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homemade bacon on the grill

Makin' American Style Bacon From Scratch - It Is Soooooo Much Better Than Storebought

"Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon." Doug Larson

Curing meats such as bacon, ham, or pastrami is fun and the results are often better than storebought. But curing is very different from any other recipe because you are using a preservative, sodium nitrite.You must read and thoroughly understand my article on the Science Of Curing Meats before attempting to cure meat or before you ask any questions.That page also contains info on scaling the recipe up or down.

In case you have been hibernating, I'm here to tell you that bacon has permeated everything from chocolate to mayonnaise. Unworthy is the upscale bar that doesn't have a cocktail with a bacon swizzle stick. There's a National Bacon Day and even Burger King has a baconized a dessert. But until you've tasted real honest to goodness old fashioned, sweet, smoky, umami laden, real American-style bacon, made in your home, you've never really tasted bacon.

In parallel to bacon's rise, pork belly, from which bacon is made, has moved from Asian menus to mainstream menus across the nation. The major difference between the two is that bacon is cured with a lot of salt, slightly sweet, and smoked, while belly is often just rubbed or marinated, and roasted without the smoke. But when it comes to both, there's room for a lot of creativity, and the lines are blurring.

Although there are more and more artisinal bacon producers making killer (expensive) bacon out there, almost all the stuff in the grocery stores is made by huge manufacturers taking shortcuts designed to get the stuff onto the market as fast and cheaply as possible. That's because, sadly, most shoppers see bacon as a commodity. As consumers, we reinforce this behavior when we shop by price alone. Even the labels with boutiquey names (like Farmer John) are usually made by the big mass producers (Hormel).

The product is delicious, but there is no substitute for the flavors of slowly smoked bacon made the old fashioned way.

Makin' bacon at home is surprisingly easy and the results are quantum leaps better than the stuff from large commercial producers. Once you have the basic recipe down, you can vary the ingredients to make a flavor profile to suit your taste. It is a simple two-step process: (1) Curing, and (2) smoking.

Different kinds of bacon

According to food historians, to European peasants in the Middle Ages pork was a rare treat and a sign of affluence. "Bringing home the bacon" was a demonstration of success. "Chewing the fat" became an expression for "having a conversation."

American bacon or streaky bacon is what this page is all about: Cured and smoked pork side (1 part meat to 2 parts fat) or belly (1:3). Some commercial American bacons are wet cured by brining or injecting, and almost all use sodium nitrite as a preservative and coloring agent. Some are dry cured with a rub. Most have some sugar or maple flavor in the cure. Some are smoked, and some get a smoke flavor from liquid smoke. Hickory and apple are the most popular smoking woods.

smoked bacon

There are a number of small artisan bacon manufacturers in the US who make wonderful crafted meats with creative flavor combinations, exotic woods, and astronomic prices.

American bacon must be cooked before use. But save the drippings rendered during cooking. Bacon fat is wonderfully tasty and makes a superb cooking oil but, like butter, it can burn at high temps. Try pan sautéing broccoli or potatoes in bacon fat over moderate heat to see what I mean.

Candied bacon can be made from American bacon. Click here for three recipes: Brown Sugar Bacon, Toffee Bacon, and Chocolate Mud Pigs.

Canadian bacon or back bacon is made from lean loin meat. It is much leaner, perhaps 10:1 meat to fat, and, because it is thicker, the curing time will be about two weeks instead of one week. In the US, it is called back bacon. Order boneless loin (not tenderloin) if you want to make this. In Canada you can also find peameal bacon which has been rolled in cornmeal. Just follow the Simple Bacon recipe on the left side of the page. Click here for a recipe.

Buckboard bacon is pork shoulder, boned, trimmed, cured, and smoked. It is much leaner than side bacon or belly. The meat to fat ratio is about 3:1 or more. Because there is much less fat than American bacon (belly) it does not need more time in the cure unless it is really thick. I use my Canadian Bacon recipe.

Pork cheeks, hams, and other parts of the animal. Pretty much any part of the hog and be cured and smoked. That's pretty much the story of most American wet-cured hams. Cheeks are especially good for making bacon. They are thin and not as fatty, so they normally need only a three to four days in the cure. Use the recipes on this page for cheeks.

