Please do not get me wrong. There is nothing wrong, absolutely nothing, with regular bacon. I love it, but part of the fun of doing projects is pushing the boundaries a little.
However, I do not eat turkey “bacon”, but if it did not look so sinister, I probably would. After all, I like smoked turkey. I have butchered a few turkeys in my day and as far as I can see, the area around the ribs of the bird is less than bacon width and there certainly are not strata of fat interspersed with delicious meat. Why reformat tasty smoked turkey to resemble, albeit very poorly, bacon? Same goes for my beloved duck. No striations — No bacon.
However, after seeing lamb belly on a number of menus around the city, I was curious if it would make great bacon. I looked around and saw a little buzz about Bryan Mayer, from Greene Grape Provisions in Brooklyn. I love the gaminess of lamb and once I found out that the belly actually looked like a miniature version of pork belly, I was ready to cure. All I had to do was find some lamb belly.
Mink Creek is a fine purveyor of lamb that I was connected with at Green City Market. I really liked what I had gotten in the past, but what they got for me, would not work. It looked more like hangar steak than belly and was labeled rosettes. Slagel Farms, on the other hand, came through in the clutch with some great bone-in lamb belly.
Trimming the ribs from the belly was not difficult, however there was a lot of rib cartilage hidden in the flesh. Some careful inspection found all of it, but finding the cartilage was much more difficult than getting the ribs off of the belly. The big bonus here was that I could use the riblets and rib bones in last weeks marathon cassoulet. No waste.
By my requirement for being labeled bacon, above, the picture below shows that lamb clearly qualifies as bacon. The cross section is remarkably close to pork, but, even in the raw form, there is significant lamb-iness to the meat.
After apportioning the belly into two pieces, the bacon side was dredged in salt and sugar (2 parts salt to one part sugar — no nitrates for the lamb), bagged, sealed, and chilled. My intention was to go 2-3 days, but, due to scheduling, the belly cured for 4 1/2 days.
At this point, my main concern was that, by over-curing, I was making lamb jerky instead of lamb bacon. After a thorough rinse, I was always planning a short soak in water to get some of the saltiness out, but, given how long the belly was in the cure, I needed more soaking time, so I soaked it for about 3-4 hours. Next time that I do this, I will plan on a 2-3 day cure with an hour long soak. This bacon is salty.
After the soak, I dried the belly completely and rested it in the fridge for a day. Finally, I smoked the belly using large chunks of apple wood for 3 1/2 hours. Temps got a little higher than I typically go for pork as it was warm and very windy, but as a first run, everything looked pretty good when the lamb bacon was done.
After an afternoon in the freezer, the lamb bacon took a turn with the bacon sword and was packed and stored. It sliced up very nicely and even looked like bacon, post smoke.
Finally, the tasting. It is different from pork bacon mostly in the finish where you get a ton of lamb flavor. As mentioned above, I’d go with less time in the cure next time, as the saltiness is real.
EDIT: I took a second crack and lamb bacon and it has improved drastically. Check it out here.