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Look What I Made: Homemade Peppered Bacon

A pile of bacon shaped like America (photos by Travis Awalt)

I almost didn’t do this post. Making my own bacon was a learning experience. And not the cool kind. I’m into learning experiences where I either learn that I’m immediately good at something or I learn because documentaries are educational.* This wasn’t like that.

I figured bacon makin’ would be a challenge, of course, but I also assumed that there would be a vision-quest type of aspect to it. I mean, seeing a pork belly transform into bacon – how can that not be a spiritual enterprise? I thought that through the bacon, I would connect with my spirit animal** and learn some universal truth about life. No dice. I did learn some things – many of which could safely be filed under the header “How Not to Make Bacon at Home Properly.” If only an emoticon existed to express my feelings.

Bacon

Bummed, I puttered about, ate some bacon to take the edge off and thought about mailing it in this week, using everyday stuff that I always have on-hand. Prime rib and caviar casserole or whatever. Moot point, because something peculiar happened… actually, I just said that to build the drama. Nothing happened, the truth is that the bacon was not bad. (Especially after a night in the fridge).

It was OK, just not as good as a decent brand from the store. That said, OK but not great isn’t exactly what I strive to eat or blog about. Buuut since I spent an entire day making this damn bacon, I’m dragging you along on this little learning adventure. Besides, what’s more awesome than having the power to make bacon? Correct, nothing.*** So, let the journey begin. Here are the dos, don’ts, and next times of my foray into bacon makin’. To the bacon mobile!

Homemade Peppered Bacon

Ingredients

1 pork belly, 2-3 lbs, rind removed
coarse salt
brown sugar
pepper

Equipment needs

charcoal
smoker or grill
wood chips
meat thermometer

Introduction

Everyone, meet bacon recipe. Bacon recipe, this is everyone. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, you’re ready to buy a pork belly. I buy mine at Hong Kong Market. It always has a (expletive) ton of pork bellies. I believe Kuby’s also keeps frozen bellies in stock. I’ve called most butcher shops within 15 miles of East Dallas, and it’s hit or miss (mostly miss), although any butcher can order them. Look for a belly that has the same fat to lean ratio that you would look for when you buy bacon. Have the butcher remove the rind. I keep it and use it to make delicious, delicious pork rinds.

Nascent bacon

Curing

Bacon is typically cured with a nitrate laden curing salt (which gives bacon its distinct pink hue) before being smoked. I wanted to see if I could get around the curing salt by being lazy and using regular salt. I knew the color might be off, but I didn’t care, seeing as it’s getting cooked anyway. I asked the internet until I found the answer I wanted: Yes, you can use regular salt. Perfect. Or so I told myself. Not ordering some curing salt was probably, as the kids say, a fail. My method of curing was adequate from a salt standpoint, and while the color was off, it wasn’t radically different from regular bacon. Sea salt, however, just doesn’t render the same taste as curing salt, and my biggest complaint about this bacon is that it wasn’t quite bacony enough. Curing salt = bacony. Lesson #1. Moving on.

I cured my pork belly with a “dry brine.” I rubbed it on both sides with equal parts salt and brown sugar (didn’t want it too salty), put it in a freezer bag and let it sit in the fridge for three days, turning the bag over a couple of times a day. The salt draws some of the moisture out of the belly, which then mixes with the salt and sugar to create a brining liquid. Most recipes call for a brining/curing time of about a week(!). That just sounds way the hell too long to have a relatively small piece of meat to brine. Three days worked out just fine, in as far as delivering salt is concerned.

Let the belly chill while you get the smoker ready

Smoking

After the three day gestation period is up, you’re ready to smoke your bacon. The morning you’re going to do the deed, soak a couple of handfuls of wood chips in a bowl of water. I used apple wood, but hickory, maple and oak would also work. I know this is blasphemy in Texas, but I would stay away from mesquite; it’s flavor is too strong for bacon. Remove the belly from the brine, rinse it off, and pat it dry.

I decided to do a pepper crust because I like peppered bacon and I wanted to give my bacon some flair to make up for the fact that I didn’t cure it properly. For the pepper crust, I gave the belly a rub with salt and pepper. I added some salt at this point because I was unsure how the brining would go. Totally unnecessary. I found that the end result was slightly too salty, and I think this second salt application was the culprit. So, do the pepper rub – palmful of pepper rubbed on each side – then set the belly, uncovered, on a wire rack in the fridge. Start your fire. When the coals have ashed over, load them into your smoker. Most sources will tell you to smoke your bacon until the internal temperature is 150. That’s 10 degrees below cooked for pork and another 10-15 below falling-off-the-bone tender. Now, my smoker is a piece of crap. It’s small and I have a hard time regulating the temperature, so when I smoke stuff, I give it an hour or two of serious smoke, then finish it in the oven, where I can better regulate the temperature. I don’t care if that’s cheating. I’m not trying to get into the recipe hall of fame; I just want meals that taste amazing. That’s what I did here. About an hour and a half on the smoker, adding wood chips is necessary to keep a steady (not billowing) flow of smoke. After an hour and a half or so, place the belly on a wire rack in a 225 degree oven until the internal temperature reads 150, probably about an hour. The belly will have rendered some fat but will have shrunken surprisingly little.

OK, time for another big lesson. Buy a decent digital meat thermometer. I have the old timey variety. It does get temperatures pretty close and that’s fine for some stuff, but for something like bacon, where you want to slowly cook it until it’s within a few degrees of being cooked through, you need precision. My bacon came out, I think, a little overdone. Still fried up OK, but it was drier than good store-bought bacon. So, when your pork belly’s internal temp gets to about 145, as measured with a good thermometer, pull it from the oven, let it cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.

Ready to cool, then slice

Enjoying 

Well, now you’ve hopefully made bacon successfully, and you’re ready to break that mother off and eat. Good. Here are a few tips in parting.

  • Wait until the next day, especially if you didn’t do the full-on nitrate curing. I don’t know if it’s science or just mental, but I cut some off and fried it up right after it had cooled down from the oven and was disappointed. The next day, I fried some more up and thought it was significantly tastier and more bacony.
  • Cut the oblong ends off of your belly and stick them in the freezer. They’ll be more cooked than the meat nearer to the center, but they’ll be perfect for using as salting meat.
  • Resist the urge to cut ridiculously thick strips of bacon. Moderation, baby! It’ll be too thick to be crispy and take forever to cook.
  • Speaking of taking forever, cook your bacon on med-low. That’s just a general bacon tip. Most people crank the heat too high and have bacon that’s too flabby because not enough fat has rendered.
  • When the fat has started to render and pool, pour most of it off. This helps get your bacon achieve crispiness. Again, just another bacon truth.

*Let’s face it – documentaries are entertainment, not learning. Documentaries just seem educational because the tone is subtler than in a Jerry Bruckheimer picture.

** Please be a pig, please be a pig…

*** I would rather be really good at making bacon than have the ability to fly. Seriously, hear me out: I eat bacon all the time. With flying, not only are there so many questions I have (how fast would I be able to go? etc), I assume I would be expected to fight crime. Yeah, that sounds dangerous and it’s just not happening for me.