In common with just about every carnivorous (or omnivorous) human I really like bacon. With Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie and this post from PauperedChef.com to guide me I decided to try and cure my own.
The first step in making bacon at home is probably the most challenging. Major grocery stores, it seems, carry a dozen permutations (different brands, reduced salt, apple wood smoked, maple flavoured, thick cut) of factory-processed bacon but I have never come across a big piece of fresh, un-smoked pork belly in their refrigerated cases or at their meat counter. I know that European Meats in Kensington Market and T & T supermarkets across the GTA stock them but none of these options were convenient. Surprisingly, the No Frills at Yonge and Steeles carries pork bellies (along with other pig parts like snouts, kidneys, and tongues) in their butcher case.
The three chunks of pork that I procured totaled about 2100 grams (almost five pounds) and came to about eleven dollars. I practiced my knife skills by removing the small rib bones that were still attached to two of the pieces. These trimmings (which made for an excellent, though greasy, lunch once grilled) reduced the potential bacon weight by 300 grams to 1800 grams or almost four pounds. Still not too shabby for eleven bucks when Loblaws wants at least four for a pound of name brand bacon.
The basic cure from Charcuterie for this amount of pork is 50 grams of a mixture of two parts salt to one part sugar (by weight). Some recipes including one from Paul Bertolli’s excellent Cooking by Hand call for a long list of other spices but the first time I test a technique I prefer to make the simplest version. This inclination was supported by the advice given by the guys on PauperedChef.com in their post about making bacon at home. Bacon made with a battery of spices probably tastes great but for those of us who have never tasted homemade bacon the amazing differences are easier to detect with just a very basic cure.
The recipe calls for a small dose of sodium nitrate (update: that should be sodium nitrite) or curing salt which is confusingly known as “pink salt”. This chemical keeps botulism from developing in the meat and keeps bacon (as well as other cured meats like ham and corned beef) pink as it cooks. American regulators require that it be coloured pink because unlike sodium chloride (regular salt) relatively low doses (about 30 grams) can be fatal to humans. It is carried in very few places and pharmacists or butchers may not know what you mean if you ask for pink salt in Canada because it only has to be coloured pink in the States. Here is a chowhound thread that gives advice for ordering the stuff online–this option takes time for shipping and is pretty expensive unless you’re making upwards of forty pounds of bacon–or for substituting the more widely available (from Rexall pharmacists) potassium nitrate. The bottom line is that if you aren’t attached to the standard pink bacon colour and are willing to treat the finished product more like fresh pork (by eating or freezing it within a few days of the curing process finishing) you can omit the pink salt.
Just like the cure the process here is dead simple. Once the chunks of belly have been rubbed with the sugar and salt mixture they go into resealable plastic bags (or other non-reactive containers) and then into the fridge for seven days. Every twelve hours or so I flipped them over and massaged them through the bags to make sure that the cure has a chance to act evenly on all of the meat.
I knew that some of the homemade bacon was going to stand in for guanciale (Italian cured pig jowls which are even more difficult to find than bellies) in a pasta carbonara so I added a couple roughly smashed garlic cloves and a few barely cracked peppercorns to the Ziploc bag containing one of the pieces of belly. The other two hunks were destined to land on a breakfast plate so I added a very small amount (about 1 teaspoon) of maple syrup to this bag.
During the whole process I couldn’t help notice a subtle and intoxicating scent even from the raw, uncured bellies. I know that most store-bought bacon is smoked (or more likely has liquid smoke product injected into it) so that is where frying bacon get its familliar smell. This was different. Much fresher and more like the raw, clean essence of pork. Either way it made me very hungry and caused me to wonder how butchers resist the temptation to lick their fingers. I guess the threat of food poisoning and complaining customers probably has a lot to do with it.
Once the cured bellies have been in the fridge for seven days they’re ready to eat. Before slicing the skin should be removed and they should go into the freezer for twenty or thirty minutes to firm up. If, like me, you don’t belong to that blessed club of home cooks who own their own meat slicer this is definitely the time to use the sharpest knife in your repertoire. Also, divide the length of the belly in half so that the slices fit more easily into a pan and make the slices extra thick to showcase the meatier texture that this bacon offers.
My friend who has been known to eat Matzoh BLTs for Passover commented that the bacon was “well done” and liked the garlic- and pepper-infused version in the pasta even more. The extra bacon went into the freezer but I doubt it will last for long and this experiment will definitely have to be repeated in the near future.