The Path to Culinary Bliss: Home Cured Bacon
Watching pigs like these at Coon Rock Farm, eating a diet of roots, acorns, grass, and garden refuse makes me really happy. Instead of being packed into a cramped, concrete floored barn, these animals appear to be acting as nature intended, and in the process they are creating some of the most flavorful meat you can imagine.
Of all of the kitchen experiments I have undertaken, none has been more rewarding than making my own home cured bacon from pastured pork. The process is incredibly easy and the end result is better than anything I can purchase. The beauty of home cured bacon is that you are in complete control of the ingredients. You may like it more or less salty, more or less savory, more or less sweet. No nitrite, no problem. You get to decide.
If you join me in creating your own bacon, you will likely never purchase a pack from the supermarket again.
Pork Belly Procurement
To begin you will need a pork belly, a perfect blend of striated fat and lean meat from the underside of a pig. Typically a whole pork belly will weigh anywhere from 8 to 12 lbs. In my experience the larger pork bellies (over 10 lbs) tend to be a bit thick which makes slicing it into bacon more difficult. I look for a smaller one with uniform thickness.
Most farms that sell pastured pork have pork bellies, although you may need to ask for them ahead of time if you are trying to find one at the farmers’ market. You can also purchase pork bellies directly from the butcher shop or from markets like Whole Foods. The good news is that pork bellies are a cheaper cut of pork and can usually be found for about $5 per pound. If possible, purchase your pork belly with the skin still on.
Curing and Cooking
The recipe that I use for curing the pork is modeled on this one from Saveur, but based on my tastes I have made several modifications. For an 8 lb pork belly, I use the following:
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 1 teaspoon caraway seed
- 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 4 bay leaves
- 8 tablespoons or ½ cup of sea salt (not coarse)
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
Grind the first 6 ingredients using either a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder. Mix the resulting powder with the salt and garlic. This is your cure. You can experiment with different ingredients based on your taste preferences.
If you have a pork belly larger than 5 lbs, I would suggest cutting it into two pieces. Place each piece into a 2 or 2.5 gallon freezer bag and coat each piece (both sides) with the cure mixture. These bags then go into the refrigerator for 7 days, and you will flip them once per day during this period. You may notice a bit of liquid in the bag after a few days as a result of the salt pulling water out of the pork (this is completely normal).
After 7 days, remove the pork from the bags, wash off the cure mixture in cold water and pat the pork bellies dry using a few paper towels. Put each pork belly into a baking dish (skin side up) and place into a 200 degree oven (Fahrenheit). For 8 lbs of pork belly, I leave it in the oven for 2 hours. The goal is to get the internal temperature of the meat to 150 degrees.
Note: Instead of using the oven, some people may prefer to use a smoker. My experience in using a smoker was that the flavor of the smoke was too overpowering.
After you remove the pork from the oven, let it cool down for about 30 minutes or an hour (until it is comfortable for you to work with). Place one of the pork bellies on a large cutting board with the skin side facing up. You can trim off a thin layer of the skin (if you choose – I always do), but try not to waste much of the bacon. Next comes the hardest part of the entire process. Using a very sharp knife, slice the bacon into the desired thickness. If you like really thin bacon, this will take some patience and some practice. Slicing two sections of an 8 lb pork belly takes me approximately 20 minutes (and I have done it quite a few times).
For storage, I find that quart freezer bags are excellent. They hold about 1 lb each which is the perfect size for our family. Store what you will use in the next week in your refrigerator and the remainder in the freezer where it will keep well for several months.
If you would like to take a more in-depth look at bacon and other cured meats, I recommend Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.
Please post your comments and/or questions below and I will be happy to try to help. Thanks for reading!