Makin' Bacon: The home-cured local pork belly experiment

Take salt and flavorings, apply to pork belly, and you're done. Actually, that's more like Italian pancetta, which is almost as tasty. For standard bacon, you also have to add some smoke to the meat after it's cured. I was using a basic recipe from Michael Ruhlman (see my review of Ruhlman's Ratio) and Brian Polcyn's seminal book Charcuterie , a must-read for anyone interested in all the forms of pig fat.

[image-1]Simple, sure, but I encountered a stumbling block before I even started. Most cures call for pink salt, aka curing salt, which is a combination of regular sodium chloride and sodium nitrite, which is effective at pulling contaminants out of meat. Pink salt is cheap, but difficult to find except through mail-order. Thankfully, I know a guy.

I walked over to Derek's Culinary Casual and asked chef-extraordinare Derek Barnes if I could borrow a cup of sugar, er, pink salt, and walked out with a styrofoam cup of the stuff, along with some advice. He cures his own bacon in the restaurant, but doesn't use the sodium nitrite for that -- just straight kosher salt. I decided to stick with my recipe.

I mixed the pink salt with regular salt and brown sugar to make the curing mix, then started cutting the slab of belly into manageable two-pound sections, immediately noticing that pig skin is tough when you haven't sharpened your knives in a long time. Hack and saw, then pack the cure on all sides, then into a plastic bag, quick and relatively easy.

The next day, that dry, packed mixture had turned into an unappetizing brown liquid, as the salt drew water from the meat. Salt is the only family of rocks that we eat, it makes food taste better, and it is a fundamental reason why civilization advanced from subsistence to cities. Meat doesn't go bad on it's own, it goes bad thanks to tiny microbes that feast on it. Salt kills those microbes and preserves the food, for a time.

[image-2]I flipped those bags of saucy pork for six days straight before checking the meat to see if it had actually cured. According to Charcuterie, the flesh should firm up to show that the salt had done its work. Poke. Prod. Huh. Doesn't seem any firmer than a week ago, but hey, I'm on a deadline. And I'm hungry.

Too bad for me though. Although curing is easy, you have to have patience. I pull the pork from the bags, rinse and dry thoroughly, then slap it back into the fridge for another 24 hours to dry.

Look at the cured, but unsmoked, pork belly and you'd think you were done. It looks like bacon -- the sides striated with fat and meat -- but unless you cook it, the pork is still subject to problems, and won't stay fresh nearly as long. You can throw it into the oven and just slow roast the meat until it hits 140 degrees, but that's not the bacon I grew up with. First thing the next morning, I'm soaking wood chips and lighting the grill.

[image-3]As it bathed in hardwood smoke, I felt a little trepidation. The slabs looked like they're cooking, which would leave me with seven pounds of nicely roasted pork, but nothing to slice and fry for the breakfast table. Belly, however, is hardier than that. Two hours over in 200 degrees is enough to turn the exterior a glorious golden brown while leaving the interior fat solid, sweet and smoky. After pulling them off, I use my sharpest dll knife to carefully slice away the skin, then proceed to cut bits off the ends of all three slabs. Taste testing.

Within an hour I'm sick to my stomach and bloated with salty pork fat. The ends are by far the saltiest part of the bacon -- since they were closest to the cure -- and I find myself guzzling water for hours to prepare for the morning.

[image-4]I pop open the fridge at 6 a.m. the next morning like a kid on Christmas morning, only to realize that there's another wait in my future. Slicing bacon at home -- especially with my damnably dull knives -- is difficult, but 30 minutes in the freezer to make the fat nice and solid helps, especially if you want slices as thin as store-bought brands. I slice, slice, slice and cover a giant skillet with the beautiful meat, slowly bringing thhe heat to medium. This bacon burns quickly on the edges, even at low temps, thanks to real sugar infused into the meat. By the time the second batch had started to sizzle, I'd eaten an entire half-pound of bacon, savoring each bite.

It's meatier than store-bought. Salty, but without the chemical tones of supermarket brands. Sweet, but barely. It's fabulous, even if I do say so myself, and I suspect that I'd be just as impressed even if I hadn't cured it myself. But I did, which makes it the best damn bacon in the world.

(This piece comes from CL Sarasota's Summer of Pig coverage.)

It took two days to thaw in the refrigerator — two days longer than my excitement wanted to allow — but when I slapped the nine pound pork belly on my kitchen counter, it kind of freaked me out. A little. One side was beautiful, a melange of deep, brick-red meat laced with a profound amount of milky-white pork fat. The other side, though, was the skin, laced with stubbly reminders that pigs have bristles and nubby dots that looked like warts. Warts, in a neat, straight line? Oh, no. Those are nipples.

The easiest cure for that, of course, was to just flip the belly back over. And honestly, my horror was more mother-related than related to existential slaughter revulsion. I knew that this pig — a sow, I can say with certainty, from Palmetto Creek Farms an hour from my house — was raised humanely and butchered as nicely as any livestock can be. And I was going to grace it with the most profoundly tasty preparation that a pig can undergo: bacon, cured by my own hands.

Curing bacon is an incredibly simple process.

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