I didn’t want to clutter up a post about romanesco cauliflower to get into the specifics, but if you haven’t considered curing your own bacon, you should. It’s the easiest of the meats to cure because, unlike many cured meats like pancetta, salami, and so forth, you don’t need to find an amenable environment to air-dry the meat. You just need some refrigerator space and about a week to ten days, usually.
I suggest this partly because store-bought bacon, while always tasty in the same way that Kraft dinner and Ortega tacos are always tasty, is nothing compared to house-cured bacon. If you’ve ever had a really good craft bacon, you know this.
“What about the smoking,” you wonder. Well, that’s true. I don’t smoke bacon at home because we don’t have a smoker. One of these days, I’ll get that going, or maybe I won’t. I’m not highly motivated to set up anything outside – our back garden has an excellent view of the Supermax prison in Baltimore and, apart from our containers of basil and fennel is basically an asphalt parking lot for the most part. It’s not a welcoming environment is what I’m saying, and we don’t spend that much time out back. I have, however, discovered that if you use a smoked salt and/or smoked paprika in the cure, and maple syrup, you can sort of approximate the taste of a maple-cured and smoked bacon, and that’s good enough for me.
A word about the use of Tinted Curing Mix in the recipe below. This relates to the somewhat controversial issue of nitrates and nitrites. When exposed to heat, nitrates or nitrites combine with protein to form nitrosamines, which may be carcinogenic, although that risk appears to be low. Despite the controversy, they are essential to dry-cured products, because they inhibit the growth of botulism spores, and slow fat spoilage through the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide contributes its own distinct, pleasantly sharp taste to cured meats. Nitrite is most commonly available as Tinted Curing Mix (TCM), also known as curing salt or Prague Powder #1, a pink-tinted powder containing salt and about 6.25% nitrite by weight. Because of food safety concerns, the Food and Drug Administration limits the concentration of nitrites or nitrates in food to 200 ppm or less.
If you’re concerned about nitrites, you don’t have to use curing salt/TCM if you’re curing bacon at home, but if you don’t, your bacon will cook up grayish brown, not pink. Also, it won’t keep as long. Basically, you’ll cure it for about a week, and then you’ll have to use it straight away or freeze it. Bacon isn’t an everyday food, so I recommend using TCM, but it’s up to you. If you need to buy curing salt/TCM, try The Spice House. If you decide to branch out from bacon to any cured meats that are meant to be air-dried and kept at room temperature, you either need to learn more about salt concentration or become ok with using TCM to retard spoilage.
Basic “smoky” maple bacon
Do yourself a favor and use a kitchen scale. I’ve provided approximate dry measurements, but you’re better off weighing everything. If you don’t want a mapley taste, use straight sugar, between 50 – 80g, depending on how sweet you like your bacon. If you don’t want a smoked bacon taste, or you intend to smoke your bacon using real smoke, omit the smoked salt and pimentón, and use 100 g kosher salt.
4 lbs (~2 kg) pork belly, skin removed
80 g kosher salt (1/2 c)
20 g smoked salt (2 tbsp) (not the finely granulated cheap “hickory salt” if you can help it – my favorite is Halen Môn)
25 g granulated sugar (2 tbsp)
75 g maple syrup (1/4 c)
10 g TCM (about 1 tbsp)
10 g sweet pimentón (about 1 tbsp) – don’t use agridulce, because the bitterness is unsuitable
2 tbsp black peppercorns
4 cloves garlic, crushed
8 sprigs thyme, washed and dried
4 bay leaves, coarsely crumbled
Combine all the dry ingredients (everything but the maple syrup, peppercorns, garlic, and herbs) and combine thoroughly. Dredge the pork belly to coat on all sides. Press the thyme, peppercorns, garlic, and crumbled bay evenly to coat. Add the maple syrup.
Place in a large (2 gallon) plastic ziploc bag. Double bag. Press as much air out of the bag as possible before sealing. Place the bag in a stainless steel pan (or other large, flat) container and refrigerate for a week to ten days. Every day, turn the bag over and redistribute the cure evenly over the surfaces of the pork. Touch the pork each day to feel its firmness.
After about a week, depending on thickness, the pork should feel firmer and there should be more liquid in the bag as the salt has penetrated the meat. Once the pork feels fairly firm/rigid, remove the pork from the bag, discard the cure, and rinse thoroughly. If your pork belly is thin – say an inch or so thick – this will take about a week but can take 5-6 days. If your pork belly is thick – 2 or more inches – it will take longer. More is not better in terms of curing since your belly just gets saltier and saltier. Once it’s firm, take it out.
At this point, you can slice and use it as you would any other bacon. To firm it up by partially cooking it (as with smoked bacon), preheat an oven to 180F/83C. Place the bacon on a rack over a sheet pan and roast for about 90-120 minutes (depending on thickness) until it reaches an internal temperature of 140F. Chill promptly and refrigerate up to three days before use; otherwise, freeze.
I like to braise bacon whole, and serve it as a main course. For the best presentation, prepare the braise a day in advance and then weight under a cutting board, submerged in its braising liquid, overnight. You can skip this, but a firm, chilled bacon is easier to slice and can be trimmed.
Don’t throw away any trim! Freeze and save the scraps – they’re great for weeknight pasta dishes, like orecchiette with kale and bacon, or ricotta cavatelli with bacon and broccoli rabe.
1 lb/.5 kg bacon from above recipe, or any other slab bacon
1 quart chicken stock
2 tbsp usukuchi soy sauce (or regular soy sauce)
1/2-inch chunk yellow rock sugar, or 2 tbsp sugar
large bay leaf
4 sprigs thyme, tied together
4 cloves garlic, whole
Score the bacon in 1″ intervals diagonally. Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon, fat side down. Render the fat until the surface is deep golden brown. Remove from the pan.
Combine all the ingredients except the bacon and bring just to a simmer. Add the bacon, scored fat side up. The liquid should come just to the layer of fat. If you need more liquid, add a little water. Place in the oven for 3 hours, until tender. Remove from the braising liquid.
If you have planned ahead, place in a small pan fat side up, surround with braising liquid up to the level of fat, cover the pan with foil, and cover with a cutting board and heavy cans or other weights and refrigerate overnight before proceeding to the next step. Save the braising liquid and use it (defatted) for sauces, soups, etc.
Place fat side down on a cutting board and cut into squares. If you have chilled the bacon, heat the oven to 275F. Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon, fat side down, until the surface is deep golden brown. If you chilled the bacon, place the pan in the oven until the bacon is heated through.
Serve with the sauce and vegetable of choice. As pictured below, the bacon is served with fennel blossoms from the back garden, an apricot fluid gel, and a marchand de vin-style reduction of bacon stock and Viognier.