Bacon from other animals. According to USDA, bacon is made from swine only. But creative chefs have been known to use the bacon process on duck breast, turkey breast, boneless leg of lamb, beef, goat, whatever.

Bacon bits that you buy in the store are usually made from soy beans, not pork.

Pancetta is Italian streaky bacon that is cured and rolled into a log, but not smoked.

Lardons are little cubes of bacon, great for flavoring other dishes like soups, beans, salads, stir fries, eggs, etc. Here's how to make lardons:

lardons

Chef Rick Gresh inspired my method. Cut the bacon into 1/4" cubes and heat them in a pan until they are almost done. Then pour in an Asian BBQ sauce, perhaps a teriyaki sauce or a yakitori sauce and simmer a few minutes. Heck, you can even use a Kansas City style barbecue sauce and make bacon burnt ends.

Salt pork. According to USDA "Salt pork is not bacon. Although it is salted, it is much fattier, and, unlike bacon, it is not smoked. It is generally cut from the hog's belly or side. Because salt pork is so salty, cooks often blanch or soak it to extract some of the salt before using."

Speck. In Germany, Austria, and Northern Italy, dry cured belly, with more muscle than fat is smoked and dried and sliced like American bacon. It is a cross between prosciutto and Ameerican bacon.

Ordering the meat for American style bacon

Commodity American bacon is usually from the belly and chest where the ratio of meat to fat can be 1:3. My favorite bacon is made from the layers of fat and meat that lie on top of the spare ribs, called "side bacon" or "streaky bacon". It can be about 1:1 or 1:2, with more meat, depending on the breed of hog, age of the hog, feed, and other variables. When shopping, ask your butcher to order some fresh, unfrozen, raw side or belly bacon slab, unsliced. It should look like the picture here.

raw bacon

Make sure you explain that you want raw bacon, not cured, and not csliced. Ask your butcher to remove the skin, but save it for you so you can make cracklins. You can freeze the skin until you are ready to make the cracklins.

These recipes are designed for a solid unsliced slab of meat. There is too much surface area on sliced belly for it to be used. If you got sliced by mistake, marinate it in your favorite marinade or cook it straight or adapt this recipe for pork belly. An Asian marinade like teriyaki/huli huli is great. But don't try to cure it.

As soon as you get it home, start the cure because raw pork fat does not age gracefully. It gets rancid and smells funky in only 5 to 6 days. That's a flavor beloved in many European and Asian countries, but not so much in the US. Once it is cured and smoked, it will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, and it freezes well for up to two months.

About my method

According to Chef Stephen Gerike of the National Pork Board, commodity grocery store bacon uses Prague Powder #2 which has a blend of salt, sodium nitrite, and sodium nitrate for better, longer, preserving properties. It is often injected with the cure and sprayed with liquid smoke. "The cured belly goes into the smoker at 100°F for 30 minutes, then the temperature is reduced, after drying, to between 80 and 90°F. That low, or cold, temperature is maintained for about six hours." The result is a raw cured meat that must be cooked before eating, and cooking it long enough can produce really crispy, bacon.

But my old fashioned recipe calls for Prague Powder #1 and smoking at 225°F. That cooks and pasteurizes the meat and makes it safe to eat right off the smoker. I do not recommend cold smoking at home. Yes, I know your Ukranian neighbor cold smokes his bacon the way his Papa taught him, but he is playing Russian roulette, especially with today's meat supply. Click here for more on cold smoking and why I do not recommend it.

After smoking you can store my bacon in the fridge for about two weeks or freeze it for months. Then cook it the normal way. But take note: It will not get as hard and crispy as commercial cold smoked bacon with ntrates. Of course, if you are like me, you don't want your bacon crumbly, so this is not a problem.

I like it better cooked on a charcoal smoker than others. A gas smoker or pellet smoker is a close second to charcoal. You can do this on a gas grill or charcoal grill if you set them up properly for smoking (follow the links). Use plenty of wood.

