Three years after starting to make bacon at home, it is clear that my starting point, recipe-wise, was a spectacular choice (and one for which I take very little credit). Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn is my favorite book, not favorite cookbook, but my favorite book. Several posters (most vocally Mike Gebert from Sky Full of Bacon) at the Chicago culinary online hub, lthforum.com, recommended the book and immediately upon getting it, I spent hours going cover to cover trying to find recipes that I could handle.
Bacon was always something that I purchased cured, smoked and pre-sliced. From all of the stories about transcedent bacon, I admitted was curious, but was skeptical that bacon had a wide ranging reach. I had eaten good bacon, it is a gateway meat afterall, but never considered an advantage to making it myself.
After working up the courage to buy a smoker, I dove in head first. My first batch cured nicely as I treated it with tremendous care, but as a novice smoker, I roasted the belly. Too much heat. I thought that I had ruined it. After cooling and partially freezing the belly, I sliced it using a dull chef’s knife. I was doing everything wrong. Finally, I fried up a few rashers and, upon first bite, was amazed. I had taken a left at nearly every turn that I was to take a right and still I had 5 lbs. of the best bacon that I have ever eaten. I was hooked. That can be you. That should be you.
Once you have done it once, the process is not terribly difficult. I will break it up into three steps — the cure, the smoke, and the slice.
Eight days before you want to eat bacon that you made yourself, gather 5 lbs. of whole pork belly (if you buy an entire belly, you’ll get two 5 lb. slabs), salt, sugar, and pink salt. Do yourself a favor a get a 2 gallon zip top bag and a large non-reactive dish large enough to hold the belly.
Basic Dry Cure
Adapted from Charcuterie
45 grams kosher salt
22 grams sugar
5 grams pink salt
Mix the ingredients well. If so desired, add 1/2 cup maple syrup or brown sugar and/or 1 tbsp. black pepper. Coat the belly in the cure and deposit belly in the bag. For this step, I usually don rubber gloves. It gets messy and it saves me some clean up time.
Seal the bag and duct tape the bag shut. After a few hours, the belly will have given up a lot of juice. Do you trust that zip top to keep that pork juice from running all over your fridge? I did and lost. Don’t make that mistake. Put the taped zip top bag in a non-reactive dish and put in the fridge. Flip the belly every day for a week to redistribute the cure.
After a week, remove the belly from the cure and rinse thoroughly. Pat the belly dry and leave on a drying rack in the fridge overnight to dry. An alternative is to run a fan on high over the belly on a baking rack for 3-4 hours (see photo above). Dry bacon leaves you with a good pellicle. Wet bacon gives you you a floppy slab. It sounds worse than it is.
In my experience, the best bacon comes with maximum smoke with minimum heat. Because of this, I typically like to smoke bacon in the winter because you don’t need to be as careful, but with the proper heat limiting care, it can be done in the summer.
I start by pilling apple wood chips at the base of the smoker. Then I light half of a chimney starter worth of lump charcoal and pour it on top of the chips. After 30 minutes, I light the same amount of charcoal and reload the smoker with this coal and chips. After reloading the smoker, I flip the bellies.
If the bellies hit an internal temperature of 150 degrees at any time, pull them. If they never hit 150 degrees, the belly can stay on the smoke until the belly has been on the smoke for a total of 90 minutes.
If your belly still has the rind on, once the belly has been pulled and is still warm, remove the rind. The best way is to place the belly rind side down on a cutting board and run your bacon slicer meatside along the board. Keep the rind for bean making or for a special treat, bacon stock.
Once the rind is off, let the belly cool and when cooled, bag it and put in the freezer for 3 hours.
This is where most of the “work” is required, but it isn’t really that much work. The bacon is great in nearly every thickness.
Once the belly has frozen slightly, it will be firm enough to slice to a reasonable thickness. My suggestion is to slice the bacon as thinly as possible. If your knife skills are so good that you can actually acheive a paper thin quality, then your control will allow you determine your favorite thickness. Mine skills are not that good. When you are finished, group the rashers according to thickness and group the misfit looking pieces into bags for cooking.
If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, get one. If you don’t want one, find a friend who has one and pay them for their time with a package of bacon.
Making bacon is fun and it produces something of such high quality that people should be making their own. Make great bacon and show it off in its best form. By itself or on a BLT.