Makin' 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
In case you have been hibernating, I'm here to tell you that bacon has permeated everything from chocolate to mayonnaise. Click here to see my recipes for candied bacon.
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 big guys who make commodity bacon inject pork bellies with a brine with flavorings such as liquid smoke. Then the slabs are sprayed with more liquid smoke. Then it is baked. 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.
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 bacon. It should look like the picture here.
Make sure you explain that you want raw bacon, not cured. 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.
Get the really fresh belly, and 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. You need to stick to the recipe when it comes to the salt in order to get a good cure, but you have a lot of freedom with other herbs and spices, and especially sweeteners.
The salt concentration for curing is much higher than the typical 4 to 6% brine used to moisten chicken, turkey, and pork before cooking. The salt is usually a blend of plain sodium chloride and Prague powder #1 or curing salt. There are many types of curing salts all discussed in detail in my article on the science of salt but I recommend Prague powder #1. It is approximately 94% plain old sodium chloride with approximately 6% sodium nitrite with some anticaking agents and red dye. You can often find it at groceries, butcher shops, or online. It is not the same as Himilayan pink salt, so do not try to substitute. It kills bacteria, especially the botulism bug, and it is needed for the bright pink color we associate with corned beef. Click here for more info on nitrites and nitrates.
Soaking it in brine is called a wet cure, rubbing it with salt is called dry cure. Large manufacturers inject the meat with the brine through rows of tiny needles. The results are usually watery and insipid compared with the real deal.
I prefer wet cure because water distributes the ingredients evenly. You can make dry cures, but getting the amount precisely right to make sure the result is not too saltly, or not adequately salted, is tricky. If you apply too much cure when you sprinkle it on by hand, somebody can get sick. Also, if you sprinkle on dry cures, there can be "hot spots" where it is too thick and "cold spots" resulting in uneven quality. In a wet cure, the components are evenly distributed all over and you cannot apply too much cure if you follow my recipe. In addition, my favorite recipe, below, includes maple syrup, so it has to be a wet brine.
If you read my articles on brines, you will learn that meat is a protein and fat saturated sponge and the only thing that can penetrate it is salt because it has chemical and physical properties that allow it in. The rest of the ingredients in the brine really don't get much past the surface. Here's what a slab looks like after my wet cure. The black spots are pepper.
Some important words of caution
Curing meat is not like any other recipe. It is not like brining a turkey or chicken for a few hours. There is no room for improvisation when it comes to the amount of water, salt, and Prague powder #1. Sanitation is crucial. If you have a larger piece of meat you must increase the quantities proportionally. For a smaller piece, do not alter the ingredients at all. But if you follow my instructions precisely, you have nothing to fear if you keep it chilled.
Before you get started, you must read my article on the basics of curing meats and my article on the science of salt for background. It explains why you need to ignore all the formulae you've read on the internet, on the curing salt packages, and follow a specific recipe and not try to invent one of your own or cross the streams and blend two recipes from two different sources. And finally, if the meat smells funny or the brine gets scummy, throw it our. Something went wrong. Don't take chances.
About my smoking method
According to Chef Stephern Gerike of the National Pork Board, commercial bacon uses Prague Powder #2 which has a blend of salt, sodium nitrite, and sodium nitrate for better, longer, preserving properties. "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 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. If you do not nail the salt, nitrite, nitrate, curing, and smoking temp precisely, you can produce a lethal product capable of killing. Yes, killing.
Yes, I know your Croatian neighbor cold smokes his bacon the way his Pappy taught him, but he is playing Russian roulette, especially with today's meat supply. Click here for more on cold smoking.
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 hardand crispy as commercial cold smoked bacon. Of course, if you are like me, you don't want your bacon cooked hard, so this is not a problem.
I like it better smoked 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. When cooking, try not to take the meat much beyond 150°F internal temperature. And when you take it off, cut a slice off the edge. It will be more salty than the innards. Now that you've cut it off, just scarf it down. It's mighty good. Just wait til you fry it in a pan or roast it in an oven!
