Friday, March 18, 2011

Keeping the Bacon at Home

Weather-related difficulties prevented me from posting this yesterday.  I hope no one was angered and disappointed by this slight delay.

In any case, Friday has arrived, and per the title of the post and the scintillating hints on Monday - so has the lesson on homemade bacon.  In the later years of elementary school, we were always told about how marijuana was a "gateway drug" - not terribly detrimental by itself, but supposedly a drug that introduced one to the world of much harder and more detrimental substances.  Hence, I don't like the designation of bacon as a "gateway meat" for vegetarians - it carries the implication that meat in general is a dangerous, detrimental substance (though I understand that people are trying to make a joke when they say this).

Bacon is something I more liken to sleeping in front of a woodstove or warm fire when it is cold outside.  Or, that fluid feeling that one has when completely submerged in water.  Something like comfort and liberated fluidity combined into porcine mystery.  However, bacon is also a mysterious prolefood that frightens most consumers with its dual specters of "curing" and "smoking."  Fear no more.

Bacon (Your Way)
- A quantity of Pork belly (or really any other ungulate that stores fat in its belly, though saddles also work)*
- Basic Dry Cure: 1 lb/450 g Salt, 8 oz. / 225 g Sugar, 2 oz / 50 g Sodium Nitrate (aka "Pink Salt")**
- Creative but restrained flavour blend
- Ziploc Bag(s)
First and foremost, your "dry cure."  Notice that this cure includes the dreaded Sodium Nitrate.  Do not fear this ingredient.  Once more, do not fear this ingredient.  The bacon that you might buy for a ridiculous price that is labeled as "uncured" is actually not such, and you are wasting your money.  The bacon that is sold as "uncured" is actually cured.  It is a true case where the quotes around "uncured" are not extraneous!  It is cured with celery juice instead of sodium nitrate.  The unfortunate thing here is that celery juice can actually be higher in naturally occurring nitrates*** than just adding Sodium Nitrate in the first place.  It is also really expensive to produce, hence the reason behind your $7.99 package of uncured bacon.  Do a little research into the supposed connection between nitrates, nitrites, and cancer and you'll quickly see that things are not as cut and dry as the folks who make a killing off of uncured meat products would like us to believe.

Maybe your quarrel with Sodium Nitrate is that it isn't 'traditional' or natural.  Fair enough, but people who cured meat traditionally probably died from botulism every once in a while (the reason why you add it to your bacon).  So, my reasoning is that botulism will kill me very quickly, such is proven.  Nitrates are used in pretty small quantities (look at the ratio above); and 25 years ago one study claimed that they might have something to do with cancer in high concentrations (that one might achieve were they eating cured meats in large quantities for every meal).

Ok, that is out of the way.  The process is really quite simple, but will involve some basic mathematical ability.  Ready?  Take the weight of your meat in ounces or grams and multiply it by .05 (please note the zero, not 1/2 or 50%, but rather 1/20 or 5% of the total weight).  This number is how much dry cure you need to rub onto your meat.  So, 5 lbs = 80 ounces x .05 = 4 ounces of dry cure.  A scale would be helpful here, but you can find an ounces to cups converter easily enough by searching via your favorite engine.  Your basic dry cure above is obviously a lot more than you need unless you are doing around 32.5 lbs of bacon.

So, rub the dry cure all over your meat, add whatever flavours that will add to your eating pleasure (be creative but restrained as always - maple, juniper, garlic, and thyme are all nice starters).  Really be vigorous about your rubbing here.  You may want to grab a quick Campari or whiskey sour prior to the rubbing in case you feel a bit dinted while doing it and are unable to drink something due to cure and raw meat being all over your hands.  Place it into your ziploc bag and put it into the fridge for at least a week. Flip it daily.

Once the time has grown nigh, take your meat out of the bag and give it a rinse.  You should notice no odour or off colouring at this juncture (which is amazing, because sealing most meat in a ziploc bag for a week would likely cause some foulness to ensue).  Put it back into the fridge for a day or so to dry off, it should develop a kind of tacky exterior - this is perfect (you can also just leave it out at room temperature)

Your final step is helping your bacon to recognize its true self.  This involves some heat.  So, using my post earlier this week, you can smoke your bacon for 2 hours or so.  Conversely, if you have not yet realized your smoking potential, you can just roast it in a 93º C / 200º F oven for an hour and a half (you obviously won't have that smoky flavour in this case).  You can also hybridize these methods and smoke it for an hour, and then finish it in the oven should you feel like your smoker is not throwing enough heat.

Now, remove the skin, slice it, cook some and enjoy your bacon, made by yourself, at a fraction of the cost of what an artisan charcutier would charge you.  You can store it in the fridge for 2 weeks, and freeze it for months.  I gave people bacon for Christmas this year. 

* I would suggest no less than 5 lbs here, as the work involved, and the delicious results demand that you will have months worth of bacon laying around.  If you have trouble locating raw pork belly, ask your butcher if he or she can procure it.  Also, ask at your farm market - many farmers don't carry it only because they can (1) get more money for it when it is made into bacon and (2) because there just isn't that much demand for it.  Also, check at Asian markets, as many will carry it.  I would suggest starting with pork, because it is the most forgiving.  A nice element is that it is usually pretty cheap, only 2-4 dollars per pound.  Finally, you will see in the picture that I have left the skin on, leave this on until after you smoke or roast your bacon, then use it in a stock.  You are permitted to giggle or be horrified at the presence of nipples on said skin - your belly cut would have some nipples on it too (perhaps not as many). 

** This is not Himalayan pink salt.  This might be a harder ingredient to locate.  Morton's makes a product called "Tender Quick Meat Cure" - this will work if you can find it.  Otherwise you might have to order it online (it is pretty cheap and lasts forever).  There are 2 cures available, #1 is for bacon, #2 is for things like sausage and salami.  If you live near me, ask and I will give you some.  Also, pure Sodium Nitrate can be toxic (prior to its reaction with cured meat) so use some care when handling it and storing it.

*** Someone told me that they get terrible headaches from Nitrates.  I don't believe them, and think that it is either caused by something else, or is psychosomatic.  Why? Because they don't get headaches from eating celery, any leafy green vegetable, or cabbage.  All of these have very high concentrations of naturally occurring nitrates (often higher than cured meat).  So, if you are worried about the nitrate content in bacon or cured meats, you should also stop eating anything that falls under those categories.

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