What Good is a Smoker if You Can’t Make Bacon?
Among all the visions of pulled pork and spare ribs that I had when I bought a smoker, the main thing I wanted to do was make bacon. There really isn’t a greater food than bacon … fatty, meaty, salty goodness kissed with a bit of smoke. And bacon isn’t the most complicated preparation either. With just some basic ingredients and a little time, bacon is pretty easy to make.
But First … To Cure or Not
Commercial bacon is a cured product … meaning that it it treated with nitrite salts to help preserve the meat. And these compounds are somewhat controversial due to their potential direct and indirect effects on health. I say potential because I am not convinced of their harm and I think the worry is overblown. What these compounds do is threefold: deterring the growth of botulism toxins, preserving the red (pink after smoking) color of meat, and subtly altering the flavor of the cured meat.
The Nitrite Concern
There are actually two concerns surrounding nitrites in meat … their direct toxicity and the potential formation of compounds called nitrosamines when nitrite cured meat is either cooked at high temperatures, as bacon usually is, or exposed to a low pH environment like it is in your stomach. The amount of nitrite needed to be directly toxic is pretty high, so I’m not really worried about that. Studies in the 1970s first identified nitrosamines as carcinogenic. Subsequent work has confirmed this. However, there are steps which can be taken to reduce this risk, including cooking bacon at lower temperatures and to a less done final state, as well as adding certain anti-oxidants (like ascorbic acid) to the curing salt.
So, in the end, I decided to cure my bacon. For me it comes down to flavor. I’ve tried uncured bacon and it’s just not the same. It’s more like … well, roasted pork. I like roasted pork, but not when I expect bacon. I used a commercial cure with a nitrite concentration in the acceptable range, and I didn’t use more than recommended. Additionally, I don’t cook my bacon to anything near well done, preferring it just short of crispy. And finally, I will be adding some ascorbic acid to my cure mix, just to be safe.
An interesting note – much of the “uncured” bacon that one finds in the organic section of the market these days in fact contains just as many nitrites as cured bacon. By law, “uncured” means no additional nitrites were added beyond what occurs naturally in the ingredients themselves. Now look closely at the label of your uncured bacon. You’ll probably see “celery juice” as an ingredient. Wonder why celery juice is in bacon? Because celery juice is naturally high in both nitrates and nitrites. So, by adding it, manufacturers can claim “no added nitrites” or “uncured” while still adding nitrites and getting a cured product with the taste people expect. But don’t take my word for it. Consumer Reports was one of the first to catch this trick when they tested hot dogs. They said:
While the three uncured franks might boast of “no added nitrates,” our testing found that Applegate Farms, Coleman Natural, and Whole Ranch contained nitrates and nitrites at levels comparable to many of the cured models.
While a hot dog can be labeled uncured if no nitrates or nitrites have been added, that does not necessarily mean the product is free of them. The three uncured models we tested contained nitrites and nitrates because the compounds occur naturally in spices and other natural ingredients added during processing.
So keep that in mind if you’re buying “uncured” bacon. You just might be fooling yourself.
American bacon is made from cured pork belly, the meat outside the ribcage and extending around the stomach or belly of the pig (labeled “side” in the diagram to the right – don’t ask me why). As far as I am concerned, anything else isn’t bacon, it’s some other form of cured pork. I’m all for that … I come from New Jersey, the home of Taylor Ham after all, just don’t call the other things bacon. For instance, there’s some bullshit abomination popular with home smokers that they call “buckboard bacon.” But it’s not bacon; it’s a cured and smoked pork shoulder. Lose the smoke, chop it up and form it back into a loaf, and you have SPAM. And SPAM ain’t bacon.
So when I call something bacon I am referring to cured, smoked, pork belly.
Getting pork belly can be a bit of a challenge depending on where you live. My normal meat market, which even sells goat, doesn’t carry it. They offered to order some belly, but I would need to take a whole case of three bellies, or about 30 pounds. I really want to perfect my recipes before I tackle 30 pounds.
I did find pork bellies at one of the best specialty markets in Boston, Savenors, but that’s a 40 mile drive from my house. For my first time, I wanted to start making Bacon now, not in a few days when I picked up some belly after work (I work a few blocks away from Savenors). So I tried my local, tiny Asian market. And sure enough, they had some small 1 lb. pieces tucked int their freezer case. I can’t say that these were the best looking specimens I’d ever seen, but they were worth a shot. So my first test batch was made with frozen pork belly.
