Late fall and early winter always stirs thoughts of the annual pig harvest as this cold post-farm moment invites the perfect time to stuff, smoke, and cure meat for the year- especially in accord with the season of holiday feasts that follows in tow.
For those who have always been curious about venturing into the world of preserving meat there is included in the monthly featured recipes the technique for making your own bacon. It’s a perfect first-go as it’s easy, safe, and as deliciously rewarding as a homemade treat should be. This recipe is the one I’ve used and tweaked for many years for well over a hundred batches of bacon I’m sure. For me this belly is destined to enliven this winter’s miso soups.
Get ahold of a slab of pork belly. Talk to your local pork farmers or head to your butcher shop. You can usually find them in ~5 pound sizes, with a full belly averaging around 12- 15 pounds.
As with most recipes your salt is the most important ingredient to be thoughtful about and then after that it’s all play. For salt you’re looking for about 2.8% of the belly weight. For a 5 pound slab that would be around 64 grams.
Now with bacon there is also a second salt called pink salt or curing salt (different than Himalayan). In Pittsburgh you can get this either at Penn Mac or The Pittsburgh Spice and Seasoning Company. Curing salt contains sodium nitrate which helps meat fend off dangerous microorganisms in processes where meat is held for significant periods of time in the “temperature danger zone” (which is a phrase used to describe temperatures that make microbes happy, like room temperature)- which is the case in curing meats. The curing salts also have an effect on flavor and color, helping meat retain a red color rather than gray and giving it that flavor that is synonymous with bacon. Making bacon without nitrates is possible but will produce a porky flavor rather than bacony, if that makes sense.
Typically your pink curing salt should provide a recommended amount which should be in the ballpark of 0.2 ounces per 5 pounds. Keep in mind that too much pink curing salt is a bad thing so do take care to measure this one out well.
After that the remaining seasoning is for you to decide. Some suggestions per a 5 pound belly are:
- Sweet Stuff: add 55 grams brown sugar/ honey/ or maple syrup, or some blend of each
- Garlic- mince 2-3 cloves
- A Bay leaf
- Go wild on the herbs, especially thyme. Gotta love when fresh is available.
- Black peppercorns- teaspoon or two
The sky is the limit here. You can use gochujang to make a kimchi bacon, add a splash of whiskey, just as long as your salt and pink curing salt is consistent.
Mix everything together- both salts, sweet stuff, and seasonings, and rub it all over the pork belly to coat it. Put the belly and any seasoning that fell off in a bag, stacking them if you have multiple slabs, and place it in the fridge for 6 days. Flip and turn every day or so to keep the marinade even.
I usually aim for a 1 week process so on the 6th day take the belly out of the bag and place it on a rack with a tray beneath it to catch any falling juices and put it back into the fridge. A cookie sheet with a plate underneath works well. We are trying to dry off the belly. I do this primarily because I smoke my belly and smoke doesn’t stick to wet things well, but it also has a great effect on the roasting color by doing this step. Air drying meat before roasting is a great idea, like chickens for roasting. *Some recipes recommend rinsing the belly prior to drying, I presume to remove any excess marinate so maybe the herbs and sugars won’t burn during cooking. I used to do this but don’t anymore. I don’t have any problems and I like the way it looks more. Go with your heart.
The next day preheat your oven or smoker to 250 degrees and smoke or cook for around 90 minutes or until an internal temperature of 150 degrees. Feel free to add a little more time if it needs it to finish off the gorgeous color.
First thing after it’s done, eat a fresh hot bacon snack by working the odd nubs that hang around the edges. This is one of the highest moments of human experience, relish in it. Then let the belly cool and then refrigerate it. If you’d like to slice your bacon, whether by hand or if you’ve got your hands on a commercial meat slicer it’s best to toss the belly in the freezer until it’s about 1/3 frozen. This will give you a slab that is firm enough to make uniform cuts more easily.