Variations on the theme
Here are two bacon recipes. As always I recommend you follow my recipe the first time and the second time you can riff on them. The thing to remember is that the salt is the crucial ingredient and you need to keep the quantity the same to get a good cure. After that, the rest of the ingredients are merely flavorings, and you can change them to your taste.
Maple Bacon with Prague powder #1
Time. 2 hours prep, seven days of curing, 2 hours of smoking.
Makes. About 25 thick slices
1 pound of pork belly
1 1/2 teaspoons Morton's kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon Prague powder #1
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons Grade B maple syrup
1/4 cup water
1 pound of pork belly
1 1/2 teaspoons Morton's kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon Prague powder #1
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon powdered ginger
1 teaspoon powdered garlic
1 teaspoon Sriracha or other hot sauce
1/4 teaspoon 5 spice powder
2 tablespoons water
Some important words of caution. Curing meat is not like any other recipe. It is not like brining a turkey or chicken for a few hours. There is no room for improvisation when it comes to the amount of salt and Prague powder #1. If you have a larger piece of meat you must increase the quantities proportionally. For a smaller piece, I recommend you do not alter the ingredients at all. But if you follow my instructions precisely, you have nothing to fear if you keep it chilled. If it starts to smell funny or develop a scum, you must discard it.
About the salt. Remember all salt is not the same so you cannot substitute kosher salt for table salt without doing a little math. You can use table salt but use half the volume of kosher salt. If you want to substitute kosher salt for Prague powder #1, use twice the volume or substitute table salt for Prague powder #1 1:1. See my article on the Science of Salt for the conversion tables if you don't have Morton's kosher salt.
About the maple syrup. I use real maple syrup, but it is expensive. If you wish you can use other syrups such as imitation maple syrup, sorghum, honey, Lyle's Golden Syrup, Steens Cane Sugar, or even molasses. If you prefer, you can use granulated sugars such as brown sugar, plain white sugar, or maple sugar. Now beware, each of these sugars is slightly different in sweetness and taste, so substituting one for another will yield a slightly different flavor profile. For example, molasses is a very strong flavor. You need to experiment to get the blend you love. But this is a fun experiment. As always, I recommend you stick to my formula for your first batch.
Optional. For your next batch you can adjust the quantities of maple syrup or black pepper, and 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. Don't use dried onion, it can smell too sulfury.
1) If the skin is still on, remove it and use it to make cracklins. It is sometimes hard to tell if it is still there. You should be able to make a cut in fat with your thumbnail. Your thumbnail will only make a dent in skin. Removing the skin can be tricky. Sometimes you can grip a corner and with a knife peel it back by running the knife between the skin and fat. Sometimes you just have to shave it off with a sharp knife. Put the skin in the freezer if you want to make cracklins but can't use it right away.
2) Pour everything except the meat into a zipper bag large enough to hold the belly. A 1 gallon bag is fine for a 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 and squish some more, aggressively rubbing the cure into the belly aggressively coating all sides. Put the bag in a pan to catch leaks and place in the fridge at 34 to 38°F for at least 7 days. If the belly is thicker than 1.5" add another couple of days. More time won't hurt it. 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.
Warning. If you want to do more bacon at once, do not stack the slabs. This will prevent the flavors from penetrating. You need surface area.
3) Remove the belly from the bag, throw the liquid away, rinse them with cool water removing most of the cure from the surface or it will be too salty. Pat dry. 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. Smoke over indirect heat at 225°F until the internal temp is 150°F, about 1.5 to 2 hours. You can use any wood you like. Hickory is the tried and true. I'm partial to cherry and applewood. You should slice off the ends which may be very dark and more heavily seasoned, and taste them right away. The fat will be a bit stringy, but you'll love it all the same.
5) Now let it cool on a plate in the fridge. Cold bacon is easier to slice. Slice 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, above), 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, not foil, and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 3 months. Do not wrap in foil because it can react with the salt. When you are hungry, cook it just like you do storebought bacon.
This article was revised 1/14/2014
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