The Virtual Gourmand 14: Makin' Bacon!
I don't think there's another more universally loved food in America than bacon. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone (even among those who are forbidden by religious or dietary practices) who won't admit to liking bacon. There's just something about the salty-smoky-unctuously fatty taste of bacon that is unique among flavors.
A few months ago, I decided I was going to try to make some artisinal bacon. Christmas was on the way, and I wanted to (and always like to, as a matter of fact) make unique food products for friends and family as gifts for the holiday season. Who wouldn't like to get a package with a vacuum-sealed bag loaded with yummy bacon? I sure would.
However, my initial search for pork belly, which is the traditional cut of meat cured and smoked for American plates, was almost fruitless. Grocery stores and specialty markets alike couldn't get it, or else their suppliers didn't offer it. I finally managed to find some pieces of pork belly at the international market. But their size and price weren't going to get the job done.
So I went back to the web and did some research. Obviously, there was the option of curing and smoking a pork loin to make what we call 'Canadian bacon'. Pork loin is the cut that yields the best chops. And it is used in making crown roast of pork, which is the porcine equivalent of a beef standing rib roast. Interestingly enough, Canadian bacon is an American version of its namesake. In Canada, the roasts are actually cured, smoked, then rolled in cornmeal and sold as 'pea-meal' bacon.
But there was another kind of bacon that could be made by the home cook. Called buckboard bacon, it is made from the top of the front leg of the pig, a cut known as the Boston Butt. The lower portion of the pig's front leg is known as the shoulder (or picnic roast), and isn't as well suited for the job. Buckboard bacon has the added advantage of being pretty well marbled with fat, and is reasonably inexpensive to boot. Even more fortuitously, I managed to find a number of these sorts of roasts reduced for quick sale on top of an already good sale price. For 59 cents per pound, I figured I was going to be able to make a lot of buckboard bacon, with plenty of material to experiment with at little cost for failure. Loin roasts were on sale as well, so I had double the good fortune for attempting my project at this time.
|Boston butt roasts|
|Boston butt and pork loin roasts|
For Canadian bacon, it really isn't necessary to trim the loin roast at all. If you choose to do so for dietary reasons, be sure to remove both the fat and the silver skin underneath it. In addition to being tough, the silverskin can block the absorption of the cure if the latter is applied on the outside.
|You want to peel the fat and the silver skin off of the loint roasts if you choose to go 'healthy' with your Canadian bacon|
For making buckboard bacon from a butt roast, a portion of the shoulder blade must be removed. Thankfully, that bone also happens to neatly separate the three distinct muscles that make up the roast. Using a flexible fillet knife, cut along the edges of the bone to remove it, then cut along the lines of the remaining muscles to separate them. I did four butt roasts for this project, and I managed to get a pretty clean bone only the second time I attempted the cutting process. You may do even better.
|Side view of Boston butt, showing shoulder blade bone|
|A relatively clean bone can be achieved with a little practice|
|Boned and separated, three sizable pieces of meat are ready for curing|
Because the next stage involves proportioning the quantity of meat to the amount of cure applied, it is necessary to weigh each piece of meat. After working out the preliminary calculation, the best (and easiest) way to go about this step is to place a piece of aluminum foil on top of the scale to wrap the meat, then weigh the meat and record the weight with a permanent marker on a zipper-top bag. Once that's done, place the foil containing the meat on top of the bag to prevent any mix-ups.
|Weighing the meat is important so the amount of cure needed can be determined|
Now for the cure itself. The single-most important ingredient you need for making bacon is a product from Morton salt called Tenderquick. Tenderquick is a salt and sugar mixture containing sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, which are needed to both prevent bacterial growth and to preserve the meat's pinkish appearance. There are a number of studies out there that point to potential detrimental health effects from these curing agents. However, you can rest assured both substances are naturally occurring, and have been used for curing meat and sausage for centuries. As a general rule, you probably shouldn't eat too much of the stuff. But my personal opinion is that the cholesterol in many meat products is likely much more harmful than the agent used to preserve them. If you cannot find Tenderquick at your local grocery store or Wal-Mart (look in the spice or canning sections), you can order it directly from Morton.
The basic recipe that I use is:
1 T. Tenderquick
1/2 t. garlic powder
1/2 t. onion powder
1/2 t. cracked black pepper
2 T. light brown sugar (I like to grind the sugar finely in my spice grinder for a better consistency)
|Some of the ingredients I used in variations of the original recipe. Only the Tenderquick is absolutely necessary.|
From here on, the sky's the limit. Use your creativity. Some of the variations that I've made have used chile pepper powders of various heat and flavor levels, worcestershire powder, powdered honey, molasses powder, hickory smoke powder and varying proportions of everything but the Tenderquick. The ratio of 1 tablespoon per pound of meat is the only invioable rule. Past that, anything goes. All of these dry ingredients can be obtained online if they cannot be found locally. I made twelve completely different batches of bacon from differing quantities and ratios of spices in this project. And while I admittedly liked some of them more than others, none ended up being bad batches. Once you've mixed your cure, apply it all over the meat.
|Cure applied to pork loin for Canadian bacon|
|Cure applied to Boston butt|
|Wrapped, bagged, tagged and ready to cure in the fridge|
Wrap the meat in foil and place it in your labelled zipper-top bag. It also helps a great deal to label the date the meat was put into the cure on the bag, because the next step takes a fair amount of time. And you won't want to lose track of that.
