Makin’ bacon

The finished product, fresh out of the smoker. The maple version is on the left, regular to the right.

The finished product, fresh out of the smoker. The maple version is on the left, regular to the right.

This week’s column is on making bacon. Seriously, try this. It’s so easy and so, so good. And how about the Trib’s new site design? It has a few bugs but it’s very clean. I like clean.

I’m not sure to whom I’m supposed to send the thank you note, but someone, somewhere decided that bacon is back. If the popularity of pork belly — unsliced bacon, really — on menus around town isn’t enough to convince you, perhaps the glut of adventurous, bacon-oriented recipes online will do. You can find blogs devoted to the stuff, recipes for bacon ice cream and even preorder your very own copy of “Bacon: A Love Story.”

But before I locked down my very own bacon-shaped cuff links — and it’s never too early to start thinking about Father’s Day, ladies — I figured I should try my hand at making bacon myself. I don’t just mean heating up a skillet; I mean the real deal.

Now, I’m no pork novice. I’ve dabbled my way through pulled pork shoulders, Italian roasts and more ribs and chops than I can fathom. But I’ve never made bacon from start to finish, and that hole in my life wasn’t going to just fill itself.

I went out and bought a copy of “Charcuterie,” by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Charcuterie is a French term for preserving meat — usually pork — through the application of salt. The salt dehydrates the meat — and any bacteria unlucky enough to land on it — and keeps a ham edible for months or even years. If you’ve ever been to the Boone County Ham Breakfast, you know about salt. The Egyptians knew about it, too. Historically, the technique has been about preservation and survival; now it’s all about taste.

Pink salt containing nitrite, which provides extra protection against bacteria, is the only special item needed to make bacon. I ordered some online and, while waiting for it to arrive, got to work tracking down a pork belly. The major local grocery stores were mostly unable to help, though one acknowledged getting the same inquiry just minutes before. Knowing the Asian fondness for pork belly, I gave Hong Kong Market out on I-70 Drive Southeast a try. They had what I needed but in smaller portions than I was looking for. And so I turned to Jim and Deanna Crocker, who raise hogs out by Hallsville.

I picked up a pork belly, reserved half for freezing and went to work on the other half, following the recipe in “Charcuterie.” That first effort was encouraging, but because I cooked it in the oven, it lacked any of the smokiness that makes bacon, bacon.

I broke out the smoker for attempt No. 2, and the end result was markedly improved. It was good, but nothing better than what you’d get at the grocery store. I decided to up the ante a bit and added a half-cup of maple syrup to the cure on the third try. Even before it left the smoker, it was obvious that we were getting somewhere.

And then the moment of truth, the frying pan. I cut a few slices off and laid them into the frying pan, where they began to sizzle and smoke. They didn’t shrink down and splatter like regular bacon. The smell was very lightly smoky and clean, rather than overpowering.

We sat down and ate, wide-eyed. My wife, finally impressed, pronounced it the best bacon she’d ever had. It was crispy on the outside, but the center was rich, melting, fatty goodness. Oh, it was good bacon. We ate it four times that weekend, but because people tend to eat less of things that are really, really good, I actually lost weight.

Making your own bacon is as easy as putting salt on some pork. Then all kinds of options open up. Cut it thin for breakfast, slice thick chunks for a dinner course or even try your hand at the ice cream. It’s remarkably versatile stuff. And it will be yours.

Scott Rowson works in communications at the University of Missouri, lives and eats in Columbia and writes about it at ShowMeEats.com. Reach him at ShowMeEats@gmail.com.

FRESH BACON

One 3- to 5-pound slab pork belly

1 pound kosher salt

8 ounces granulated sugar

2 ounces pink salt

1/2 cup real maple syrup

Combine sugar and both salts in a bowl and mix well. This is now your dry cure mixture and will be enough for at least 12 pork bellies. Measure out 1/4 cup of the dry cure and sprinkle onto the belly, rubbing into all sides.

Place the belly in a 2-gallon Ziploc bag, add the syrup, seal and place in the fridge for seven days, flipping over every couple of days.

After seven days, check for firmness. If the belly feels firm at the thickest part, it’s done curing. If it’s still squishy, leave it for another day or two.

Remove the belly from the cure, rinse, pat dry and place on a rack in the fridge for as long as three days.

Smoke at 200 degrees until internal temperature reaches 150 degrees. You can use a kettle grill, or even your stove, but a smoker will produce a superior product.

You now have finished bacon, ready to fry up or save for later. Once cool, wrap and place in the refrigerator. The bacon will keep for one to two weeks, or freeze for as long as three months.

— Adapted from “Charcuterie”
by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Note: you can get pink salt from Butcher & Packer

The Crockers’ info is here.

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4 Responses to “Makin’ bacon”

  1. Eric Reuter Says:

    I finally got my hands on the book, and will someday be getting around to using the cuts I got from JJR last fall. I’m going to try curing some goat, too, just for the hell of it.

    After having your bacon, and flipping through the book, Joanna is now borderline convinced that we need to start pigs this spring instead of next. This year is going to be insane.

  2. Scott Says:

    Yeah, give it a shot. The jowl is the easiest, but bacon’s up there too. And as Anthony Bourdain has repeatedly pointed out, bacon is a gateway drug for vegetarians.

    You guys get pigs and I’m movin’ in. ;-)

  3. Jeff G. Says:

    So, in your recipe above, when do you add the maple syrup?

    When you place it on a rack in the fridge after rinsing off the dry cure, is it wrapped or is it just sitting out in the fridge “naked”?

  4. Scott Says:

    Though not made clear in the truncated recipe, the maple syrup is poured over the belly when it’s first placed in the bag. Pour it on, seal the bag, roll around to evenly distribute.

    This is what I get for hammering out this portion of the column at the last second. Damn.

    After rinsing the cure and patting dry the bacon can be left entirely naked in the fridge. It will develop a sheeny coating, called the pellicle. The pellicle isn’t necessary but helps it carry smoke when cooked…don’t worry, it’s not an overwhelming amount of smoke; just right.

    Can you all tell I was really crunched for space on this column?

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