Whew! It’s been nine months since I last posted on this blog, but a lot has changed in the interim: I now live in Dallas, for one thing, at a new job in a new home with a new car (after a careless driver pulled in front of my last one). But today I’m going to talk about a very different, but equally essential, part of becoming an independent young man in today’s society.
Knowing how to make your own bacon.
Operation Bacon Makin’ was a long time coming. The process of buying and curing the proper cut of meat, slow-roasting, and getting it ready to serve requires some prep work.
The first step was realizing that making my own bacon from scratch was not just possible, but desirable. For that (and for the instructions used) I owe Michael Ruhlman, whose book Ruhlman’s Twenty explains: “Making your own bacon is as easy as marinating a steak. When you do, you’ll find out what true bacon is all about, as opposed to the brine-pumped, water-logged versions available at the supermarket.” Now who could resist a description like that? Answer: not me.
Step two was procuring the necessities. Don’t just run out and find a slab of pork. First you’re going to need an extremely large Ziploc/Hefty bag: 2.5 gallons at least. More difficult to procure is sodium nitrite (not nitrate), a powdery salt which acts as an antimicrobial agent. Notice I didn’t say you need sodium nitrite, but you will want it, because it also provides bacon with its color. Think about it: pork chops aren’t bright red, so why is bacon? Because sodium nitrite is pink.
To acquire sodium nitrite, look online. From Butcher & Packer I got basically a lifetime supply for $10 ($2.50 plus a hefty shipping charge).
Now, following Ruhlman, find a grocery store that sells pork belly. This wasn’t easy: I was turned away at Kroger and Whole Foods, and one Hispanic butcher counter guy thought I was asking for stomach. At last I found my quarry for just over $3/lb. at Central Market. I bought five pounds.
I now had everything required for Bacon Makin’:
I combined the various ingredients more or less the same way you would marinate a steak, threw the pork belly into a gigantic Hefty bag, and stored it in the fridge for a week.
During this time, I turned the bag and slosh the seasonings around a bit so that one part doesn’t taste way more garlicky (or whatever) than the rest. My pork belly created mad amounts of condensation on the fridge shelf, so my future bacon lived fairly consistently in a puddle. And lo, on the seventh day, it was time to slow-roast the bacon in the oven. The wire rack I have for my baking sheet was small enough I had to further cut the pork belly into smaller pieces, but here’s what slow-roasting does:
Now the pork belly is ready to wrap up and store in the freezer, or slice up and throw in the frying pan! Since this is 5 lbs. of bacon, I recommend not eating it all at once. I have about three-quarters of my supply in the freezer. With the rest, it’s time to enjoy the delicious results. Homemade bacon really is different: its flavor is fuller, richer, but also subtler, so you’re not so much clubbed over the head with baconness as seduced by it. Using Ruhlman’s rub, there’s a nice hint of pepper and spice without it being excessive or aggressive (the cayenne was my idea). Plus, you can slice each piece to the thickness you want.
And all of a sudden that ordinary turkey sandwich is a turkey club. I’ve also thrown bacon into pasta and served a few strips plain with breakfast.
Here’s an abridged version of Michael Ruhlman’s recipe (the book contains much, much more, including more photos of the process and a honey mustard cure which yields a sweeter result):
Bacon at Home
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon sodium nitrite (optional)
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a knife
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
4 bay leaves, crumbled into little bits
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes [I also added cayenne]
5 pound slab of pork belly
In a bowl, combine all the ingredients for the cure. Place the pork belly and cure in a large resealable plastic bag, about 2.5 gallons, or in a nonreactive container of the same capacity. Seal the bag or cover the container and refrigerate for 7 days, occasionally rubbing the meat to redistribute the seasonings and turning the bag or the belly every other day.
Remove the meat from the cure, rinse well [remove all bay leaves!], and pat dry with paper towels. Discard the cure. The belly can be refrigerated in a fresh plastic bag for several days if you are not yet ready to cook it.
If roasting the pork, preheat oven to 200F/95C. Place the meat on a rack on a baking sheet/tray. Roast until the internal temperature reaches 150F/65C, about 2 hours. Begin checking the temperature after 1 hour.
If smoking the pork, smoke the belly with the wood of your choice at 200F/95C, until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 150F/65C.
Let the bacon cool to room temperature. Wrap it well in plastic wrap/cling film and refrigerate until chilled. The bacon can be refrigerated for 2 weeks or wrapped and frozen for up to 3 months.
When you’re ready to eat, you know what to do.