Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's a Brains for Brunch Christmas Bacon Spectacular!!

Making fresh bacon is one of my favorite things to do around Christmas.  I accidentally started a new tradition a few years ago when I decided that I wanted to try making bacon at home.  I got a single belly from a local farm and cured and smoked it.  I sliced it thick (as it should be!) and wrapped it up for family and a couple of friends and gave it out for Christmas.  It was an absolute hit and everyone loved it  - I mean really, how could they not?  Everyone loves bacon, right?  This will be my third year of continuing the tradition, and nowadays I am curing 10-15 pounds of bacon per Christmas.  It's a lot of bacon, my refrigerator is fully occupied for a week because of it, but I like to err on the healthy portion size and I like to keep a fair amount for us as well.  

Bacon is such a big trend right now.  You can find bacon band-aids, bacon flavored salt, chocolate with bacon bits, and even bacon ice cream.  For better or worse, there are entire blogs dedicated to wrapping various things in bacon, complete with crappy cell phone pictures.  It is most commonly made with pork belly, which is usually lumped into the category of offal, generally referring to organs and internal bits of animals, but it's certainly one of the most accessible offal products when standing next to things like kidneys, tripe, brains, or tongue.  Pork belly can be roasted and glazed for decadent main course, or salted and cured with various herbs and spices like so many global cultures do, resulting in such edible wonders as bacon, pancetta, lardons, the roasted pork in a bowl of Japanese ramen (miso ramen please), or bases for any number of chinese and korean dishes.  Fortunately, bacon is one of the easiest cured meats that you can make at home.  It's safe, it requires no air drying, and it's incredibly easy as long as you plan ahead.  You don't even need a smoker if you don't have access to one.  

For the past couple of years, I have been getting bellies from Sandra Garner at Rainbow Meadow Farms.  Rainbow Meadow breeds Berkshire heritage breed pigs and every product that I have ever gotten from them has been fantastic.  I started the bacon-making process by calling Sandra and placing an order for roughly 13 pounds of pork belly.  She told me that she would set aside a couple of good ones for me and we made arrangements for me to pick them up from her booth inside the heated building at the Raleigh State Farmer's Market on a Saturday morning.  She brought me two amazing bellies, one sized at about 5.5 pounds and the other behemoth weighting in at over 8 pounds and over 2 inches thick.  I brought them home and let them thoroughly defrost before beginning the cure.

The Cure:
This is a simple cure from the book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman, you can dress it up with anything that you want - most people would do maple or brown sugar for a sweeter bacon.  You could also do cracked pepper or some other savory herb combination like thyme and rosemary.

1 lb kosher salt
1 c sugar
2 oz (10 teaspoons) pink salt

Pink salt is the only foreign ingredient in that list, and it seems to be quite a point of contention in the culinary world.  Pink salt is sodium nitrite mixed with salt.  Sodium nitrite, although very chemicaly sounding, is a naturally derived product, found in things such as spinach, kale, and lettuce, but it is sometimes extracted used as a food additive.  It prevents botulism, so it is used in cured meats and sausages as a precautionary safety measure, and it also gives the meat the standard rosy red hue that you expect when you see store-bought bacon, for instance.  The pink tint in the salt is a color additive used to prevent confusion with normal salt, as consuming high levels of sodium nitrite can be toxic to humans (isn't consuming a lot of anything toxic to humans?).  I have made bacon with and without pink salt, and I don't think there is much of a difference.  If you are a stickler for additives, leave it out, and just be sure to pay attention to safety such as keeping your meat cold at all times and evenly salting the meat during the curing process.  If you want to buy pink salt, there are lots of websites that sell sausage making supplies, and they should all carry pink salt (usually called something like Cure #1 or something, just remember nitrite and not nitrite + nitrate, which is used in air cured sausages).

The dredging process
Mix up your ingredients and spread them out in a baking sheet.  Dredge the bellies in the cure on all sides and shake off the excess.  Put the bellies into large plastic zip bags and seal them.  Make sure they are sealed well, the salt has a habit of sticking in the grooves for the zip bag seals.  Place them in the fridge, and let them rest for upwards of a week.  Flip them every other day to evenly distribute the curing liquid that will collect in the bag.  The time that they spend in the fridge will vary on the size and thickness of the bellies, but you can tell when they are done by poking them.  If they are firm in the center, then they are done.  I generally find that poking the fat is more telling than poking the meat itself.  The fat hardening is much more obvious to the touch, in my opinion.  If they stay in the fridge too long, they will become overly salty, but you have a wide window that you can pull them out and everything will be just fine.

When they are finished curing, take them out of the bags and rinse them thoroughly.  Pat them dry and prepare for the next step - cooking!

The beast arises

I used a smoker for this, but you could also use your oven set to 200º, or if you're feeling brave, use indirect heat on a grill.  Preheat the smoker to 200º and soak your wood chips in water.  I used normal hickory chips for this.  In past years, I have tried to get crazy and use fancy wood chips, but really what I found is that this bacon doesn't need to be dressed up.  People don't necessarily want fancy bacon, they just want really really good bacon, and this home made bacon will blow away anything that you find at the store.  Smoke the bellies until the internal temperature reaches 150º.  It will take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours to reach that temperature, after an hour just start checking every once in a while.  It will also develop a deep brown color.  If you are just doing this in the oven, follow all the same steps, but obviously don't use wood chips.  You won't have the smoky flavor, and the lack of smoke might not give the deep brown color, but you will have cured bacon that will still be amazing, closer resembling French lardons that you find on Lyonnaise salads or in boeuf bourguignon.  

When it reaches 150º, pull it from your oven or smoker and let it cool down.  Refrigerate it for a few hours prior to slicing so that the fat hardens up and is easier to slice.  If it doesn't cool enough, it will have a tendency to tear when you slice it.

To slice, lay the belly out flat on a cutting board and trim the edges.  They may be very salty, but they are still great for freezing and using in various things like greens, sauces, or soups (or snacking while they're still hot...).  Once the bacon is sliced in thick slices, maybe about 1/8" or 1/4" thick, you are done and ready to fry them up or freeze them for later use.  Fry them until crispy on the outside, and chewy on the inside.  It won't be crispy throughout because the slices are so thick, and that is part of the joy of this bacon.

13 lbs and one Neurosis record later...
Package it however you like, the bacon will keep frozen for quite a long time.  I love these little Foodsaver bags that allow for a small handheld vacuum to suck all the air out.  They prevent freezer burn and they look nice too.  I get to pretend like I'm some kind of professional, and aesthetics are important, right?

Finally, I package everything up in some brown postal paper and put my mark on the bag.  I had a dream one time that I got a tattoo of the Black Flag bars, but I got bacon strips instead of the black bars.  When I woke up, I knew I had to make that happen somehow.  I haven't gotten the real tattoo yet, although I think about it probably once a day.  In the meantime, I made some sweet stickers to put on my real bacon.  

Bacon... stuck in my head!!
 Making bacon for Christmas will continue to be one of my favorite holiday traditions, it doesn't require a lot of time and it's really easy.  I hope this post shows how food can be a great gift that comes from the heart, and hopefully these types of small things help us get back to what the holidays are really about - family, friends, and eating!


  1. pure genius. I am so making this early next year.

  2. Ahhhh, the return of the JCar bacon

  3. Haha I actually said 'oh!' out loud when I got to the first picture of the bellies in the smoker