I once thought all bacon was created (almost) equal. You know – buy whatever’s on sale, try not to over or under cook it, enjoy once or twice a week. Things changed for me once I started buying what I like to call ‘fancy bacon’ from butcher and charcuterie shops. Slighter thicker and oh-so-flavourful, I quickly became hooked on premium bacon. Last fall, I finally took the plunge and decided to make my own. I used curing salt (sodium nitrite) for the first few batches because of food safety concerns; this year I plan to experiment without, although I’ve read the colour will not be quite the same. Making home-cured bacon taught me several valuable lessons:
- It’s ridiculously easy to make bacon.
- Home-cured tastes so much better than mass-produced.
- It is one of the most satisfying culinary experiments I’ve ever conducted.
- You can use a gas barbeque very effectively to smoke cured pork belly.
The instructions below are adapted from Michael Ruhlman’s wonderful book, Charcuterie (written with Brian Polcyn). Ruhlman’s writing has been at the heart of much of my learning about food over the past decade or so and he continually inspires me to happily push my limits in the kitchen. As he says, “There are plenty of reasons not to cure bacon: fear should not be among them. Bacon is life itself: embrace it!”
2 pounds fresh pork belly (you’ll likely need to order this from a butcher shop)
2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon curing salt #1 (check with a local sausage maker or order online; it’s often called pink curing salt, because it gives cured meats a pinkish hue)
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 bay leaves, crumbled
2 tablespoons maple sugar or maple syrup (can substitute with brown sugar)
2 cloves of garlic, smashed with a knife
1 tablespoon juniper berries, lightly crushed (optional but fantastic)
5 sprigs fresh thyme
equipment needed: large zip lock bag, 2 cups wood chips (available at most hardware stores)
- Mix all the seasoning ingredients together in a small bowl.
- Put the pork belly in the ziplock bag. With your very clean hands, rub the seasoning mixture all over the belly. Don’t forget the ends and sides.
- Close the bag and put it in the fridge for a week. Once or twice during the curing time, use your very clean hands to rub the seasonings around inside the bag.
- When ready to smoke the bacon, prepare a large packet of wood chips. Soak the chips in a bowl of water for 30 minutes, then drain and put the chips on a large piece of heavy duty aluminum foil. Fold up the sides and ends to make a packet. With a sharp knife, cut 1 cm holes all over the top of the packet.
- While chips are soaking, take the pork belly out of the bag and immerse it in a very clean sink full of cold water for 30 minutes. This rinses off the seasonings and pulls the excess salt out of the pork.
- Lay the wood chip packet on top of the burner on your gas barbeque. Preheat grill to 400F until you see the wood chips just beginning to smoke. Reduce heat to 250F, wait a couple of minutes for grill to cool slightly, then place the pork belly, skin side down, on the grill.
- Keeping the barbeque as close to 250F as you can, smoke the bacon until it reaches an internal temperature of 150F (about 60 – 90 minutes). Keep the lid closed as much as possible during this time so the smoke stays trapped.
- Note that if you don’t have access to a gas grill (or want to skip the smoking step), you can also finish this process in the oven – simply put the pork belly on a rack and put the rack on a baking sheet. Place in a 200F oven and cook for 90 minutes until it reaches a temperature of 150F.
- When the pork belly is finished being smoked or baked, peel the tough outer skin off then slice it lengthwise into strips of bacon. You may find this process easier if you cut the long slab in half crosswise before beginning your lengthwise slicing.
- Fry up and enjoy immediately, or tightly wrap small quantities of uncooked bacon slices in plastic wrap and freeze.
- When frying the bacon, use a lower temperature than what you might be used to otherwise it may quickly start to burn in the pan.
- Order another batch of pork belly and play around with your seasonings.