A lively group of about 100 people attended the demonstration I led on how to cure your own bacon at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pa., last weekend. They peppered me with questions for more than an hour, which was tremendously fun.
Curing your own bacon is so simple that anyone can do it. And yes, I mean you! It requires only one specialty ingredient – the “pink salt,” sometimes called Instacure No. 1 or Prague Powder No. 1. You can find this inexpensive ingredient here.
Several people wanted to know if you can make bacon without the nitrites in the pink salt. The answer is yes, you certainly can — but it won’t be bacon, exactly. It will be very good, but it won’t be bacon. The nitrites in the curing salt have several functions:
• They provide protection against food-borne illnesses like listeria, salmonella and botulism.
• They keep the color of the meat pink, instead of an unattractive gray.
• And they contribute to the ‘bacony” flavor of your product. Because nitrites have traditionally been used in bacon, the flavor they lend to cured meats has become the flavor we expect in ham and bacon. Without nitrites, your bacon will taste "porky," not bacony.
Especially for your first effort, I strongly recommend using pink salt. Later, when you understand the process more thoroughly, you can vary your curing process. Feel free to alter flavorings, but if you use raw garlic in your cure, it's very important to use pink salt to protect against the slight possibility of botulism.
The kitchen staff at Seven Springs Resort was obliging enough to cure 10 pounds of fresh pork belly according to the cure recipe below (we doubled it, of course, since the recipe calls for just 5 pounds), which is adapted from a splendid book for the beginner, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. We sliced and cooked all 10 pounds to pass out samples at the demonstration, and I’m pleased to say that there wasn’t a speck of it left.
(adapted from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn)
5 pounds of fresh pork belly from your grocery store, the pork guy at your farmers market, or from a local butcher shop
A box of 2-gallon zip-top bags if you don’t have a container big enough to hold the belly
2 ounces (1/4 cup Morton or Diamond Crystal coarse kosher) salt
2 teaspoons pink curing salt #1 (see link above)
4 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 cup brown sugar or honey or maple syrup
Put your belly in the zip-top bag or on a sheet tray or in a plastic container. Rub the salt and spice mixture all over the belly. Close the bag or cover it with plastic wrap, and stick it in the refrigerator for seven days (get your hands in there and give the spices another good rubbing around midway through).
After seven days, take it out of the fridge, rinse off all the seasonings under cold water and pat it dry.
Smoke the bacon over apple, pecan, hickory or another hardwood until it reaches an interior temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
Or put it on a rack over a sheet tray and turn the oven on to 200 degrees. Leave it in the oven for 90 minutes (or, if you want to measure the internal temperature, until it reaches 150 degrees.).
Let it cool and refrigerate it until you’re ready to cook it. You will want to cut off a slice, cook it and sample it right away, I'm betting.
Notes: If you don’t have five pounds of belly, either guesstimate salt based on the above or, if you have a scale, multiply the weight of the belly in ounces or grams by .025 and that’s how many ounces or grams of salt you should use.
If for any reason you find your bacon to be too salty (it happens), simply blanch the bacon and dump the water before cooking.
Robin Mather is a senior associate editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the author of The Feast Nearby, a collection of essays and recipes from her year of eating locally on $40 a week. In her spare time, she is a hand-spinner, knitter, weaver, homebrewer, cheese maker and avid cook who cures her own bacon. Find her on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.
Photos by Jennifer Kongs.