Over the past year, I have been trying my hand at a variety of curing and smoking meats. One of the first things I made was bacon. After checking my main reference book (Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn), I found a simple recipe that I hoped would result in a tasty addition to my repertoire.
I expected the acquisition of a pork belly to be the most difficult part of the entire process, but during a quick trip to the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market I found a good local source in Black Oak Pork. Other than the pork belly, the next most difficult resource to get was pink salt. I was able to order that online and have it delivered to my house.
In terms of the process of making bacon, it is pretty straight-forward. I make the Basic Dry Cure from my reference book (1 lb. kosher salt, 8 oz. sugar and 2 oz. pink salt) and use 1/4 cup of that mixture for a slab of pork belly. To that I add 6 to 8 cloves of garlic (smashed), 1 Tbsp of black peppercorns (cracked) and 3 or 4 bay leaves (crushed). These ingredients go into a zip-top plastic bag with the pork belly and that goes into the refrigerator for a week or so, being flipped back and forth daily. I have noticed that the meat begins to feel firmer to the touch as the week goes on.
Once the belly gets good and firm, I take it out of the plastic bag and rinse off the remainder of the cure. After patting it dry, I put the belly into a fresh plastic bag to rest for a day or two before taking it to the smoker.
I have made several slabs of bacon and have tried a few different types of wood chips to test the flavors they provide. Smoke from apple wood chips add a subtle sweetness to the bacon while hickory gives a bit of bite that is familiar and not unpleasant. I have also tried using pecan wood chips, but they resulted in an extremely acrid taste that forced me to temper it by par-boiling the bacon before frying it (This method also works if the bacon tastes too salty). On a couple of occasions, I even roasted the bacon at low heat (225 degrees) in the oven.
Once the internal temperature of the pork belly gets up to 150 degrees, I take it out of the smoker (or oven) and let it cool to room temperature. At this point, if the pork belly is skin on, I remove the skin and set it aside for other purposes. Then the bacon is ready to fry up and eat. My personal favorite is to have it as a side dish to a couple of eggs, fried sunny-side up, followed closely by being a primary ingredient for my Ultimate Grilled Cheese Sandwich.