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Duke's Food Obsession

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Makin' Bacon

The view from the top of Schweitzer on a cloudless day. The smiling face of a three-month-old. A soaring eagle. A slab of bacon. These are beautiful things. And, now that I have personally cured and smoked bacon, I consider myself more of a man.

My quest to make bacon began simply enough. As an avid cook, I don’t really follow recipes anymore. That is not to say that I don’t read recipes. In fact, I read them all the time, watch documentaries on food, and bookmark food websites. I make the exception when I have absolutely no clue how to handle an ingredient, or if the technique is particularly tricky. Such was how I found myself with 50 pounds of pork belly. My quest to make bacon started with an initial recipe for braising pork belly.

Pork belly is all the rage now on big city menus. You can find it braised in dark soy and used in Chinese pork buns, or seared and placed atop a piece of salmon (this sounds weird but salmon has a natural affinity with cured pork). On his show, the "F-word," Gordon Ramsay made a piece of skin-on pork belly, braised slowly in the oven, pressed and chilled under a weight, and then pan seared to produce a crackly, fatty porky mound of love. I had to make this. There was no other option. So, I called Yokes and ordered one pork belly. Well, maybe because I was a restaurant owner, Yokes ordered me not one pork belly, but rather one case of pork bellies. That is about six whole 12-pound sides. Yikes. I would either have to braise enough pork belly to feed a battalion of Marines, or figure out what to do with all of this pig. Simple, I would make bacon! (I did make the braised belly and served it atop white beans with sage pesto—it was terrific.)

Now, I know very little about making bacon. So I consulted the Internet. Turns out it is relatively simple: you first cure the pork for about a week in salt and seasonings, and then cold-smoke it as you would European-style lox.

Having recently swooned through Martin Picard’s book from his restaurant Au Pied du Cochon, I knew that I must marry the pork with maple syrup somehow. I recently received a bottle of genuine Vermont Maple syrup as a gift, and incorporated this into the cure. The cure can either be dry or wet—floating in water and salt or rubbed on and left to sit. I chose a dry brine, or cure sealed, with a vacuum sealer. Rather than measure out sodium nitrate and salt, I just picked up a bag of Morton’s Tender Quick at the store. To this I added maple syrup, brown sugar, and black pepper. (See the recipe below.) After seven days, you remove the almost bacon, rinse and dry and leave to dry further overnight in the refrigerator.

Now it’s time to smoke. This is really the only difficult thing as I said the bacon must be cold-smoked with the temperature not climbing past about 80 degrees or so. To do this, the fire needs to be offset from the smoking chamber. I use an old refrigerator with a hole cut near the bottom of one of the sides. Next, I put some ventilation pipe into the hole and I ran it to an old flower pot where I put smoking chips. I set fire to them with an electric charcoal starter. Once alight, I covered the pot with foil to let it smolder and voila, a cold smoker.

Salmon takes very little time, but something like bacon I smoke for about six hours. After six hours or so, remove the bacon, and rub it with a damp cloth to remove some of the smoke residue. Next, cut into sections, wrap and freeze. You will need to remove the skin before cooking, and slice by hand. To make this easier, I recommend slicing and skinning the bacon when it is partially frozen. It is much sturdier at this point and easier to slice.

You now have something that is pure porcine pleasure. And, you made it yourself, knowing that is has not been injected with water or chemicals or artificial flavoring. So what do you do with it now? How about fettuccine carbonara? Or bucatini amatricana replacing the tesa or pancetta with bacon? Bacon wrapped salmon filets? An amazing BLT? Or just with eggs and pancakes? In fact, one of my favorite dinner parties is to invite friends over and make breakfast. This way you can imbibe with your breakfast and eat your fill without being loaded down all day. If you choose to simply cook your bacon for eggs or BLTs, forego the skillet and put the sliced bacon in a sheet pan and pop it in the oven at 375 for a half an hour or so depending on thickness. It is much less messy and provides more even heat.

If you choose to go on your own bacon quest, you can find pictures of my state-of- the-art refrigerator smoker, and my own bacon quest on the River Journal website. As always, I remain yours in bacon.

Dry Brine for Bacon:

For approx 10-12lb pork belly

6 oz Morton’s Tender Quick

(available at grocery stores)

½ cup maple syrup

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup coarse ground black pepper

Grated nutmeg (to taste)

Ground allspice (to taste)

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Duke Diercks Duke Diercks is the owner of Duke’s Cowboy Grill in Ponderay. Visit his blog at www.bbq-recipes-for-foodies.com

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