11 August 2010

Bacon Cure Take II

It's been a good while since I last posted, and with good reason: with the slew of kitchen oriented purchases last month (namely, a fermenting crock and a copy of Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn), I have allowed my brain to devolve into its more base form of reptilian curing and fermenting maniac. Although I have produced some decent foodstuffs, I don't feel comfortable writing about something that I thought was just alright.

So as I resurface from the brine of sauerkraut, fermented pickles, and cured meats, I emerge from hickory smoke with two varieties of bacon. Yes, count 'em, because I have both--sweet and savory.

To momentarily step back in time, I titled this post "Take II" due to the fact that I had one prior attempt that could be characterized as a nigh failure. The end result was a cured slab of pork belly with which I could de-ice a sidewalk. Although you can save an oversalted cure by setting the meat back in plain water for an additional day or simmer pieces in hot water for a minute or two to leech out the excess salt, it seemed like cheating and almost wrong to boil bacon, so I chopped up the smokey salt pork and set it in the icebox for future use with beans, soups, stews, etc.

Moving forward to last Tuesday, I purchase two additional slabs of pork belly south side of Sacramento at $1.95/lb. after receiving my package of pink salt in the mail. I found it cheap from an ebay shop and had two pounds delivered. Pink salt goes by other names, but I'm going to continue referring to it as pink because it's more gay that way.

Pink salt is an essential ingredient in the curing process and is simply salt with normally 5% sodium nitrite, which imparts the cured flavor and reddish hue to corned beef, hotdogs, and bacon, just to name a few. Without this element, your wienies would be a dismal prison-style grey sausage. It is also necessary in the elimination of harmful bacteria in the meat during the curing process and staving off botulism development during hours of smoking or drying at reduced temperatures. Aside from the function of pink salt as a "cooking" tool, it should be noted that it is pink, not because it came from some Sherpa's exotic Himalayan salt stash, but because a manufacturer tinted it, so pinheads wouldn't go and eat it and thereafter kill themselves from sodium nitrite poisoning. I could go into further detail about how the meat is safe to eat after processing and cooking, but I won't. I'm eating it, not you, and you can look it up yourself.

Now that I've dropped some science on you, back to my 8 lbs. of pork belly. Step, the first, I combined my basic dry cure of salt, sugar, and pink salt for dredging in the following measurements:

1 lb/450 g kosher salt
8 oz/225 g sugar
2 oz/50 g pink salt (10 tsp.)

note: Charcuterie gives an alternative of 13 oz of dextrose in lieu of the sugar, but that's just another thing I'd have to hunt down from a specialty shop, and there's already too many kinds of sugar in my cupboard.

These measurements provided me with way more than I would need for a few months if I was continuously making cured meats every week, but it'll keep forever and is pretty versatile for curing fish and fowl and so on.

Dry cure mixed, I set out out two pans; one for sweet, the other for savory. For the sweet, I spread out the cure and added brown sugar and honey. For the savory, I added minced garlic, white pepper, and broken bay leaves. I dredged both bellies in the cure mix and shook off the excess. That done, I put them both in their own zip top bags and let them do their thing in the fridge for a week. The pork excretes a good amount of liquid, and this combines with the cure mix to create its brine that should remain in contact with the meat for the duration of the curing process.

Seven days later, there it was. No longer 8 lbs of pork belly, rather 6 lbs of bacon. I went ahead and prepared the sweet bacon for smoking, which involves letting the bacon sit overnight uncovered in the fridge to develop a pellicle or the slightly dried skin that will grab the smoke flavor.

On the eighth day, I got the L'il Chief smoker out and began to smoke out my apartment complex with the stank of hickory and bacon. Unfortunately, L'il Chief doesn't like to get up to temperature, so I took the sweet bacon out and brought it and the savory bacon to an internal temperature of 150°F in a 200°F oven.

First things first, I sliced the harden skin off while the adhering fat was still soft from the oven. Note the unburnt-off pig hair.

Because I refuse to allow myself to have 6 lbs of bacon at the ready, I packed up the lion's share for the deep freeze to consume or pass along at a later date. I chilled a slab of each kind of bacon for an hour for easier sliceability. There was a stark difference in color between the two. The sweet slab, obviously, being darkened from the brown sugar and light smoke while the savory slab retained a more natural color.

The savory cure surprised me in flavor. It would serve well as lardons for salads or as an addition to a sauce or pasta dish due to the strong garlic and peppery taste throughout the fat and flesh. It reminded me very much of the marinated grilled Bauchspeck that is popular at German barbeques where 1/4 - 1/2 in thick slices of pork belly are set in a garlic and/or paprika based marinade and grilled tender.

The sweet bacon, on the other hand, was more of what I expected a bacon to taste like. It had an unusually sweeter and lighter smoked flavor than your supermarket variety.

In the end, I'm glad that I doubled my chances of successful bacon by doing two different kinds, as I now have that much more bacon.

Coming soon: pickles?