Beginning Charcuterie: Bacon
Shortly after my bacon was complete, I just had to tell my brother, Josh Sucher, about my pride and delight. We ended up typing back and forth at each other about it, because such is our relationship – we used to IM each other while sitting in our separate bedrooms down the hall from each other, too.
“I made BACON!”
“Danielle. I don’t understand why slicing off pigmeats before crisply cooking them is such an accomplishment.”
A week and a half ago, I had to ask my excellent butcher to special order a skin-on pork belly for me.
I had to order nitrite, pink salt.
I put together a basic dry cure mix of salt, pink salt, and sugar.
Cut my belly into three pieces, split my basic cure into three bowls and spiced each differently.
Cured it in my fridge for about 10 days, flipping each slab every other day.
Today, smoked it for about 5 hours, some over apple wood, some over hickory.
THEN I got to slice the pigmeats and crisply cook them.”
I think that’s a pretty good accomplishment, really.
It all started when I picked up a copy of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. The bacon, it called to me. I love preserving jams and pickles, fermenting my own vinegar, kimchi, and mead, so it really came as no surprise that I quickly became obsessed with the idea of curing and preserving my own meats as well.
My butcher wouldn’t sell me less than 10 pounds of pork belly, ribs included, because it’s not an item that sells well from the case. Sure, okay. When we got the meat I trimmed off the ribs and some of the belly for dinner that night, and cut the rest into 3 slabs of approximately 2 1/2 lbs each.
Each slab was cured with about 1/4 C of Michael Ruhlman’s basic dry cure, as detailed in his book, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. In addition, the maple bacon was cured with about 3/8 C maple syrup; the Sichuan bacon had 2 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns and 2 tbsp lapsang souchong tea spread on the meaty side after the cure was applied, and the sage mustard bacon had something like 2 tsp mustard seed (popped in a pan first), 1 tsp ground sage, 3 smashed cloves of garlic, and 2 tsp cracked peppercorns mixed into its cure.
I left each slab in its separate bag to cure in our fridge for about 10 days, flipping over all three slabs every other day. At the end of that time, the slabs were rinsed, patted dry, and left uncovered in the fridge overnight to develop a pellicle – a drier, slightly tacky layer on the surface that helps the smoke adhere to the meat.
Now, imagine the absurdity of our situation: we live in a small garden apartment in a Park Slope brownstone. We have in our backyard a small smoker grill, which is a cylinder approximately 15″ in diameter. It has space for charcoal and wood in the bottom, a bowl for ice or cold water above that, and a grill at the top.
Because our smoker is so small and our pigmeats were so large, we had to smoke the bacon in two batches. Because it was chilly out, we sat in the kitchen smelling of wood smoke from hair and coat, wandering out into the backyard every now and then to replenish the charcoal, wood, and ice, and to test the external and internal temperatures of the meat.
For the first batch, we used apple wood, and smoked the entire slab of maple bacon and half of each of the others.
For the second batch, we used hickory, and smoked the remaining half slabs of the Sichuan and sage mustard bacons.
We tried to keep the smoke down around 200 F, and slowly smoked the bacon up to an internal temperature of 150 F over the course of about 5-7 hours. It helped that it was a chilly autumn day. When each slab was done, we brought it inside and carefully sliced off the skin to freeze and use later. (Can you imagine roasting a leg of lamb wrapped in bacon skin? Or using it to flavor stews or beans? The possibilities are endless!)
Our maple bacon is amazing – it is easily the best bacon I have ever eaten.
With the sage mustard bacon, the sage flavor really came through very nicely. The Sichuan bacon was probably the least flavorful of the three, which means that it was merely great.
I’m glad that we experimented with different woods, because we found that the Sichuan and sage mustard bacons were better smoked over hickory than over apple – that is, they were fantastic over apple, but truly extraordinary over hickory.
I think that I prefer sweeter bacon for eating plain, and I expect the more savory batches to really shine best when used in chowders and such.
Now that we have all this bacon (our freezer is crammed with sandwich bags full of bacon, 2 ounces in each), it’s time for a chowder night! And beans, we must make beans!
I have some pancetta and salt pork curing in my fridge right now. Yesterday, I diced and flavored the meat for my first sausage, which I will be grinding and stuffing later today. Next, I really want to make a Hungarian spiced bacon (with edes paprika, garlic, and allspice or clove), and a sweet bacon with Calvados.
Not to mention, I am quite possibly even more excited about the possibilities for using these gorgeous bacon skins than I am about the bacon itself.
Anyone have any other ideas or recipes that call for bacon which you can recommend?