If bacon had it’s own Twitter account it would have more followers than Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and Barack Obama combined. Everyone loves those slabs of salty goodness. Even those forbidden to eat it have been known to long for it. I cured more than 20 pounds to get the photos below, and all of it was consumed before I finished my first draft a week later (With the help of family and friends of course – I’m not that big of a glutton).
I hold bacon’s many virtues on such a high pedestal that I struggled to write about it because the words always felt unworthy. Then I remembered: Bacon is awesome, and you aren’t here to read my attempts at witty prose, you are here because you love it too, so let’s get on with it!
There is so much to say about bacon, I’ve divided the process into two parts: curing and smoking. In this post I’ll cover two methods of curing. I’ll cover smoking in part 2.
Bacon was the first meat I cured myself, and it’s absolutely the best cut for a newbie to enter the world of curing. It’s incredibly easy and doesn’t require any fancy equipment to churn out a fabulous product that puts everything in your local supermarket to shame. All that’s needed is access to a refrigerator, a smoker, and a handful of ingredients.
Procuring the pork belly is the hardest part of curing bacon at home. Most big box grocery stores do not carry pork bellies. There is simply not enough demand to keep them in stock. This is where a local butcher or farmers market comes in handy. Local butchers have an advantage over super markets because they work with local farmers to source their meat. Nine times out of ten, local sources of pork are a much higher quality. If you can get heritage breed pork from Berkshire, Duroc, Red Wattle, or Mangalitsa pigs that were raised with love and care it will absolutely show in the final product. Yes, it’s likely to cost a bit more but taste and texture will be of a much higher quality, the animals were much more likely to be raised in superior conditions, and the money goes back into supporting your local farming community. It’s a win all the way around.
If you don’t have access to a local butcher or farmers market, big restaurant supply stores will likely have bellies. They are also likely to have the best prices. However, it’s commonplace for these stores to only sell pork bellies by the case, which is 50 pounds, and the pork is usually a lower quality. A case of pork might not be a problem for some, but for others it may be too much of an investment or take up too much space.
Yet another option is to try a local ethnic grocery store. Latino and Asian grocery stores are very likely to keep bellies in stock and will be selling much more manageable sizes. I recommend buying at least a five-pound slab, which is normally half a belly. The thicker the better.
For this walkthrough I lucked out at my local butcher shop. I told the butcher I wanted a nice, thick pork belly because I was going to cure some bacon. He went in the back and popped out a few minutes later with the biggest pork belly I’ve ever seen. He tossed it up on the scale and it came in at 25 pounds. Yahtzee!
Trying to cure a whole belly this size is generally too much to handle. It gets unwieldy when trying to wrap it up and most home cooks do not have enough room in their fridge or smoker for such a large cut. I had plans to try a couple more recipes with pork belly, so I divided the massive hunk of pork into five pound sections. I recommend slicing bellies into five-pound chunks because they are just the right size to handle easily and will be enough for yourself, friends, and family should you choose to be so generous.
After slicing the belly, the first step in the process is to remove the skin. A sharp fillet knife and a slow and steady pace are key. Leave as much fat as possible on the belly. Once the skin is removed don’t throw it away. It will make an excellent batch of chicharrones. Put it in a ziplock bag and toss it in the freezer until you need it.
Now it’s time to cure. If you were to slice off a piece of the belly at this stage and fry it up it would not taste like bacon. It would have a delicious fatty porky taste. That’s not what we are after here. In order to get that salty pink colored goodness, it needs to be placed in a cure. Your pork belly is like a caterpillar that needs to go into a cocoon of cure before it’s transformed into a beautiful bacon butterfly. [pullquote]Your pork belly is like a caterpillar that needs to go into a cocoon of cure before it’s transformed into a beautiful bacon butterfly.[/pullquote]
So what is a cure exactly? Essentially a cure is salt, sugar, and sodium nitrite. Insta-Cure #1 is the most commonly used type of sodium nitrite. The Insta-Cure is what gives bacon that pink color we all know and love. The benefit of adding Insta-Cure #1 is food safety. It prevents nasty things like botulism that can grow in warm and moist environments with low oxygen. Sounds a lot like a warm smoking cabinet doesn’t it?
