Making Bacon

Making Bacon

I love words. On any given occasion, I will fail to find the right ones, but for the most part I love them. My three favorite words? “Do It Yourself.”

Maybe it’s a guy thing, but there’s a reason Home Depot and LOWES are as popular as they are. There is a great sense of accomplishment that comes with the words “I did it myself.”

There are some things I’m not very DIY savvy with, however. Car repair is one. I’d love to be adept at working on my own car. But I found out early on in my life that I sucked at it so badly, there was no question that I was looking at a future of shelling out a lot of my hard earned cash to a mechanic for the rest of my life.

Here’s an example of one such lesson. When I was in college, I tried to save money by rebuilding the carburetor of a car I could hardly afford to put gas in. Carburetors – remember those? I discovered that a rebuild kit would cost me $120 less than a replacement. Fantastic. How hard can that be? It even came with instructions.

When I was done rebuilding that thing I had 12 parts left over, and my car idled at 1200 RPMs. That was the end of me working on my own cars forever – save for oil changes and spark plug replacements.

Play to your strengths.

When it comes to home repair, gardening, and cooking – I’m a DIY wunderkind. So when I recently found out that making your own bacon at home was not only possible, but relatively simple, I was all over it. That’s a custom-made DIY situation.

I’d just purchased Michael Ruhlman’s book “Charcuterie” before we left for our vacation to Sonoma, where (as I discussed in Episode 45 of my podcast) I discovered Black Pig Meat Company and the secret to really good bacon – pork belly from free-range, humanely raised pigs, some simple curing salts, brown sugar, smoke, and patience.

Reading Ruhlman’s instructions on making bacon made the whole process seem simple. The hardest part would be waiting for the curing process to finish. The idea of 7-10 days in the cure before I could actually smoke the finished belly seemed harder than the first time I brewed beer. But when I thought about it, that took 4-6 weeks. This would be a walk in the Pork Park.

There were two things I had to do first: find a source for the best possible pork belly, and order the necessary curing salts. Ruhlman recommended a few places, one of which was I ordered the pink salt (absolutely necessary for bacon), a few other items for future sausage making projects, and gave myself the week it would take for the curing salts to arrive to find a source for good pork belly.

The search did not take long.

Only a handful of days later, a visit to my local Asian market ended up golden. I mean, I hit pay dirt. There in the meat counter lay slabs of pork belly – and not just pork belly, but Black Pork Belly. I was happy just to find whole uncut belly, but this slab was thick, meaty, and had a nice big layer of fat on the outside of it.

It looked like this:

Black Pork Belly

When the salts arrived, I followed the instructions in Ruhlman’s book and made a large batch of basic dry cure. Since I only needed about 1/4 cup to rub all over this belly, I saved the rest for future bacon making.

Basic Dry Cure

I’m not giving any recipes here. That’s taking money out of Ruhlman’s pocket, and I’m not about to do that. I highly suggest purchasing his book. It’s a wealth of information, and if you really want to do this right, his book is the bible. I’m taking a page out of Ryan’s blog “Head To Tail at Home” where he fails to share Fergus Henderson’s recipes, because he doesn’t feel it’s the right thing to do. I agree with Ryan. Buy the book. It’s not that expensive.

So, according to Ruhlman’s directions, I rubbed the cure all over the belly, then rubbed an additional 1/4 cup of brown sugar over it too (because I wanted my bacon to taste kind of sweet, like me) and placed it in a ZipLoc bag.

Curing Belly

This might look a little low-tech, but Ruhlman says a ZipLoc bag is perfect because it allows you to keep the cure on the meat at all times during the curing process. As the meat cures, it exudes all of its moisture. This mixes with the cure and becomes a curing solution. Once I placed it in the refrigerator, I would visit the belly every morning before work, and turn the bag over, so the cure was being evenly distributed constantly. This is called “overhauling.” That’s shop-talk for us bacon making pros.

While we’re on the subject, last week I overhauled several bottles of Belgian beer, but that’s a whole other Oprah.

How do you know when the belly’s done? Seven days after entering the cure, you press your finger into the thickest part of the belly. If it’s hard, it’s done. If it feels like the center of John Daly’s belly, give it another day or two. I waited a full 10 days, because Ruhlman said no more than 9 and I’m a rebel like that.

Once removed from the brine, you completely rinse the belly, dry it completely, and get it ready for smoking.

Pre-smoked belly

I wedged it right in the center of a smoking rack I use for chickens and other feathered animals lucky enough to meet my smoker. I didn’t want grill marks on it, and I don’t have a smoker that allows me to hang things in it. One day, but not on this day.

Apple WoodRuhlman wrote that you can put the belly in the oven if you don’t have a smoker. But if you do have a smoker, apple wood is the best choice for bacon. I love the flavor apple wood gives light meats like pork, so I bought an entire bag of chunks. I needed a low and slow heat, because I didn’t want it to cook too quickly, so I used a low heat source and kept a steady stream of apple wood burning. If you’re using an oven, you can get away with a higher heat source, but when you’re smoking, you want the process to take longer, so you don’t over cook the outside of the belly. For this reason, I keep the heat very low through the entire process.

You need to heat the belly to an internal temperature of 150 degrees. I knew it was getting close when it started to bronze like this:

Smoked Belly

Eventually, my instant read thermometer hit the sweet spot.

150 degrees - money shot

I took it off the smoker, allowed it to cool, and dropped it into another ZipLoc bag and let it cool over night before slicing. Man, the makers of ZipLoc make a killing on me. I use them for everything.

The next day when I took the smoked belly out to slice it, it felt dense and smelled fantastic. It was a big, smoked chunk of porky love.

Pre-sliced bacon

You know, I have great knives. I spend good money on knives, and even have a few great knives that have been given to me. I keep them very sharp and always protected. But even the sharpest knife the in the world could not make this job easy. It was a little tough slicing this belly into actual bacon slices, but it was definitely worth it.

sliced bacon

I’d like to think a meat slicer was in my future, but I’m running out of counter space in my kitchen as it is. Better just keep those knives sharp.

The moment of truth was upon me, so I fried up a slice of my very first home-cured bacon.

Cooking bacon

To say it was delicious would be doing it an injustice. Again, sometimes I fail to find the right words to use. Let’s say it was astounding. It had just the right amount of smoke, not too much. It certainly didn’t taste overbearingly smoky like the liquid smoke-injected slabs you find in the grocery store. The brine was perfect too. It wasn’t dominated by sodium in any way, but you can certainly taste it. It was perfect. It tasted like a perfect piece of bacon.

And it was, because I did it myself. Does it hold a candle to Black Pig Meat Company’s bacon? I don’t think so, but it’s a pretty damned good replication of what good bacon is supposed to taste like.

Next? More bacon, of course. Then, I’ll venture into the world of dry cured salumi. I’ll try Salami, Pepperoni, and Spanish Chorizo.

You want to do this too, don’t you? Here are some resources:

“Charcuterie” by Michael Ruhlman
Sausage Maker
Nose To Tail At Home, Ryan’s awesome blog