Curing meats is no longer a survival skill, but, as a hobby, it can be supremely satisfying. Turning plain, ordinary meat into a deeply flavored piece of ham or jerky is a modest sort of culinary alchemy, and it results in some of the tastiest ingredients in the culinary canon. Homemade bacon is one of the easiest cured meats to make, so it's a good starting point for novice enthusiasts. It's more flavorful when prepared in a smoker, but homemade bacon can even be finished in your oven.
Although several other cuts can be used, American-style bacon -- or "streaky bacon" as the Brits call it -- is made from pork belly. It's a flat slab, consisting of layers of fat interspersed with thin sheets of muscle. Be sure to tell your butcher you want a piece that's uncured and unsliced, and ask to have the skin removed. Pork bellies vary widely in their ratio of fat to meat, so be sure to specify how fat or lean you'd like your portion to be. Whole pork bellies average around 10 pounds in weight, so you might prefer to use a half-belly for your initial experiment. Aside from the difference in cost, the smaller piece is easier to fit in your refrigerator.
Bacon is usually cured with a mixture of salt, which acts as the primary preservative and flavoring agent, and sugar, which sweetens the pork and moderates the salt's harshness. You can vary the ratio to suit your own taste, but a good starting point is 60 percent salt to 40 percent sugar or brown sugar by weight. Personalize the flavor with black pepper, spices or alternative sweeteners if you wish to tailor the bacon to your own specific taste. If you don't have access to a smoker or simply don't want to take that extra step, add smoke flavoring or smoked paprika to the mixture. Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly before applying them.
Pat the pork belly dry with paper towels, and brush it with liquid sweeteners or flavorings if you're using them. Rub the entire surface of the pork belly with the curing mixture; then seal it in a large zipper-seal bag. Put the bag into a plastic tub to catch any drips or leaks, and refrigerate it for 6 to 8 days. Moisture seeping from the pork will dissolve the dry cure and form a concentrated brine. Massage the bag every day or two to redistribute the mixture, and then turn it over. This process, called "overhauling," helps ensure the pork will be evenly cured. At the end of the curing time, rinse the pork belly under cold water to remove the salt and then pat it dry.
Commercial bacon is cold-smoked, a challenging technique that's potentially dangerous for inexperienced hobbyists. At least to begin with, you're better off to simply hot-smoke your bacon. Load your smoker with hardwood chips and bring it to a temperature of 185 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, or as close to that as you can manage. Smoke the slab until it reaches an internal temperature of 150 F when tested with an instant-read thermometer, typically about 3 to 3 1/2 hours. If you don't have a smoker, slow-roast the pork in your oven at 200 F until it reaches the same 150 F internal temperature. Cool and refrigerate the bacon immediately. It will keep in your fridge for 2 to 3 weeks, or you can divide it into smaller portions for freezing.
Bacon with a simple salt and sugar cure won't have the traditional pink color, which comes from curing salt. This is a mixture containing nitrates and or nitrites, which are crucial to preventing botulism in long-stored or cold-smoked bacon. It's toxic if used in excess, so if you opt to use it, the curing salt must be mixed very thoroughly with the dry ingredients or dissolved into a brine. That helps prevent any dangerous concentrations of curing salt on any part of your bacon. The amount you'll need is determined by the weight of your pork belly, and weighing it requires an accurate scale. If you don't own a scale, a safe option is to purchase a curing mixture that already incorporates the correct percentage of curing salt.
- Garde Manger: The Art and Craft Of the Cold Kitchen; Culinary Institute of America
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