Variations on the theme

Here are three bacon recipes. Most people love love love these recipes as you can see from the comments on the bottom of the page. But saltiness is very much a matter of personal preference. A few people find the bacon too salty, and a few find it not salty enough. For this reason I strongly recommend you make a small 3 pound batch the first time to see how you like it. If it is too salty for your taste, the next time you do it you can adjust the salt. Remember, kosher salt is different than table salt. I strongly recommend Kosher salt, but if you must use table salt, use half as much.

Scaling up or down

For all ingredients except Prague Powder #1 you simply multiply them by how many times more meat you are using. Since my recipe is for 3 pounds, if you are making 6 pounds, multiply all ingredients except Prague Powder #1 by 2. To get the right amount of Prague Powder #1 and the adjusted curing time, use Prof. Blonder's calculator on my page on the Science Of Curing Meats.

Three bacon recipes

1) Simple Bacon Recipe

Takes. 30 minutes prep, about 3 days of curing, about 2 hours of smoking.

Makes. About 75 thick slices, about 100 ppm nitrites

Ingredients

3 pounds of unsliced pork belly about 1 1/2" thick and 6 to 8 " wide across the grain to make slicing easy and to make sure it fits in the frying pan

4 1/2 teaspoons Morton's kosher salt

4 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper

6 tablespoons dark brown sugar

3/4 cup distilled water

1/2 teaspoon Prague Powder #1

Optional. Make your first batch according to this recipe. For your second batch, if you wish you can add fresh garlic or dried garlic, citrus zest, herbs such as thyme, bay leaf powder, celery seed, chile pepper, fennel, or coriander.

2) Maple Bacon Recipe (my favorite)

Takes. 30 minutes prep, about 3 days of curing, about 2 hours of smoking.

Makes. About 75 thick slices, about 100 ppm nitrites

Ingredients

3 pounds of unsliced pork belly about 1 1/2" thick and 6 to 8 " wide across the grain to make slicing easy and to make sure it fits in the frying pan

4 1/2 teaspoons Morton's kosher salt

4 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper

3 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1/2 cup dark maple syrup

3/4 cup distilled water

1/2 teaspoon Prague Powder #1

About the maple syrup. I use real maple syrup in this recipe, but it is expensive. The darker grades have more flavor. If you wish, you can use Steens Cane Sugar, pancake syrup, sorghum, honey, Lyle's Golden Syrup, or molasses.

Scaling. If you scale up, be sure to count the maple syrup as liquid so this recipe has 1.25 cups of liquid.

3) Asian Bacon Recipe

Takes. 30 minutes prep, about 3 days of curing, about 2 hours of smoking.

Makes. About 75 thick slices, about 100 ppm nitrites

Ingredients

3 pounds of unsliced pork belly about 1 1/2" thick and 6 to 8 " wide across the grain to make slicing easy and to make sure it fits in the frying pan

4 1/2 teaspoons Morton's kosher salt

1 teaspoon 5 spice powder

3 tablespoons powdered ginger

1 tablespoon powdered garlic

1/3 cup hoisin sauce

1/3 cup honey

1/4 cup dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon Sriracha or other hot sauce

1/3 cup water

1/2 teaspoon Prague Powder #1

Note. The total fluids is about 1.25 cups so use that in the calculator if you are scaling.

Method

1) If the skin is still on the belly, remove it and use it to make cracklins. It is sometimes hard to tell if it is still there. It is usually a darker tan color compared to creamy colored fat. You should be able to make a cut in fat with your thumbnail. Your thumbnail will only make a dent in skin. Leaving skin on causes problems for salt penetration, and when you fry it, the skin gets very hard and you probably won't like the texture. Removing the skin can be tricky. Sometimes you can grip a corner and with a knife and peel it back by running the knife between the skin and fat. Sometimes you just have to shave it off with a sharp knife.

2) Pour everything except the meat into a zipper bag large enough to hold the belly. A 1 gallon bag will hold a single 3 pound slab. Zip the bag and squish everything around until well mixed. Now add the belly, squeeze out the air as much as possible and squish some more rubbing the cure into the belly and coat all sides. Put the bag in a pan to catch leaks and place in the fridge at 34 to 38°F for 3 to 5 days. If the belly is thicker than 1.5" check the calculator here. The belly will release liquid so every day or two you want to gently massage the bag so the liquid and spices are well distributed, and flip the bag over. NOTE: If you use more than one slab in a bag it is crucial that the slabs do not overlap each other. Thickness matters!

