I saw a video a few years ago, on how commercial bacon was made. I had already stopped buying commercial bacon, but it was disgusting nonetheless, with racks of bacon being passed through a spray of liquid smoke for flavor. Yuck.
We are fortunate to have several sources of cured meats at our farmer’s markets, but it was always a goal to make my own. So, my like-minded friend Kathryn and I formulated a plan.
First, we procured a whole pork belly from Richardson Farms, weighing right at 10 pounds. Armed with an online recipe for bacon from Michael Ruhlman, we began the curing process a couple weeks ago.
The belly was folded over in its packaging, and was somewhat daunting when unfolded onto my kitchen counter. We had to cut it in half to even be able to work with it.
I had purchased online, some 3 gallon baggies, for the curing part. We covered the belly in Kosher salt, pink salt (curing not Himalayan; very important) thyme from my garden, lots of garlic, pepper and juniper berries. We inartfully stuffed the belly halves into the ziplocs, and placed them in my outdoor refrigerator (the beer fridge), where they would live for exactly a week, to cure. I followed the instructions faithfully, and turned them, massaging the salt and spices into the belly halves, every two days.
Although we followed the recipe to the letter, I was afraid of botulism, and read everything I could find on what to expect during the curing process. They released some, but not a lot of liquid. They didn’t change color and the texture didn’t change profoundly, so I wasn’t sure they were really getting cured.
Having picked the brains of our local butchers and meat curing artisans, I knew smoking over oak, my normal smoking medium, would impart too strong a flavor, so I procured some applewood from a source on the internet.
One week after we placed the belly halves in the fridge for curing, I pulled them out, rinsed them off well, to remove the salt, and set them back in the fridge uncovered, to form a “pellicle” or basically to harden up a bit. They supposedly take on the smoke better this way. They remained uncovered for about 8 hours.
The applewood I had ordered, came in small sticks, rather than the larger logs I was used to using, so I wondered how I would be able to keep a steady heat source, without adding more oak. So, about 3 hours before we were to start smoking, I made a big fire to create a coal bed.
We smoked the belly at between 160 and 180 for a little over 3 hours. I used the whole box of applewood and had to add some oak when the fire started losing heat. We were looking for an internal temperature of 150, but pulled them out when they got to 140, knowing that were were going to cook the bacon.
Once cooled, we sliced enough of the now cured and smoked bacon, for our dinner.
We baked it in the oven, rather than frying in a pan. This keeps the bacon flatter, and it cooks more uniformly than it would in the pan.
Our dinner was to be bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. I had ordered a sourdough started from King Arthur Flour Company, but it didn’t arrive in time to feed for sourdough bread. So Kathryn suggested Challah and arrived at my house, with dough in hand. Who knew Kathryn was an accomplished bread baker? Not me, but while the bacon was smoking, she made the most beautiful Challah bread.
I have never succesfully made mayonaise that didn’t break, but we needed some for our perfect sandwiches. Christian accepted the challenge and we broke out the Vitamix and started with 5 fresh farm eggs. He added the oil at just a trickle, until it emulsified, and then added garlic, basil, thyme, lemon and salt. It was a beautiful thing.
I had set aside several of my perfectly ripe garden tomatoes, and sliced them fairly thickly.
Once the bacon was done, we sliced the bread and assembled the most perfect BLT I’ve ever eaten. Everything about this sandwich was amazing, not just because it was so delicious, but also because it was a collaborative effort, and we had been anticipating the end result for a while.
The bacon tastes like delicious bacon, but without the film on the roof of your mouth, that commercial bacon leaves behind. It tastes clean, and it is, because Richardson Farms doesn’t use antibiotics or growth hormones in any of their animals. It tastes fresh, because it is. I bought it from the farmer who raised it and we ate it within an hour of it being smoked.
Now that I know the process, I will always make my own bacon. I can’t wait to make it again, but I need to eat through my freezer stash before I do.