month to track down a source for pork belly, living out in the middle of nowhere as we do, but it only took about a week to actually get fresh, homemade bacon into our bellies. And it is truly amazing stuff. We fried a few pieces up after it had been cooled and sliced to test it and since then I’ve been walking around mumbling “need more bacon, need more bacon.” It’s that good. And honestly it’s just that easy, too. If you’ve got time, a smoker (even that’s not a strict requirement to be honest), some pink salt, and an insatiable taste for bacon, you can have this in your fridge too. Only thing is now, as I watch Erik brine pork tenderloin for Canadian bacon and make plans on where to hang some prosciutto, I think I’ve created a charcuterie obsessed monster. But as long as I get this fabulous bacon in my life, I really don’t care.
recipe from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn
Basic Dry Cure:
1 lb. kosher salt
8 ounces sugar
2 ounces pink salt (we purchased our pink salt from Butcher and Packer’s website – it is very cheap and a little goes a long way)
Try to measure these items exactly with a kitchen scale or with a postal scale – that’s what we used. Mix the salt, sugar and pink salt together. Store in a plastic container with a lid. This will last you a good long time – we only used a little for the first batch of bacon and still have a container full.
5 lb pork belly (ours came skinless)
basic dry cure – enough for dredging both sides of the pork. Book says use 1/4 cup but we felt that was not enough. We used just a bit more than that. Not quite a full 1/2 cup but a little less.
for basic bacon, that’s all you need. Later you can experiment by adding maple syrup or dark brown sugar or smashed garlic cloves, crushed bay leaves and cracker peppercorns
Trim the belly if it’s not already a nice, uniform square shape. Spread your cure in a baking sheet and press all sides of the belly into the cure. Make sure give it a nice, even coating all over the pork. I used a Rubbermaid 1/2 gallon rectangular plastic container with a lid to store my cured pork. Make sure the pork is covered and put it in the fridge. Refrigerate for 7 days, flipping the belly part way through the curing time. After 7 days, check the belly to make sure it feels firm. If it still feels squishy, refrigerate up to two more days. Ours firmed up pretty quickly.
Remove the belly from the cure, rinse it well, and pat it dry. Discard the curing liquid left in the container. It can rest in the fridge up to three days, or you can smoke it. But I’ll let the smoking expert tell you about that process.
The bacon should now be hot smoked, we used a wood pellet smoker but the same results can be achieved with a gas or charcoal BBQ grill producing low heat, a smoker basket or roasting pan and some hardwood chips. Use hickory or fruit woods, such as cherry (what we used) or apple to smoke with. Alder, oak and mesquite produce too harsh a smoke for the bacon. The key in smoking the bacon is to avoid heat high enough to cook it before the hardwood smoke can penetrate, heat below 200 degrees is ideal. We kept our heat between 140-150 degrees, for five hours, periodically checking the internal temperature with a probe thermometer, the target internal temperature you want to achieve but not exceed is around 130 degrees. (The book suggests an internal temp of 150, but we felt the bacon was beginning to cook too much at 130 so we pulled it there). After several hours, the bellies will begin to glisten with a small amount of rendered fat, the exterior will become even more firm to the touch and near the end of the smoking process take on a nice deep amber hue, this means the smoke has done its work.
Alternatively, Ruhlman also states you can cook your belly in a 200 degree oven in a roasting pan (preferably on a rack), for about 2 hours until the internal temperature of the pork is about 150.
We let our bacon cool to room temp then wrapped it in foil and put it in the freezer until it firmed up a bit before we sliced it. You can slice it by hand with a sharp chef’s knife, but we got lucky that Erik’s parents have an electric meat slicer so we finished up our slicing on that. Fry it up crisp and eat it.
This should keep well in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks or frozen up to 3 months.