Now comes the 'waiting game'. The cure will penetrate approximately ¼-inch from the outside over 24 hours. That's a total of ½-inch (all around) per day. If you have a piece that is 3-inches thick, it will take roughly six days for it to cure. Once you have estimated this time, add an additional day for good measure. It's also a good idea to turn the bag over once per day, given gravity as well as chemistry are at work, and you want the cure to penetrate uniformly. Do not be alarmed at any juices that accumulate in the bag. The juices are merely the result of salt penetrating the meat and drawing out some moisture. This will help firm up the finished product, anyway.
Once the meat has finished curing, remove it from the bag and foil, rinse it under cold water, and pat it dry with paper towels. Now it's time to build your fire. The smoking can be done with a smoker, a charcoal grill or even on a propane grill. The important factor is to not get your fire too hot. You don't want your chamber temperature to be too far above 200ºF. Some purists advocate true 'cold' smoking (where the chamber temperature never gets above 140ºF until the final stage of cooking, when the temperature has to be raised to bring the product to a safe temperature for later consumption). The way I am about to outline works just as well, and is a lot easier to achieve. For a smoker, you want to build a small hot fire for clean smoke flavor. That means you want thin blue smoke coming out of the chinmey and flames in the firebox. Thick or gray smoke constitutes a smouldering fire, and this will result in awful (and dangerous) flavors. If you don't know how to build a fire like this, I would encourage that you practice it a few times with a thermometer on the grill racks (either a grill thermometer - about $5 - or a probe thermometer suspended at grill level). I always use a small potato with the probe stuck through it to steady it on the grates. In a charcoal grill, put a small pile of coals on one end of the charcoal grate, position the meat on the opposite side and locate the vent above the meat for proper draw. Some wood chips can provide the smoke. Do not soak them, as they will smoulder for sure. Instead, either sprinkle them on top of the lit coals before smoking or else fashion a packet out of aluminum foil with the chips inside, and poke holes in the packet to allow the smoke to escape. You can even do this on a gas grill by using one of these packets and positioning it on top of the burner you will be using. In the case of a gas grill, though, I would also suggest that you use only one burner on one end of the grill and position the meat on the opposite side of the grill. Any fruit or nut wood will do for flavor, but apple, oak, cherry, or hickory will be the easiest chips to find. You may even be lucky enough to find these woods in chunk form. The woods in chunk form are great for smokers and charcoal grills, but gas users should stick with the chips.
|A small, hot fire is the key to great smoked flavor|
Once you have the smoker up to temp and a clean fire burning, put meat to fire. I am fortunate to have a fairly large offset smoker, so I can do quite a bit of meat at a time. In my case, this project still took three smoker loads.
|Bacon-y goodness at the beginning of the smoke session|
Maintaing your temperatures and fire are the secret to this step. The last thing you will want to consider is the final temp of the meat when it comes off of the fire. You want an internal temperature of 160ºF. At that point, the meat is cooked but not so cooked that it will fall apart. You can monitor this either by inserting another probe thermometer into the meat or by taking the temp manually every so often. I don't advocate opening the cooker up often, but I think it is OK to check on it when you are replacing fuel. The extra airflow will help accelerate the fire's recovery while it allows you to see what progress is being made.
Once the meat is done, remove it from the fire and allow it to cool to room temperature before refrigerating it. If you are doing a lot of meat, this will allow it to be chilled without raising the temperature in your refrigerator to possibly dangerous levels for any other products stored inside (had you put the still warm meat directly in the fridge from the grill). Once it is refrigerated, allow it to stay there overnight. This will facilitate the slicing process.
You can slice the meat manually with a knife or with an electric food slicer (this is an ideal use for the latter). Using a food slicer will ensure much more consistent slices of product. Being the owner of such a slicer, I took full advantage of its functionality (and nearly burned the 30-year old motor out in the process).
|Ready for frying, the Canadian bacon is done|
|Bacon. Can you ever have enough bacon?|
|Bacon. Bacon. BACON!!!|
|Overdosing on smoky, porky goodness|
As you can see, the results are delicious. All that remains is to fry it and a few eggs for breakfast. Believe me, your biggest challenge will be to keep from eating all of the bacon at once. My teenager has been known to eat more than a pound of it at one sitting, and have to be told there has to be enough for everyone.
I hope this article inspires you to try making some bacon of your own. As it turns out, my gift boxes didn't include bacon this year. No, this wasn't because I was greedy and wanted it all to myself. Unfortunately, the logistics of packing and shipping the bacon with dry ice made it far too expensive (and risky) to send. Oh well. It's still some seriously tasty bacon!
CW Editor-at-large and Executive Chef Jason Clabaugh (BigO) hails from a suburb of Atlanta. He continues to market his national award-winning mango-habanero salsa.