Nitrite and nitrate nutritional safety has been debated back and forth. Both are naturally occurring in vegetables like celery and beets. Some of the best ham and sausage makers I know use nitrites and nitrates. After consulting local experts and doing my own research I have no problem eating food containing either.
I usually purchase my Insta-Cure #1 from The Sausage Maker. A five-pound tub will last you a long time. Be sure to get Insta-Cure #1 and not Insta-Cure #2. #2 is for long duration cures like salumi. Any cure lasting less than 30 days would need #1 and anything more would need #2.
There are two curing methods to choose from: Dry and wet. Both have their pros and cons. A dry cure is just like it sounds – dry. Salt, sugar, pepper, and Insta-cure are rubbed all over every surface of the belly. It’s then wrapped up and set in a refrigerator for 6-7 days to cure. With a wet cure, the belly is instead placed in a water-based cure solution and refrigerated for 10-14 days.
- Shorter cure duration
- Easier to store in smaller refrigerators
- Exotic flavor profiles are easier to achieve
- Can be a bit messier
- Can be prone to hot or cold spots due to too much or too little cure in areas of your bacon
- Not as messy
- Cure is distributed more evenly
- Can take up a considerable amount of space in the refrigerator
- Takes up to twice as long to cure as a dry cure method
- Exotic flavor profiles are hard to achieve
Dry Cure Method
Since I purchased a giant belly I used both methods. For the dry cure I prefer to use honey and brown sugar to punch up the sweetness. Start by combining ½ cup of salt ½ cup of brown sugar, 1 TBS of black pepper, and 1 tsp of Insta-Cure #1. This amount of Insta-Cure is specific to a five-pound belly. Please be sure and use correct amounts for the size you have.
After the dry rub is mixed set it aside. Pour the honey over the belly and coat evenly. Then sprinkle the cure over all parts of the meat front and back. After it is completely coated using all the cure and honey, wrap up the soon-to-be bacon. Plastic wrap is perfectly acceptable to use. I found jumbo 2.5 gallon Ziplock bags to be much easier than wrestling a thick slab of bacon inside a bunch of plastic wrap.
After the bacon is covered stick it in the refrigerator for 6-7 days. During this time the cure will pull moisture out of the pork. It’s a good idea to put the belly on a rimmed cookie sheet just in case it leaks. After 3 days flip the bacon over to the other side. This ensures the cure is evenly distributed. After 6-7 days the belly should feel firm and there will likely be a good amount of liquid pulled from the slab. Unwrap the belly and wash off the excess cure under a faucet.
At this point we need to check to see how our flavors have matured. Slice off a small piece from one end of the bacon and fry it up in a pan. Hopefully the bacon has the perfect amount of saltiness. If the bacon has too much for your taste, fear not. Simply soak the slab for an hour in cold water and re-check with a fry test. After you are happy with the flavor profile pat the slab dry and rest the slab in the refrigerator uncovered over night. If you have a wire cooling rack use it to elevate the slab to allow cool air to circulate around the belly. This is ideal as you want the slab to be as dry as possible so the smoke “sticks” to the meat when we put it in the smoker in part 2.
Wet Cure Method
The process for wet cure bacon is very similar. I find Pops6927’s recipe from the Smoking Meat forums to be a great place to start.
In a large food-safe container, combine 1 gallon of water, 1 cup of plain (non-iodized) table salt, 1 cup of white sugar, 1 cup of brown sugar, and 1 TBS of Insta-Cure #1. Mix together until dissolved. Drop in the pork belly and make sure it stays submerged. I used a plastic container filled with water to weigh mine down.
Next, place the container and meat in the refrigerator for 14 days. Unlike the dry cure, there is no need to rotate the slab as it cures. After the 14 days are up, wash off the excess cure and pat dry.
From here, check the slab with a fry test to ensure the flavors are where you want them. If they are correct, rest the slab in the fridge uncovered overnight.
At this point we are in the home stretch. Whether you dry cured or wet cured we have one last important step to achieving bacon bliss. It’s time to add some of that fantastic smoke flavor to our cured slab of belly. Now let’s head over to part 2 to wrap things up!