We’re makin’ bacon. At home! All by ourselves. And it’s really not as hard as it sounds. Promise. But it’s totally as good as it sounds. Actually, it’s better.
The hardest part of this recipe will likely be sourcing a big piece of pork belly for the project. Check first with your local butcher or grocery store. Chances are, they don’t just have a bunch of pork bellies lying around, but they might be able to order one for you. Just ask. Or, drop by your local Asian market. That’s where I get mine. They always have plenty in stock, and since they do lots of turnover, it’s always really fresh.
Neat little story about pork belly… The first time I ever worked with it was many years ago when we hosted Christmas Eve at our home. I set out to make the Italian delicacy known as porchetta by rolling up a whole (read: huge) pork belly with garlic, rosemary, fennel and other seasonings and roasting it until juicy on the inside, crisp and crackling on the outside. I brought this massive slab of meat home and got to work, and before long, I realized that it had nipples.
It shouldn’t have shocked me… After all, I was well aware that this was the belly of a mammal. But it did. And it freaked me out… Soooooo, I cut them off and proceeded with the recipe. It was a strange moment in my cooking history. But as weird as it was, sometimes I think it’s important to remember that the meat we eat was once a living, breathing, lactating animal. Still hungry? Anyway, the pieces of pork belly I used this time around thankfully did not have any nipples present, but if yours does, well, do whatever feels right.
Moving on. The other ingredient you’ll need to plan ahead for is something called “pink curing salt,” which is not the same thing as the pink Himalayan salt you might use to season your food every day. This is where the ever controversial nitrates and nitrites enter the equation. I’ve always gone out of my way to purchase nitrate-free bacon, as the word on the street has always been that nitrates are cancer causing goblins trying to send us all to an early grave. However, since embarking on my bacon-makin’ journey, I’ve done oodles of research on the topic, and still remain rather confused by the whole thing. Many sources claim that even nitrate-free bacon still contains nitrates, they’re just derived naturally from celery, but a nitrate is still a nitrate. The same sources insist that you technically can’t make bacon without nitrates, as it will never actually cure with just regular salt, and then there’s the whole risk of life threatening food borne illnesses.
So, I opt to go with the nitrates, because the thought of contracting botulism through poorly cured meat is much scarier, and far more tangible than maybe one day getting cancer from eating nitrate laden bacon in moderation. One of these days I may experiment with making bacon sans pink salt, just to see what happens. But for now, I’m doing it by the books. Bacon is a treat, and most treats contain things we probably shouldn’t be consuming on the reg. This is a personal choice. You do you. Cool?
Once you locate those two ingredients and get past the nitrates and potential presence of pig nipples, the rest is really pretty easy. Carefully remove the skin and any bones that may or may not be present, then rub the pork belly down with the spicy salt-sugar mixture. Place it in a zip top bag and refrigerate for a week. A whole week! You don’t need to do much during that time other than check it every day, give it a little massage, and turn the bag over. But even if you forget to do that a few days (raises hand), it will still turn out a-okay. You want the belly to be totally firm before proceeding.
Next, rinse the whole thing off really well under cold running water, then pat it nice and dry. A lot of recipes have you place the meat on a rack and leave it uncovered in the fridge for several hours or overnight. This forms something called a pellicle, which they say helps the meat absorb the smoky flavor and retain it’s moisture. But I find skipping this step causes no loss of either smoke flavor or moisture, and allows us to get bacon in our bellies quicker.
Finally, we smoke. Prepare a smoker with your choice of wood chips. I recommend using applewood for a nice, mellow, slightly sweet smokiness. Heavier woods like mesquite and hickory will result in a much more heavily smoked meat, which in my opinion, is a bit overkill. Smoke the pork belly at about 225 degrees for about 2-3 hours and an instant read thermometer reads 165 degrees.
At this point, the bacon looks good enough to eat, but you still need to slice it and cook it up just like you would any other bacon. It’s easiest to slice when cold, so I suggest letting the slab cool down, then refrigerating overnight. Slice it as thin or as thick as you like – I find a long serrated knife works best – and then either cook, or place it in a zip-top bag and refrigerate or freeze until later.
I prefer cooking bacon in the oven, and more often than not, especially in the summer, we do it in the toaster oven. Some people like to use a rack to allow the fat to drip away, but I find that if you just lay the bacon directly on a foil-lined sheet pan and place it in a cold oven, then turn it on, it will slowly render and essentially fry itself in it’s own fat. It results in the crispiest bacon everrrrrr, and bonus! Thanks to that tin foil, it’s also super easy to clean-up.
One Year Ago: Thai Beef Lettuce Wraps
- 1/4 cup Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon pink curing salt
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup honey or maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 5-lb pork belly, skin and bones removed
- applewood chips for smoking
- Combine the Kosher salt, pink curing salt, brown sugar, honey or maple syrup and black pepper in a large 2-gallon zip-top bag. Squish it around until it's all mixed together, then add the pork belly. Massage the mixture all over the belly, being sure to get it into every nook and cranny. Press the air out of the bag, seal it, and place in the refrigerator for one week. Be sure to check on it every day or so, giving it a brief massage and turing the bag over.
- After 7 days, the meat should feel firm to the touch. If it's still very soft, allow it to cure for another day or two. Remove the meat from the bag and rinse it well under cold water, then pat very dry with paper towels.
- Prepare a smoker with applewood chips and set it to 225 degrees. Smoke the pork belly for about 2-3 hours, until an instant-read thermometer reads 165 degrees. Allow to cool, then refrigerate overnight. The bacon will be easier to slice when cold. Use a long serrated knife to slice it however thick or thin you prefer, then cook just as you would store bought bacon.
- Leftover uncooked bacon can be stored, wrapped tightly, in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, and in the freezer for up to 6 months.