A while back I came across Michael Ruhlman’s blog post on making your own pancetta . I mentioned this to my mom and we decided to try and make our own bacon. We started with Ruhlman’s basic recipe and instructions and added our own choice of spices for the finish. Mom chose the addition of juniper berries and star anise because these are spices she often uses with roast pork. The recipe is on the link, but Ruhlman has also written an entire book about curing meat called Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing which I think I’m going to have to get soon because we may try and make sausage next!
I’d never made bacon before so I read up a little on it. Basically, from what I can tell, the difference between pancetta (Italian bacon) and what we’re used to as “American” bacon, is that pancetta is dry cured and American bacon is usually smoked. Commercial bacon like you find in the grocery store usually has water listed as one of the first ingredients. Yes, water is harmless but does not make for great bacon. The water is used to inject smoke “flavor” into the bacon and when the bacon cooks, the water boils away, leaving you with a shriveled, shrunken piece of pork product.
Finding the “pink salt” (aka sodium nitrite) was the hardest part. After a fruitless trip to a South Pasadena “gourmet” store, we ended up buying a 5 lb bag of the stuff, brand name “Prague Powder”, at Canton Food Company, a Chinese restaurant supply store in downtown Los Angeles. The next question I’m sure someone will ask is “Why are you using nitrites in your bacon? Aren’t they bad for you?” The answer is “yes and no.” There are many things out there which can be bad for you in large quantities, but I don’t eat enough nitrites, or bacon for that matter, for it to have much of an impact. Nitrites are what cures the bacon and give it the good color and taste we all expect. Without them, you would need to use much more salt to cure the bacon. Oh yeah, and sodium nitrite keeps the botulism bacteria from growing (which is a really good thing if you ask me).
I’d love to try Ruhlman’s BLT Challenge (build your own, make everything from scratch) but I don’t think I’ll be able to do it. Even though the date has been extended to September 20th, my garden tomatoes are almost all gone and I don’t have any lettuce growing. But maybe you’d like to try?
Mix together the kosher salt, the sugar and the pink salt. You won’t use all of it, but mix it together in a large bowl. Whatever you don’t use should be stored for later in an airtight container.
Toast all the dried herbs and spices in a saute pan until fragrant and then grind them in a spice grinder (we use an old coffee bean grinder). Mix the toasted and ground spices in a small bowl with the brown sugar.
Sprinkle the salt/sugar/pink salt over the pork belly, coating it liberally. I think we probably used about 1/4 cup of the mix. Then rub the pork on all sides with the spice and brown sugar mix (we used all of this). Put the coated pork belly in a large zip lock bag and seal.
Place in the refrigerator for 7 days, turning every day or so to make sure the cure is evenly coating the pork.
After a week, remove it from the bag, rinse of all the cure and pat it dry. At this point, you can cook it up, or do as we did (and as Ruhlman suggests), hang it in a cool dry place for another week to “age” and continue the dry cure process. My mother is blessed with a rare commodity in Southern California, a basement. It’s very small, but it stays at a consistent cool and dry temperature. We created a bag for the bacon out of cheesecloth because I was concerned about insects (specifically ants which are currently plaguing us) but fortunately, the pork never got attacked.
After 7 days we unwrapped the bacon and discovered a little mold had started to grow. Don’t panic! Like cheese, we just cut it off. My guess is that the cheesecloth bag, while practical, had encouraged a bit of moisture which caused the mold. The first thing we noticed, besides the heavenly, bacony, smell, was how firm the pork belly had become during the cure process. It was no longer a wobbly, flabby, piece of belly. It had become a firm, lean piece of bacon!
I probably don’t need to tell you all this, but even though this bacon is cured, it still needs to be thoroughly cooked. We immediately sliced off 3 pieces and fried them up. There was almost no fat rendered off in the pan, and of course no water. The pan was almost dry throughout the cooking process. The bacon was chewy, salty, and a little sweet. While it was good, my first impression was that the flavor was a bit gamy for my personal taste (more on this below). Next time, I don’t think we will hang it for so long, if at all. We may try hot smoking it instead.
Later that day, we followed another of Ruhlman’s suggestions and cut off a chunk of the bacon, wrapped it in foil and slow roasted it in the oven. This cooks it and makes it moist and tender. Then, we cut the piece into lardons and fried them up, serving them with toothpicks for canapes at Sunday Family Dinner. Needless to say, the lardons were a hit and disappeared off the plate in a flash.
By the way, there was a bit more fat in the center section than there was on the end piece we sliced and fried earlier in the day. Because of this, and the added moisture in the center (the end piece was pretty dry), I think it tasted a little less gamy than our first impression. Next time we may try hot smoking the bacon instead of hanging it after the first 7 days just to see how it’s different. Mom fried up some eggs in the leftover fat from cooking the lardons and said it was amazing.
So, what do you think? Want to try and make your own bacon? I think it’s worth it.