Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Homemade Bacon

There has been a lot of experimentation going on in my kitchen, primarily having to do with the new stovetop smoker that I got. It's been a blast. I love smoked food, but am not much of an outdoor griller. I was skeptical that you could produce great results with a stovetop smoker, but I was happily wrong. If you're a smoking purist, then sure, it might not work for you... but for me, it's fantastic!

I made some truly delicious baby back ribs -- twice -- before getting to use the smoker for the purpose for which it'd originally been intended... making homemade bacon. That's right, my friends, that most wonderful of pork products can be made very simply at home. It's a relatively easy process, and you can make it exactly how you like it.

If you like bacon (and really, who doesn't -- I know vegetarians who miss bacon most of all the meat products they've given up), you will LOVE what you make at home. Homemade bacon is insanely good. Not only does it taste better than store-bought bacon, it's also healthier for you because you can cure it without using sodium nitrates. I said healthier, ok. Not healthy. :P

It does require some investment (in a smoker and a meat slicer), but in the end it'll be worth it, if you love bacon and/or consume a lot of it in your house (like many things, it's cheaper to make yourself). In fact, some would say that it doesn't require any investment in special equipment. My personal opinion is that to get bacon that tastes the way I like, a smoker's pretty much required. Smoking is what gives bacon that distinctive flavor. Still, you could just cure the bacon and not smoke it -- that's still bacon (pancetta). As for the meat slicer, the first time I made bacon, I didn't have one. I figured it would be fine -- after all, anyone with a knife can slice a slab of bacon. But as I quickly found out, only a meat slicer can get the bacon into thin, uniform slices that make it, well, bacon.

First you start with these beauties: pork bellies. If you're going to make homemade bacon you might as well make the effort worthwhile! You want about 5 pounds of pork belly.

stacked pork bellies

Make a wet cure, which consists of a 1/4 cup each of packed brown sugar, honey (or maple syrup), and kosher salt. This slightly sweeter cure is good for breakfast bacon. If you want to use sodium nitrate (aka pink salt) for extra protection against botulism, go for it, I won't judge you much. Mix the cure ingredients together until well blended.

cure for homemade bacon

Put the pork bellies into heavy duty freezer Ziploc bags so that they're not stacked on top of each other. (I used 2 bags.) Rub the cure all over the bellies. The cure might seize at first, but as you keep rubbing it will soften and stick to the bellies. Release as much air out of the bags as possible, then seal them. Every other day, flip the bags over so that the curing liquid gets evenly distributed. And yes, there will be liquid. The curing process is basically drawing as much liquid out of the meat as possible so that it will keep. As the days pass, you can check the bellies' firmness... as the water draws out they'll get firmer and firmer. Do this for about 7 days, give or take. They're ready when the bellies feel very firm at the thickest point.

At the end of the 7 days, rinse off all the cure and pat the pork bellies dry with a paper towel. They'll look something like this:

pork bellies after they've been cured

Some would say that at this point, you have bacon. You can slice it and fry it, and I'm sure it would taste pretty dang good. But for me, true bacon requires another step.

Put the cured bellies on a tray and store them in the refrigerator for another half day or so, uncovered. This will help dry off any remaining surface moisture, and the meat will feel tacky when you touch it. This will help the smoke stick.

Prepare your smoker. Smoke the bellies (unstacked, so it might require doing it twice, as mine did) at 200°F for about 2 hours, until a thermometer inserted at the thickest part reads 150°F. Once it's smoked, it might look like this:

slab of smoked bacon

Slice off the skin while it's hot, leaving as much fat on the bacon as possible. (You can make the skin into delicious pork crackling.) Next time I may just leave the skin on. NOW it's bacon. Taste some of it off the side -- it's OK, you've earned it, and it's fully cooked now. You can hand slice it at this point or bust out your meat slicer and make those thin slices. Here was my final haul:

sliced homemade bacon

My bacon wasn't red/pink like supermarket bacon. It looked like cooked pork. That's because in addition to its preservative function, sodium nitrate also gives the meat a nice, attractive red color. And of course, I didn't use that. Once you fry it up, though, it just looks like regular bacon. I like my bacon on the slightly burnt side. :D

strips of homemade bacon

Commercial bacon is pumped full of water, so when you cook it, the bacon shrinks. Homemade bacon shrinks very little, if at all. I froze most of what I made in 'packs' of 8 slices. Although the curing process should make the bacon last a long time, because this bacon doesn't have the preservative power of sodium nitrate it's safer to keep the unused portion frozen. No nitrates... just deliciousness!


Kathi-Ann said...

I saw Alton Brown do this on Good Eats once and have always been intrigued, and at the same time thought it would be impossible for a home cook to do it. I'm glad you've proved me wrong. This looks amazing.

Jen said...

Kathi-Ann - I'm so pleased to hear that. I hope you try it sometime!!

Owen said...

Jen - sorry you stopped writing - I made bacon in the summer too. If you don't have access to a meat slicer you can freeze the bacon and then when it is hard you can cut slices with a knife. (although it is hard and slow work)