The pig is an amazing animal. From one part we get the lean loin yielding pork chops and tenderloin; from another we get the succulent pork shoulder. Then there is the belly, which gives us the most marvelous gift of all: bacon. Bacon is an amazing, mysterious ingredient for most folks. People love it, but not many know how it’s made or how to fully utilize its potential. With just a few of ingredients, however, you can create the bacon of your dreams.
Pork belly is not something that you can purchase at a grocery store in its original form (most stores have tons of pork belly in stock, but it has already been cured into bacon). Instead, talk to farmers who sell pork at the farmers market — find out when they will next process hogs, and ask if they will hold back some uncured belly for you. Check with Asian grocery stores, too; many have uncured belly in the freezer, some from local farmers.
Make a basic cure using three ingredients: salt, sugar and tinted cure mix (TCM). This mixture will keep in a sealed container for years.
Salt draws out moisture, seasons and changes the protein structure to give meat a cured texture. You can replace some or all of your salt with other high-sodium items in your pantry. Sea salt, soy sauce, fish sauce or Worcestershire sauce, for example, will change the flavor profile.
Sugar balances the dominant salt taste. Granulated sugar works well, but feel free to try brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, cane syrup or any other sweet ingredient that might complement the bacon flavor.
TCM (also known as pink salt, curing salt No. 1 or Prague powder No.1) is tinted to distinguish it from table salt. TCM helps meat retain its myoglobin; this is why bacon is a deep pink color and why corned beef stays bright red, even after being cooked. TCM also prevents bacterial growth, rancidity and botulism, and gives the meat the desired cured taste. TCM is available at Bass Pro ($3 for 4 ounces) and online from butcher supply companies.
You don’t have to stop with the three basic ingredients. Add aromatics such as garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, star anise or herbs. Aromatics have little effect when added at the last minute; the longer they sit in the cure, the more the cure takes on their flavors.
After The Cure
Another opportune time to add additional flavors is after the belly has cured sufficiently. Glaze the bacon with honey or maple syrup before smoking or roasting, or coat the bacon with herbs, spices or any sodium-free seasoning mix. The sky is the limit from here.
Smoke is an aromatic in itself; you can use just about any type of wood, shell, bark or herb stem you want to flavor the bacon. Whether you are hot-smoking (fully cooking the bacon to 155 degrees while adding smoke flavor), or cold-smoking (smoking the bacon at lower than 100 degrees just to add flavor), follow a few basic procedures to achieve the best results.
The meat must acquire a pellicle — the tacky surface that forms on the outside of meat (or on the skin of whole birds) when it dries. The pellicle makes it easier for smoke to stick to the meat. After rinsing off the cure, wipe with paper towels and let it sit on a rack, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 8 to 24 hours to allow time for the pellicle to form.
If you don’t have a smoker, you can smoke on a kettle grill or other traditional covered grill. Build a fire with the desired type of wood set off to one side, and let it burn for 15 to 20 minutes, then close all of the vents and put on the lid to smother the flame. By this point, you should have an intense amount of smoke billowing from the grill. Open the lid and place the bacon on the opposite side of the grill from the hot coals. If you are cold-smoking, leave the belly on the grill or 20 to 25 minutes, occasionally cracking the edge to keep the wood slightly smoldering. If you are hot-smoking, follow the same process, but open the vents slightly after smothering the fire to let the fire come back and raise the heat. Open and close the vents as needed to maintain the heat at 200 to 225 degrees.
An entire slab of bacon — as opposed to thin, flimsy slices — opens up a variety of cooking options. Store-bought bacon will almost completely dissolve in a braised dish. A slab can be cut into large chunks, thick slices or ¼-by-1-inch lardons (sticks) to serve in salads or soups.
The Skinny On Skin
If you’re going to hot-smoke your bacon after curing, leave the skin on to add another layer of insulation to retain moisture while smoking. After the bacon is fully cooked, let it cool for 20 to 30 minutes, and the skin will be easy to cut off. Save the skin to add delicious smoky pork flavor to green beans, soups or anything else.
To make pork rinds, scrape off the excess fat from the skin and cut into 1-inch squares. Dry in the oven for 2 hours at 250 degrees. When skins have cooled, fry in 400-degree oil for 1 to 2 minutes until puffed. Season with salt and other seasonings as desired.
Basic Dry Cure
Cures 6½ pounds of bacon
½ pound (8 ounces) kosher salt
¼ pound (4 ounces) sugar
1 ounce tinted cure mixture
Aromatics, ground, as desired
Mix ingredients thoroughly before applying cure to meat.
Salt Box Method: Coat fresh pork belly with basic dry cure; shake off and discard excess. Place meat on a nonreactive rack in a nonreactive container and refrigerate for 5 to 8 days (roughly one day per quarter-inch thickness). Flip every other day, and discard extracted liquid. Once bacon becomes somewhat firm, rinse off cure and slice, cook or smoke as desired. Discard any dry cure that has touched the meat; unused dry cure that remains in the container may be sealed and stored for future use.
Wet Cure Method: Place the pork belly into a zip-close bag, and add 2 ounces of basic dry cure for every 5 pounds of meat. Syrups, liquids or other flavorings may also be added. Squeeze out excess air, close bag and place in refrigerator for 5 to 8 days (roughly 1 day per quarter-inch thickness), flipping every other day. Keep the liquid that is extracted from the belly in the bag (this is called “the overhaul” and will help distribute the cure into the meat). Once bacon becomes somewhat firm, rinse off cure and slice, cook or smoke as desired. Discard excess wet cure that remains in zip-close bag; it cannot be reused.