Tuesday, April 27, 2010
According to the authors of Charcuterie, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, one friend and fellow cook, and many, many posts on the web, curing your own homemade bacon is easy and results in a very good product.
Having messed about a bit with meat and sausage and pate and cooking and such, I figured to give making bacon a go. For my first try, I got a couple of nice pork bellies that had the rind off and cured them as described in "The River Cottage Meat Book", using juniper berries, bay leaf, black pepper, brown sugar, pink salt and coarse sea salt. Each day, I rubbed the meat with a bit more of the cure and poured off any of the collected liquid. After a five day curing period the bacon (really pancetta, since it wasn't smoked) was good, but very salty.
Undaunted, I tried again. I've made duck prosciutto (directions from Michael Ruhlman here), which is about the most satisfying bit of meat curing ever, so bacon, reputedly easy, shouldn't be that far out of reach. This time, I cured the pieces of pork belly in a bag in the refrigerator with a generous amount of the same cure, but didn't pour off the brine. I used quite a lot of cure in the process and, after five days, rinsed the meat really well with cold water, then left the pieces of belly on a rack over a pan in the refrigerator overnight to dry some. The next morning, I set them out to smoke, using mixed apple and oak wood which I had soaked in water overnight.
A tin of water between the fire and the meat kept the temperature at 125 F and under.
Eight hours of smoke
The bacon came out pretty, slicing nicely and with good color.
Unfortunately, I'd let the smoke get a bit too heavy and this bacon was, again, very salty. Soaking the slabs for a couple of hours in cold water (changed once or twice) took care of both of those problems, but I still didn't get the result I was hoping for. Next batch, I tried a version of the cure from "Charcuterie" and the amounts suggested there, which was more sodium nitrite (pink salt) proportionally and only an ounce and a half of salt for a five pound piece of pork belly. Also, rather than the very strong sea salt I used kosher salt. For flavor I used brown sugar and black pepper, along with bay leaf. I cured the pieces of belly (this time with the skin on) for seven days in a bag in the refrigerator and didn't pour off the liquid. After that, I rinsed and dried them, let them air dry a bit, then smoked them for six hours at an even lower level- keeping the temperature down to around 100 F and keeping the fire down so that it only produced a trickle of smoke. This was both aided and complicated by a gusting wind- springtime in New Mexico.
This bacon, once cut from the rind, is harder to slice than the other slabs, as not as much liquid has been removed. It also cooks down a bit more in the pan. On the other hand, the flavor is what I was aiming for the first time. While somewhat more salty than commercial bacon it has just a bit of smoke to it and a nice, meaty flavor and texture- definitely good stuff.
So, another step on another learning curve.