Friday, August 15, 2008

Makin' Bacon

Way back in May I mentioned on this blog that I was noodling over the idea of making my own bacon. The idea never really went away, and as soon as I secured the meat (hard to find!) and help from my brother-in-law to smoke it (easy once I said 'Bacon'), things got underway. 
This is a slab of raw, uncured pork belly, about 6 lbs. I used two.

After trimming the slabs to square off the edges, and cutting them in half so they would eventually fit into gallon-size bags, and later, the smoker, I turned my attention to the cure. The cure is what makes bacon bacon, and not pork belly. It is a combination of salt and sugar, along with a little sodium nitrite to preserve the pink color and ward off any nasty microbes. I decided to try various flavors among my 4 hunks of pork. Two had a mix of brown sugar and cracked black peppercorns added to their cure. The third had 1/2 cup of pure maple syrup added, and the fourth is becoming pancetta. (Pancetta is an Italian form of bacon. Unsmoked, with a very aromatic cure, it adds amazing flavor to whatever you put it in.)
Here are the mini-slabs after being rubbed with cure:

On the left is a brown sugar-black pepper slab, in the middle is the maple syrup slab, and on the right is the pancetta. You can see how much seasoning is on the pancetta: thyme, garlic, peppercorns, juniper berries, ground nutmeg...I can't wait to try it! After sitting in the cure, flipping the bags every other day and checking for firmness, rinsing, drying, and letting them sit to form a smoke-absorbing pellicle, I packed them up and went over to my sister and brother-in-law's house to smoke them. We used applewood chips in a propane-fired smoker, and cooked at 200 degrees until the bacon reached 150 degrees internally. The pancetta, as mentioned earlier, didn't get smoked. It got rinsed, dried, sprinkled with a little more pepper, rolled, tied, and is currently hanging in an old beverage fridge in my laundry room. The fridge tends to stay at 58 degrees no matter how hard it works, which just happens to be in the perfect temperature range for curing meats. It will hang there for about two weeks to firm up a little, and then will be sliced into portions and saved. After a little taste test with brother-in-law, I sliced them off a big hunk of brown sugar-black pepper bacon, and brought the rest home to portion out. 

Didn't the smoke make it pretty? 

All in all, I'd say it was a very successful first attempt. The salt level was good, the smoke was detectable and tasty, and the thick slices (after cooking) were crisp on the outside, and chewy on the inside. Very satisfying. I do want to do a little more work on the flavoring side, to make it more intense. I'm pretty proud of the finished product though, and I will absolutely be making it again. 

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