It’s been quite a long time since I’ve been this excited about a project, but my recent endeavors at making bacon really got me pumped up. I mean, what’s not to love about bacon. It’s sweet, it’s salty, it’s smoky, and it’s got lots of crispy, chewy pork fat, Add to that, the fact that this bacon was made completely at home, from pork that a good friend raised, and you can’t go wrong. I have to admit though, I was also rather nervous. The last thing I wanted to do was to destroy the pork belly I had received with the half pig we had purchased. I’m not one to get overly philosophical about my food (though sometimes it seems like I do), but the last thing I wanted to do is ruin a good piece of meat that some animal died to provide me with. It might sound kind of “corny” but that thought went through my head a number of times during the bacon making process.
Making bacon isn’t all that difficult, but it does take considerable time, at least a week or more to do it right. In fact, about the hardest part of the whole process can often be finding a butcher willing to provide you with pork belly. Chances are, you will need to special order it unless you have a local butcher who makes his/her own bacon.
In the days before refrigeration curing bacon was a way to preserve the meat for long term storage. The bacon of yesteryear was heavily salted and smoked and didn’t much resemble the bacon of today. Today, modern refrigeration makes bacon a luxury, not a necessity. As such, we have been able to swap preservation with flavor. Today’s bacon doesn’t require numerous soakings in water to draw out salt to make it more palatable, and while still heavily smoked, it is not smoked to the point of almost being jerky-like.
Besides salt and sugar used in the curing of bacon, the cure also often contains sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate. These salts act as preservatives, helping to keep the meat pink and free from botulism. These chemical salts can be difficult to obtain and usually need to be ordered online or through the mail unless you are friendly with a butcher. Unfortunately, these salts can also be dangerous if used in higher amounts than needed. While I sometimes use these salts personally, I find it often easier, and less dangerous, to use Morton’s Tender Quick. It is a curing salt mix that can be found in many grocery stores and already has the nitrite and nitrate mixed into regular salt, removing the danger from the hands of novices. I developed this recipe using Morton’s Tender Quick and am quite happy with the results. I think you will be also.
As for the pork belly, you can either leave the rind on or remove it. You will hear proponents of both ways. I don’t think it makes a difference and I prefer to remove the rind (skin) before making my bacon. It saves a step later on. Also for easy of storing, during the curing process, I cut my pork belly into 1-2 pound chunks. I just find it easier to handle this way and it takes up less room in the fridge.
Maple Cured Bacon
1 whole pork belly (8-10 pounds) cut into 1-2 pound chunks
Curing Mix (per pound of meat)
1 Tbsp. Morton’s Tender Quick
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. maple syrup
1/4 tsp. granulated garlic
1/2 tsp. cracked black pepper
Weigh out each piece of pork belly and make up a batch of Curing Mix using the ratios above per 1 pound of meat. Rub the belly with the cure making sure to evenly distribute it over the entire surface of the belly and place in a zip lock bag. Remove as much air as possible and seal.
Repeat with remaining belly pieces. Place in the fridge and allow to cure for a minimum of 7 days per inch thickness of belly. Flip the bags once every day and massage the meat to ensure even distribution of the cure. At the end of 7 days test to see if belly is cured. The pork is done curing when the flesh no longer feels “mushy” and feels tight, like a well done steak. If not fully cured give another 24 hours and check again. Continue until pork is fully cured. Once done, remove from bags and give a good rinse in cold water, washing off all the excess salt and cure. Place on cooling racks set over cookie trays, place in fridge, uncovered, and allow to dry for 24 hours. The following day prepare your smoker or kettle grill and cold smoke bacon for 3 hours. Increase heat to medium and continue to smoke until you get an internal temperature of 150°F. In all, it should take 6-8 hours to fully smoke your bacon.
Chill the bacon overnight then slice to desired thickness, package and refrigerate and/or freeze.
When cooking this bacon, cook over medium heat or just a little higher. You don’t want to cook at too high of a heat due to the high sugar content of this bacon. Cooking over too high a heat will cause the bacon to burn before it is rendered crisp.