Even years after starting a bacon blog that features both making and tasting bacon, there is a singular bacon experience that stands out as “the best bacon”. Benton’s. You can say the word “Benton’s” to any carnivore who knows things and watch their eyes light up. It is almost universally loved and, even still, nobody makes bacon in that style that would be even a reasonable substitute. No bacon mixes salt and smoke in the same quantity (much less quality). It seems that nobody has even tried.
I am trying. This is my attempt.
Looking and asking around, the prevailing notion about Benton’s cure, based on St. Allan Benton’s own words, is that it is simply salt, brown sugar, and red an black pepper. From what I can tell from interviews, curing salt is also used, so I threw that in there. Finally to add a little more Country flavor and to make the cure more paste-like, I added a splash of Bourbon in the cure. I kept to basic ratios of cure to pork, but this was my first crack at creating an entire cure on my own. I had played with supplementary flavors, but nothing like this.
Since Benton’s, and other country bacon that I have had, are amped up in the salinity department, I opted for a curing time slightly longer than I typically use. Going for 10 days, the hope is that all of the flavors of the cure are more intense in the bacon rather than simply the salt, as might have been the case if I would have simply overloaded the cure with salt.
After ten days, the belly, which came from a Crawford Sweet hog that was raised foraging for food in New Glarus, WI and butchered at a Butcher & Larder demo, was super-firm and smelled already like bacon even without being smoked. In order to make the time in the smoker better spent, I left the cured belly in the fridge for the weekend to dry out the surface.
Once the belly was dry, I smoked it for 72 hours using a cold smoking set up used for nduja making. Having used the smoking set up a number of times, I have it down to where I light one chimney and add coals and hulls every twelve hours with no need to relight. The only impediment this time was a crazy neighbor complaining that the rig’s appearance was infringing on her happiness, which cut the smoking time at 72 hours. At that point, enough essence of pecan hulls had infused the belly to seep out of the plastic wrapped belly chilling in the fridge in the same way that it seeped from the first box of Benton’s bacon I had delivered to my office in Chicago.
Once sliced, the first thing that I noticed was that this belly, while not very thick, featured amazingly amounts of fat. The bacon rendered out a good amount of fat (cold smoking does nothing to reduce fat deposits) which smelled sweet, salty and smokey. I was clawing at the oven door waiting to get at the bacon, which is rare these days. Once I tasted the bacon, I realized I had been successful. There is no equal, I know of, to Benton’s, but this was the 2nd best bacon I have tasted.
There was that characteristic saltiness, but there were other flavors absolutely banging through. The sweetness from the brown sugar balanced the saltiness and the peppers (both black and red) were subtle additions. The smoke was very strong. This bacon was clearly different from others I have made. I love the Ruhlman bacon and have really liked both the Applestone and Symon recipes, but this bacon, made from my own recipe, it not only my favorite, it is the best bacon I have ever made.
And it isn’t even close.
- 1,500 grams skin-on pork belly
- 60 grams kosher salt
- 13 grams brown sugar
- 6 grams freshly ground black pepper
- 1.3 grams crushed red pepper
- 20 milliliters bourbon
- 4 grams pink salt
Step one: Mix all non-pork ingredients in a large vacuum sealed (or plastic) bag. Mix to combine.
Step two: Place belly in bag and manipulate to ensure that cure is in contact with every portion of the belly. Seal bag. Flip daily for 10 days.
Step three: Remove belly from bag and rinse thoroughly. Let dry in fridge, uncovered, for 48 hours.
Step four: Cold smoke over pecan hulls for 72 hours. Remove and reserve skin.