There is no substitute for the flavors of slowly smoked bacon made the old fashioned way.
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.
NOTE: This is a recipe for simple, basic All-American Bacon
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 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 American 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. Check out this page for our glossary of all the different types of bacon around the world, including buckboard bacon, guanciale, lardons, and pancetta.
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).
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Simple Bacon Recipe
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. But pay attention to the raw material. Check out the sidebar on this page for important tips on ordering the meat for American style bacon. This is a recipe for simple bacon. But my favorite is Maple Bacon, essentially the same process but with pure maple syrup. Or try Asian Style Bacon made with honey, hoisin, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and Sriracha. Soooo good.
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 it will not get as hard and crispy as commercial cold smoked bacon with nitrates. 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.
A note about saltiness. Occasionally we get a reader saying it is too salty. Occasionally we get a reader who says it is not salty enough. This is clearly a matter of personal preference. Make the recipe the way I like it and if you feel salt needs an adjustment, then add or subtract the Morton's kosher salt, not the Prague Powder #1.
Course. Breakfast. Brunch. Lunch. Side Dish.
Makes. About 75 thick slices, about 100 ppm nitrites
Takes. 30 minutes prep, about 3 days of curing, about 2 hours of smoking.
3 pounds unsliced raw pork belly about 1 1/2" thick and 6 to 8" wide across the grain
3/4 cup distilled water
6 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 1/2 teaspoons Morton's kosher salt
4 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Prague Powder #1
About the pork belly. Look for pork belly that has about a 1:1 ratio of muscle to fat. The muscle should be pink and the fat creamy white. 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 be 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. It should look like the picture shown here. If you want to have fun, order pork jowl instead, which tends to be 40 to 60% muscle. Make sure you explain that you want raw bacon, not cured, and not sliced. 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. If you got sliced belly by mistake, marinate it in your favorite marinade, 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 sliced pork belly. As soon as you get your slab 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 U.S.
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.
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 with your fingers and run a knife under the skin to 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, so 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. Slice it across the grain. For evenly thick 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.
7) 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.
"Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon."Doug Larson