Rather than making up my own recipes, I decided to go with a commercial cure mix. This would let me learn about the differences caused by curing time rather than worrying if I had my mix correct. Based on some recommendations on various message boards, I went with a regular and a maple cure from the Butcher and Packer company. For about $5, I got enough cure to dry cure 100 lbs. of meat. Not bad.
You need a surprisingly tiny amount of cure for bacon. The Butcher & Packer instructions say to use 2 pounds of cure per 100 pounds of meat for a dry cure. That equals 0.02 pounds of cure per pound of meat, or just above 1/3 of an ounce of cure per pound of belly.
As for the vitamin C to add … the Oregon State reference lists the effective concentration as 550 ppm (parts per million). So assuming that’s ppm of the total cure weight, I need 550 mg of ascorbic acid per Kg of cure. I’m going to keep these tiny numbers in grams … So 550 mg per Kg is 550 mg per 2.205 pounds. That equals 249 mg per pound (550 / 2.205). That means I need to grind and evenly distribute one 250 mg vitamin C tablet into each 1 lb bag of cure. Simple.
That done, I measured out the correct amount of cure by weight using my kitchen scale (ended up being less than a teaspoon for each piece, but do your own math) and evenly sprinkled it over the pieces. I placed them in a Ziplock bag in another plastic container (just in case) in my refrigerator. And for the next 5 days I simply rotated them each day. Some liquid was released, but not much more than a few tablespoons.
Many people online complained that bacon cured too long turned out too salty. So I was scared into leaving my first batch curing for only 5 days. Turns out the people online were either full of shit, overly sensitive to the taste of salt, or used way too much cure. Because my 5 day cure tasted barely salty. But it did have that characteristic red color, so I went ahead and smoked it.
Anyway, I took the bacon out and rinsed it well in cold water. Some people advocate soaking and all sorts of treatments, which I’m glad I didn’t do. I let it sit for several hours to reach room temperature and let a bit of a pellicle form.
I am a fan of real smoke flavor, so I used hickory only and ended up smoking my pieces for about 4 hours, starting at 120° F for the first 2 hours and then stepping the temperature up to 150° and 170° in the third and fourth hours respectively. I kept it in the heat until the internal temperature was just past 140° F and let carryover take it almost to 150°.
I know it might not look like much in this view, but it really did look sooooooo much better than that slimy pre-sliced stuff you buy in the supermarket. And once I cut into it, well, my effort was immediately worth it. Even the cheapo $1.99/lb belly I got from the freezer of my local Asian market was a better quality (read less fatty) than the typical bottom-of-the-barrel belly that becomes mass produced bacon.
The smoke flavor wasn’t too apparent on the first day, but like all smoked foods, really benefited from a few days in the refrigerator. It seemed that the smokiness really bloomed after that. Enough that I might cut the smoke back to just 3 hours next time. As for the flavor, I really didn’t think there was a strong cured, salty, or sweet flavor at all. Either immediately out of the smoker or even several days later. It just didn’t seem to be thoroughly cured. I’m sure this was the result of the limited curing time. I will at least double it to 10 days next time, or perhaps as long as 14 days. I also didn’t detect any difference between the maple cure and the brown sugar cure. So to enhance some maple flavor in the next batch I think I will brush the bellies with some actual maple syrup. Hopefully that will improve the character.
As of right now, here is my recipe, and the one I will follow for the next batch of bacon (I have 5 pounds of belly from Savenors ready to start curing tonight).
- Wash belly and pat dry. Leave skin on.
- Brush belly with thin layer of maple syrup.
- Measure proper amount of cure and sprinkle evenly over all surfaces.
- Place in Ziplock bag and allow to cure 10 to 14 days in refrigerator, turning bag every 24 hours.
- Remove belly from bag and rinse quickly in cold water.
- Allow belly to sit in the air for several hours until a pellicle forms.
- Place in smoker at 140° F. After 2 hours, increase smoker temp to 150° F. After 1 more hour, increase temp to 170° F. Allow smoke for three or more hours depending on wood and your taste.
- When internal temperature reaches 140°, remove, slice, cook, and enjoy.
Along the way to this recipe I found a couple websites that were very helpful. So thanks especially to Dave Selden and his blog and the “Makin Bacon” post. And also to the 3 Men site and their bacon page.