Even though it doesn’t take much to master, making bacon is one of the easiest ways to feel like a master chef in the kitchen.
You can buy plenty of high-end bacon at grocery stores, but homemade bacon feels impressive to slice and serve on a weekend morning or when you have guests visiting. I have made (and written about) bacon in the past, and a new product from Hi Mountain Seasonings called, simply, Bacon Cure, nudged me to pick it up again.
The Wyoming-based seasoning company launched in the early 1990s with jerky mixes, which you can find at Academy, Cabela’s and other outdoor stores in Central Texas. The new bacon cure ($8.99 for 16 ounces, or enough to make 25 pounds of bacon) is currently only available online, through the company’s website (himtnjerky.com) or Amazon.
It’s not difficult to make a mix of salt, spices, pink salt, or sodium nitrate, on your own, but this product — which comes in two flavors, original and black pepper brown sugar — is a convenient option if you’re looking to get started.
After seasoning, the next bacon-making question is always: "Where do you get pork belly?" Hi Mountain reminds cooks that they can use this cure on pork loin to make Canadian bacon; I wanted a traditional pork belly bacon this time around. a
But choosing a pork belly was the second part of this experiment: I made two batches of bacon at the same time, one with a pastured pork from the farmers market that cost $7.50 a pound and a second with a regular belly from a traditional butcher shop, Long Horn Meat Market, that cost closer to $3 a pound. Central Market and Whole Foods also sell pork bellies that fall in the middle of this quality spectrum, but I wanted to see if that locally raised pork made a big enough difference to splurge.
(A note on procuring the pork: I also bought a pork belly at a Mexican meat market for about $2 a pound, but the only option was to buy it with the skin on, which I found too difficult to remove evenly.)
Each of the bellies was between 3 and 4 pounds, so I rubbed a few tablespoons of the cure on the outsides of each belly and then placed each one in a glass casserole dish, topping with a sheet of plastic wrap. You could also store the meat in a large zip-top plastic bag, but you’ll still want to put it in a baking dish so it doesn’t leak in your fridge.
Store the pork belly in the fridge for about a week, with a flip midway through. That's the extent of the effort it takes to make bacon: remembering to turn them a few days into the cure.
After the curing time, which can be as few as four days and as many as 10, the Hi Mountain Seasonings instructions called for soaking the bellies in water for about an hour to remove any remaining cure on the outside. (Even though "Cured Meat, Smoked Fish & Pickled Eggs" author Karen Solomon doesn’t include this step in her homemade bacon recipe, below, I’ve found that skipping this step results in extra-salty bacon that is too salty even for this salt lover.)
Pat the pork bellies dry and, voila, you have bacon. If you have a smoker, you could throw the pork belly on for a few hours, but you can also slice it up and serve without this step.
I found that slicing both of the bellies was easier if they were in the freezer for about 30 minutes to firm up the flesh. An extra sharp knife makes the tasks easier, too. I could slice it as thick or as thin as I wanted, leaving some strips thick enough to use as pancetta in pasta carbonara and others thin enough to fry quickly with eggs.
The less expensive belly had more flaps and folds and wasn't as easy to handle as the neatly trimmed belly from TerraPurezza, a regenerative agriculture farm near Spicewood that helps put on the Pedernales Farmer’s Market on Sunday mornings.
Because the locally raised pork had a much more even layer of fat and maintained its shape when cooked, it had a slightly different texture. Taste-wise, you couldn't tell the difference.
With so many do-it-yourselfers in the kitchen these days — and so many DIY kits on the market — I’m surprised there aren’t more bacon mixes on grocery store shelves these days. Hi Mountain’s hasn’t yet made it into grocery stores, but having a box of bacon cure, instructions included, might be just what you need to try your hand at making this almost universally loved cured meat.
Oh, before we sign off on bacon this week, I wanted to alert you to a new(ish) product hitting grocery shelves throughout Texas: Bacon Up Bacon Grease, a filtered, rendered bacon fat that you can use in everyday cooking.
Born in Allen, the product launched at Buc-ees late last year and is now sold in H-E-B and Albertsons stores and through Amazon. It comes in two sizes (1 gallon and 14 ounces) and sells for $12.99 and $29.99, respectively.
I have thrown out countless jars of bacon fat over the years because I simply don’t use that much of it in cooking, but this soft bacon fat has been filtered three times, so there aren’t any small bacon particles in it. This makes it easier to use in applications where you wouldn’t necessarily want little black flecks of pork, such as chocolate chip cookies or biscuits.
Americans are deeply in love with the meat of all meats, the cured (often smoked) fatty belly of the pig. While its saturated fat content may make bacon a "sometimes" food for health, it is an "always" food for those who swoon for swine, and each slice does contain 3 grams of protein. Bacon must first be dry-rubbed and cured for 7 to 10 days. While you can slice and fry it immediately after curing, American-style bacon is usually smoked as well. If you can’t buy pink curing salt (sodium nitrite) from your local kitchen supply shop or butcher, order it online from a sausage-making supplier.
If you are smoking the meat, you will need 3 cups of hickory sawdust. It will take 1 to 2 hours to smoke the pork belly. When your bacon is ready, slice it as thin (or as thick) as you like it. (Freezing the bacon for 30 minutes will help you slice it very thinly.) Fry in a skillet over medium heat until browned on both sides. Drain on paper towels and enjoy.
Cured or smoked bacon can be stored in large slabs, in precut hunks for flavoring beans or other dishes, or in slices layered between pieces of parchment paper and sealed tightly in a freezer storage bag. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 7 days or in the freezer for at least 3 months.
— Karen Solomon
2 1/2 to 3 pounds thick, center-cut skinless pork belly
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses
2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon pink curing salt (such as Insta Cure #1)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Trim any thin edges from the pork belly so that the piece is of even thickness. (You can save these excess pieces of belly for making sausage or lard, or for roasting into a tasty snack.)
Combine the sugar and molasses in a large rectangular baking dish or pan. Mash until thoroughly incorporated; you’ll have a very dark brown sugar. Mix in the kosher salt, curing salt and pepper. Add the meat to the dish and rub the cure into the meat, spreading it evenly around the sides, top and bottom. Tuck the rubbed meat into a 1-gallon or oversized ziplock plastic bag, placing it in a single layer. Lay the meat flat in a dish (in case any liquids escape from the bag) and chill in the refrigerator for 7 days, daily massaging the liquids that will accumulate inside the bag into the meat and flipping the bag over.
Inspect your bacon. It should be firm to the touch all over, like touching a cooked steak. If the flesh still feels spongy and soft in spots, sprinkle it evenly with an additional 2 tablespoons kosher salt and let it cure a little longer. Check it again after 1 to 2 days.
Once the bacon is fully cured, brush off the rub, rinse the meat well and pat it completely dry. At this point, your bacon is cured but not cooked. You can either fry the slices in a skillet now or smoke them and then fry. Either way, your bacon needs to be cooked before being eaten.
— From "Cured Meat, Smoked Fish & Pickled Eggs: Recipes & Techniques for Preserving Protein-Packed Foods" by Karen Solomon (Storey Publishing, $19.95)