Why make something you can just buy in the store? That’s what a friend asked me when I told him what I was doing (no more bacon samples for you, Scott Ferguson). Well, the answer is not that it’s cheaper. The raw ingredients may save a little money, but that’s balanced by the time it takes. It’s an easy process, but it does take about eight days. Let’s be honest–It’s not likely any healthier to make your own, either. There’s still a lot of salt and fat in it. It does taste better, IMHO, and homemade bacon can be tailored with your own mix of spices. But the real reason to make your own is the simplest: It’s fun.
I’ve posted some pics of the meat at various points in the curing process.
Two ingredients may send you on a bit of a hunt. Pork belly is not available in every grocery store, but you can always special order it from any butcher. I buy mine at T&T Supermarkets, where it’s often on sale. Curing salt is hard to find. I bought a few bags at Bass Pro Shops when I made corned beef. You can also order it online at Stuffers.com and, I’m told, get it at Longo’s and HIghland Farms.
by Martin Zibauer
The nuts and bolts of this recipe are adapted from Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. It’s a classic; if you’re interested in cured meat, pick up a copy.
5 lbs pork belly (2.3 kg)
2 tsp curing salt (see Tips, below) (12 g)
1/4 cup coarse salt (50 g)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar (50 g)
4 fresh bay leaves, slivered
2 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary (30 ml)
2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme (30 ml)
1/2 tbsp cracked peppercorns (7 ml)
2-3 cups smoking chips (hickory, maple, or cherry or another fruitwood) (500-750 ml)
1. Trim any odd hanging bits from the pork belly, but leave skin on. Combine curing and coarse salt, sugar, and herbs (see Tips, below). Over a casserole dish or cookie sheet, rub salt mixture into all surfaces of pork belly. Place belly in large heavy-duty, resealable freezer bags along with any salt mixture that didn’t stick. Seal bag, squeezing out excess air, and place in refrigerator to cure for seven days. (To ensure an even cure, flip bag every second day and massage brine into meat.)
2. After seven days, meat should feel firmer—if not, let it cure for an extra day, but no more. Rinse off brine and spices.
3. Place belly on a wire rack and refrigerate, uncovered, for a day. Surface of belly should be dry, but slightly tacky.
4. Soak chips in water for about 30 minutes.
5. Set up barbecue for hot smoking: With a gas grill, follow the owner’s manual, or fill a smoker box with soaked chips, preheat one side of grill to medium, and place the box on the flame. (You can also wrap soaked chips in heavy-duty foil and poke holes in the packet.) When smoke begins to billow out, reduce heat and place belly, skin-side down, on the cool side of the barbecue. Close lid.
6. Adjust heat to maintain the temperature inside the barbecue around 200°F (95°C). Rotate the belly from time to time to ensure even heating and smoking. Remove the belly when its internal temperature reaches 150°F (65°F)—start testing after about 1 1/2 hours, although it can take up to 3 hours or so, especially if the weather is cold. Slice off the skin while belly is still hot (see Tips, below). Bacon keeps in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks, and it freezes well.
Tips: For predictable results, it’s important to get the ratio of salts and sugar to meat correct, and to measure the salts accurately. For those reasons, I like to use a digital scale and the metric measurements. First I weigh the pork bellies; if they are significantly over or under 2.3 kg, I calculate how far off they are, as a percentage (actual weight in kg divided by 2.3 kg times 100%), then multiply that by the grams for curing salt, coarse salt, and sugar. So if I had 1.75 kg of belly, the calculation would be:
1.75 ÷ 2.3 x 100% = 76%
76% of 12 g is just over 9 g, so that’s the amount of curing salt I would weigh out.
- Amounts of herbs and spices aren’t crucial, so if quantity adjustments are needed, you can just eyeball those.
- Don’t adjust the amount of wood chips, though, regardless of how many bellies you’re smoking.
- Before putting the salted belly in the resealable bag, fold the edges over twice. This helps keep salt or sugar crystals out of the seal, where they’ll prevent a good seal. And a bad seal means brine will leak all over the fridge (voice of experience here), so place the bag in a casserole dish, just in case.
- Drying the cured belly is important; smoke flavour doesn’t really stick to wet meat.
- It’s easier to maintain the correct temperature on a gas grill but, if you’re diligent, you can smoke bacon on a charcoal grill too. Bank the coals to one side and throw about a cup of soaked smoking chips directly on the coals.
- You can also roast the belly in a 200°F (95°C) oven, though you won’t get smoked flavour; remove when the meat’s internal temperature is 150°F (65°C).
- Don’t waste that smoked skin! I cut into smaller pieces, freeze it, and use it to flavour pea soup. Or, I render out the fat (an hour or so in a saucepan over very low heat), then cook canned black or red kidney beans in it with onions and cumin for amazing refried beans.