For all the current foodie hype there is about bacon, I think far too few people are making it themselves. It’s surprisingly simple, and wonderfully rewarding.
When we purchased half a sow last November, one of the big perks of getting such a mature animal was the quality and quantity of fat that would be on her. And boy did that sow deliver. I made a good 12-14 pounds of belly and jowls into bacon, stocking the freezer for at least a couple months.
I hadn’t restarted my blog yet when I was making the bacon, so I don’t have any pics of the process, but I hope to update this section this summer when it’s time to make bacon again.
We also bought a vacuum sealer because storing the bacon in the freezer really necessitated it. The one pic I have to share is when I sliced and packed up the last slab, I pulled out all the bacon we still had in the freezer for a photo, and there were still nineteen 8 oz. packs.
A few notes about homemade bacon:
- Bacon is usually made from the pork belly, but only because it is the area with the striations of fat and meat that we think of as bacon. Another lesser-known area of the pig that makes great bacon is the jowls.
- The meat and fat streaks may not be as regular as store-bought bacon, but it all depends on the pork belly (or jowls or whatever) you start with.
- In my experience, homemade bacon renders out a LOT more fat when you cook it. I think store-bought bacon is washed more or something, which means more of the fat is already removed. This fat removal is a good thing if you’re of a low-fat mentality, but if you’re like us and relish saving as much pastured pig fat as you can, then keeping your fat is a big plus as the bacon-fat-jar runneth over. (For more info on the benefits of pastured lard, here‘s a great in-depth explanation.)
- Bacon is actually cooked. You either hot-smoke or cook it in a low oven at the end of the curing process until the interior reaches 160˚F. I make no claims about the safety of the bacon you purchase at the store, but when you make your own bacon from meat you feel good about, once it’s made you don’t have to feel all skeezy about putting on a cutting board or whatever. It may look raw, but it’s technically cooked.
- Nitrates/nitrites: There are lots of strong feelings here and you can learn more by googling the topic or reading what Michael Ruhlman has to say. You can do what you like, I’ve chosen this year to go ahead and add some pink salt to my curing, and I’ve been very happy with the results and not overly worried about the risks.
On to the basic recipe, all bacon follows a basic formula: salt (with or without a little pink salt), sweetener like sugar or honey, and herbs or other flavorings such as molasses or maple syrup. I recommend starting with something in the realm of these basic proportions, doing a little internet research, and then branching out based on your own tastes. I used honey in all the types of bacon I made, a more Paleo-friendly sweetener than sugar, and added extras to make molasses bacon, herb bacon, pepper bacon, garlic bacon, and simple honey and salt only bacon. (For the record, none of them taste at all like honey.)
One 5 lb. slab of pork belly (leave the rind/skin on if it’s on)
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1 tsp pink salt (or omit)
1/4 cup sugar (or honey or maple syrup or other sub)
any herbs or other flavorings you’d like
Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Rinse pork belly and pat dry. Place belly on a tray and coat with dry ingredients. Put belly into a zip bag and dump any dry ingredients left on tray into bag. Drizzle in wet ingredients if any. Don’t worry too much about distribution of the ingredients in the bag, do your best to massage them around, and then let it go. As the belly cures it will let off a lot of water and the curing liquid will surround the meat in the bag. For this same reason, put your sealed zip bag with your belly in it on a tray in your fridge, you don’t want the bag to spring a leak and spill porky juices all over your fridge.
Turn the belly once a day, and let it cure for about a week. A thinner piece may only need 4 or 5 days, a thicker piece may need longer. You are basically giving the salty stuff time to penetrate all the way to the center of the cut. I haven’t figured out a good way to know for sure if it’s penetrated except trial and error.
When you’ve decided you are done curing, pour out the accumulated curing liquid.
The next step is hot smoking, but you don’t need a smoker. (If you have one, by all means, use it!) Put your slab of bacon on a rack on a cookie sheet with an edge. Buy a little bottle of liquid smoke from the grocery store BBQ section, and brush it over your bacon with a light touch. (Liquid smoke is completely natural, and made from smoke passed through water, it turns out.) Put it in the oven at 200˚F for a couple hours. It’s done when the internal temperature is 160˚F.
If your bacon still has a rind on it, it will be easiest to slice off about 20 minutes after your bacon comes out of the oven, when it’s cooled down just a little so that it doesn’t burn your fingers (as much), but the fat is still nice and hot and soft.