3) Remove the belly from the bag, and throw the liquid away. Quick rinse it to wash off any thick deposits of salt on the surface. Most recipes tell you to let the slab dry for 24 hours so the smoke will stick better, but, as the AmazingRibs.com science advisor Dr. Greg Blonder has proven, smoke sticks better to wet surfaces, this extra step isn't necessary.

4) If you are using a grill, set up for 2-zone cooking or fire up your smoker. Smoke over indirect heat at 225°F until the internal temp is 150°F, about 2 hours. You can use any wood you like. Hickory is the tried and true. I'm partial to cherry and applewood. After smoking you should slice off the ends, which may be very dark and more heavily seasoned, and taste them right away. They will be more salty than the innards and the fat will be a bit stringy, but you'll love it all the same. Just wait til you cook up an inside slice!

5) Now let it cool on a plate in the fridge. Cold bacon is easier to slice. Use on a slicer if you have one, or use a long thin knife to slice it. Try some thin and some thick slices. You can also cut bacon in cubes to make lardons (see the sidebar), and use them like bacon bits in salads, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, baked beans, in sauces or to garnish chops, or roasts.

6) Wrap it tightly with several layers of plastic wrap, and then a layer of foil, and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 3 months. Do not wrap in foil alone because it can react with the salt. When you are hungry, cook it just like you do storebought bacon.

Slicing

Slice across the grain. For perfect even thickness slices, a slicing machine is the best choice, but I rarely use mine because it is a pain to clean. Besides I like to keep the slab intact and tightly wrapped in the fridge or freezer to reduce exposure to oxygen which can make the fat taste funny in a week or two. When I make bacon I usually shoot for hunks 6 to 8" wide across the grain to make sure my thin 9" knife and frying pan fit. If you put a slab in the freezer for 15 minutes or so it gets stiffer and easier to slice.

Cooking bacon

I really don't have to tell you how to cook bacon, but here are some ideas that you might want to try. Keep in mind, my recipe is cooked on the smoker so it will not get hard when cooked like commercial bacon.

Roasting or baking. Most of us just lay the bacon in a frying pan. That works fine, but tends to overcook it easily. Try roasting it. Line a baking sheet or sheet pan with foil. Lay rashers (slices) of bacon on the foil so they are not touching or overlapping.Better still, put them on a rack in the pan. Place the pan in a 400°F oven. Check in about 15 minutes. Take it out when it is just a little less cooked than you like it because it will continue to cook after you remove it from the oven.

Smoking. Amp up the smokiness of the bacon. On a grill: Set up a 2-zone grill. One side hot, the other side not. Put the bacon in a foil lined pan on the indirect side or on a rack in the pan on the indirect side. Throw some wood chips on the hot side to amp up the smoke. On a smoker: It can take forever to cook them at the usual 225°F, so you need to get your smoker hot. If it has a water pan, yank it out of there.

Microwave. You can also cook bacon in the microwave. Lay down some newspaper, cover it with papertowels, and jolt it for about two minutes to start. Your microwave may need longer.

Boiling. If you put the bacon in a pan with about 1/4" water on high, the water will begin melting the fat and when it evaporates more fat will render and both the fat and meat will be especially crispy. Try this with about 1/2" water and thick sliced potatoes. When the water evaporates the taters will fry in the bacon fat while the bacon crisps!

After you have made the bacon, click here to see my recipes for candied bacon.

Save the bacon drippings

While your bacon is cooking lay out a section of newspaper several sheets thick, and cover it with a layer of paper towels. As soon as you take the bacon out of the oven, move it to the paper towel to drain.

Let the fat in the pan cool a bit and then pour it in a glass jar and refrigerate. Hot bacon can melt a plastic tub, so be careful. Save the fat for up to a month and use it to fry. Broccoli and potatoes are especially good cooked in bacon grease.

 

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