Tuesday, February 26, 2013

First Home Cured Bacon

BACON.  Most people love it.  The media would have you believe it's a artery clogging, heart attack producing killer food.  However, if you follow various versions of Primal eating, it's almost a perfect food.

I've been texting a group of friends and family for years about my love of bacon.  I like to try different commercially produced bacons, from your basic Oscar Mayer, to online guys like baconfreak.com, to regional favorites, like Usinger's (out of Milwaukee).  I've been rating the bacon on several dimensions - flavor (of course), ability to crisp up, succulence (indicated by the little bubbles of fat) and smell.  I also consider how much fat is rendered out of the bacon - to consider the bacon's final weight versus the package price.  I would also include pitcures.  Each Sunday morning, I cook up at least a pound of bacon (and sometimes two or three pounds, depending on who's visiting) and store it in the fridge for use during the week in sandwiches, recipies and snacking.  That's the bacon I've been texting about.

In this blog, I'm going to start completely over and post about bacon about once a week.  I'm going to cook up all the commercially available bacon I can get at Jewel-Osco, Dominick's, Sunset and The Fresh Market (our local grocers), as well as specialty bacon I'll buy online.

Last week, I decided to take the plunge and make some on my own bacon from a raw pork belly.  It was surprisingly easier than I thought!

DEBBIE AND I COOK A LOT, and we were at The Daily Grind in Lake Forest, ordering some beef shanks for an upcoming dinner party.  I asked the proprietor, Rick, if he had any pork bellies.  "Of course," he said, "some just came in."  He proceeded to proudly pull an entire pork belly out of his walk-in fridge.  I asked for a modest cut - something I could work with (especially since this was my first time).

MY WONDERFUL SISTER-IN-LAW, ANN gave me a great book for my birthday one year, entitled "I Love Bacon," by  Jayne Rockmill.  That's the book I'm holding in the picture.  The first few pages give you instructions on how to make your own bacon - both a basic recipe (which I followed) and including a Chinese bacon.  I used a slightly modified version of the 'cure' that Jayne recommends in her book - a blend of brown sugar, salt, maple extract, and a few other things.  The cure is in the bowl in my left hand.  A key ingredient is the 'pink salt' - a special curing blend that contains sodium nitrite to kill bacteria. 

MOST RECIPES FOR BACON call for  to cut the skin off the pork belly first.  I did that, but I think I cut off too much fat.  And as we know, the fat is what makes bacon great!  Otherwise, I followed the process closely and put the pork belly in the fridge for 8 days, turning it every other day.  Although the cure is dry, once applied it liquefies on the pork, which is why you have to turn it frequently

I PULLED it from the fridge on Day 8. I smoked it in our gas grill, and because there's supposed to be snow on Day 9 and 10, I wanted to get this thing done.  Following the instructions, I rinsed the slab thoroughly to get all the cure off, and prepared the grill for smoking.  I used applewood chunks for the smoke.  You can see how I positioned the wook chunks - off to the right side of the grill with the burner on.  The pork belly was on the left side, on top of the grates, with a pan of water underneath it.  Only the right burner was lit.  I adjusted the temperature to get around 250 degrees, and then put the pork in.

MOST GRILLING PUNDITS say that the smoke permeates the meat to full effect within the first 20 minutes of smoking, so there's no need to keep re-filling the smoker box beyond that time.  And the jury's out on whether to soak the chips in water or not; some say that the steam and particulate matter from wet chips imparts a bitter flavor to the meat, and others say it doesn't matter.  I did soak the chips, but they flared up and burned anyway.  They did produce generous amounts of smoke, however, and it all worked out fine.  Next time, I'm going to use tinfoil (covering the smoker box) to cut down on the amount of flame.  I think the chips will last longer that way.

WILLIAMS-SONOMA makes a great meat thermometer, which has a three-foot-long wire from the probe (which you stick into the meat) to the monitor.  I've used it in the oven, with the thermometer on the countertop of on top of the oven.  The device lets you automatically select a cut of meat and a desired degree of doneness; however, in this case, I wanted the pork to come out when the interior temp hit exactly 150 degrees.  To do this, I had to create a custom setting.  The monitor will beep loudly (or speak to you) when the meat reaches that temperature. 

ONCE DONE, I pulled the slab off the grill and set it on a wire rack on the kitchen countertop to cool.  I continued to use the monitor and didn't touch the meat until it got close to room temperature.  Then I trimmed the sides and cut the bacon into slices.  It's somewhat difficult and time consuming to cut the slices, so if I'm going to continue to make my own bacon, I may invest in a slicer. 

Anyway, the slices came out fine, and I proceeded to immediately cook a few pieces up.  For the rest, I stored it in the freezer for future use (since I already had my weekly fridge bacon!)

My overall rating of this bacon?  In a word, disappointed.  Chalk it up to it being my first time.  Crispiness was not as strong as I would have liked.  Probably because the slices were a little thick.  Flavor - was waaaaay too salty.  It overpowered many of the other flavors, but the smoke did come through.  This was certainly not throw-away bacon (sacrilege!) but probably best suited as crumbles on salad.  Succulence was very weak.  Probably because I cut too much fat off!  Smell was excellent, however, probably due to the smoking.  The amount of fat rendered was very high; this piggie was a fatty!

LESSONS LEARNED - less salt; use tinfoil on the smoker box to keep the wood from burning; slice thinner.  We'll try again in a few weeks!  In the meantime, I'll cook up store-bought...

Rendered Fat