No, I haven’t given up meat, or pork. Instead earlier this month and basically for the last week, I’ve started making my own bacon.
A good friend of mine received a bit of a Christmas bonus and decided to treat friends to some gifts. Her gift to me was an A-Maze-N smoker, which is this cool little box that you can put in your grill these people at the grill store in Ottawa had told me about.
It basically works by creating a little maze out of metal through which you thread a bunch of wooden pellets. The pellets burn around the maze letting it smoke for upwards of 8 hours. Here is the cool thing: because the pellets burn at a relatively low heat, it’s functionally both a hot AND COLD smoker. Yup! That’s right. I can COLD SMOKE things now.
(NOTE: I don’t have amazon affiliates at the moment or if I do I’m not using them and don’t know how to use them, but you know, if A-Maze-N wanted to thank me in some way for all the lovely promotion they’re about to get from me, I CERTAINLY WOULDN’T MIND. I could use some more pellet flavours for example Lol. As of right now though I am not receiving anything for gushing over this product.)
First thing on my list of things to make if I ever got my hands on a cold smoker has been BACON for a long time. In this I am a cliché, I’m sorry, but yes I’m that bacon obsessed white person. The other thing on my list is Lachsschinken, which I’m also making but the results of that take a little longer to get to.
Although originally made from pork butt, bacon is now mostly made with pork belly.
If you spend any time reading up on making bacon, you’ll find a whole host of opposing opinions on the best way to do it. There are rifts and great schisms over you should wet cure or dry cure, smoke right away or allow a pellicle to form, leave the skin on or off.
For most things it is a matter of preference, or what flavours you are trying to use. If you are mostly doing dry spices then a dry cure makes sense, if you are going with wet then wet cure makes sense. Time can also be a factor. Wet cures are a little faster, while dry cures take a bit more time.
Another question is about the use of Cure 1, or nitrites. This is also sometimes called pink salt, which is NOT the same as Himalayan Pink Salt. Just a coincidence on the name.
There’s a lot of fear out there about the use of nitrites. It is a preservative, it can cause trouble in large quantities. In small quantities though it apparently can be good for cardiac health, but more importantly, it protects you from botulism. Which especially for someone with as many things wrong with me is a pretty big deal.
You don’t need a lot of it. In fact, for my 3 lb pork bellies I used at most a ½ a tsp. You also wash it off before smoking.
It also serves an aesthetic purpose in that it’s part of what keeps cured meats looking pink.
I looked through several books and websites, and finally settled on a basic starter recipe.
1 Pork Belly (between 2-4 lbs)
1/3 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup maple syrup or brown sugar or honey
2 Tbsp Pepper
½ tsp Pink Curing Salt
Remove the skin from the Pork Belly by lifting and slicing as you go. Remove any silver skin.
Dry the meat with a paper towel.
Rub the spice mixture thoroughly on every side. If there is any extra left over, keep it.
Put the belly and remaining spice mixture into a vacuum seal bag or a ziplock back if you don’t have one. Either vacuum seal it or try your best to suck out as much of the air as possible.
Put the back in the fridge, in a drip proof container if you have one.
Once a day, flip the bag over and switch which side is down.
Leave in the fridge for about 5 days.
Remove from fridge and wash thoroughly, then dry off with a paper towel.
Slice off a piece and fry it up to test the salt level. If too salty, soak between 2-4 hours in filtered water.
Remove from water and dry off thoroughly. Let stand for a little bit
Cold Smoke for several hours to taste.
Fry up and eat, or vacuum seal and freeze.
I managed to get my hands on a Berkshire Pig Pork Belly. Berkshires are a heritage species that is known for having better tasting meat, more fat deposits than the current average commercial meat pig. You can see a bit of what I mean on the piece below.
It’s supposed to be THE THING for making really good bacon. Turns out that Land Lake Meats, a butcher shop in the Niagara Region has them regularly. I paid about $20 CAD for a little over 3 lbs.
A lot of the actual making of bacon process, a lot of it really is hurry up and wait. Once you get the spice rub on and seal the bag, you spend a series of days waiting for the flavour to penetrate the meat.
From most of the recipes I was looking through, the general rule seemed to be that it’s about 4 days for wet cures and 5 days for a dry cure. That’s what I tried out with a few different recipes and it’s been yielding consistently good results.
The one issue I’ve having is the salt. The recipes have been coming out pretty salty, however, the next part helps take care of that.
The idea is to submerge it in water for between 2-4 hours depending on how too salty it is. The saltier it is, the longer you want to leave it in the water. I’ve been using plastic bins I got at the dollarama for this purpose. Not only can I watch the process, but also, keeps the dogs from getting at it while it’s resting.
After the soaking, I pull it out of the water and spend a bit of time drying it off as best I can. This means patting it with paper towels, then letting it sit for a bit and patting it again.
This is where you get into debate. The original recipe I found and many others insist you let the thing rest for 24 hours some even suggest longer to dry. The idea is that the smoke adheres better. Still other food experiments showed that the smoke flavor adhere better to it when it’s wet. Still others suggest that it adheres too well allowing some of the acrid elements of the smoke to get into the flavoring.
I sort of settled for a compromise. I wasn’t prepared to wait all that time for the bacon, I will admit it. But I also thought letting it dry a bit seemed like a good idea. So after wiping it down, I let it sit for a few hours and patted it down frequently with the paper towels. Then once it was reasonably dry, and I set it up outside on the grill.
A note here: because of where I live, the weather here has been reasonably cool but not freezing. It’s been at pretty much the perfect temperature in my opinion for something like this. Here’s why. It’s at about the temperature of a fridge, so I can smoke overnight without worrying about it going bad. For a really cold smoke, you want to keep the temperature at about 15 degrees. Since the pellets still have to be lit, the cooler air basically managed to balance out any residual buildup of heat from the embers. Not that that’s really a concern, but it makes me feel safer about it.
You light the pellets on one side, in this case Applewood pellets. You let them burn for 10 minutes and then if needed you blow out the flame. I lowered the hood of the grill to capture the smoke. I also put a towel over top to slow down the escape of any smoke. A trick I learned from my West Coast Sweetie.
I check in on the whole set up. At first at 10 and 30 minutes, then an hour later, than a few hours later, till it’s done. Mainly I’m checking to make sure the smoke is still going, and that nothings caught fire.
I will also move around the belly a little, flipping it from side to side so that each part gets different exposure to the smoke. I might also shift where it is on the grill if the winds shifted, causing the smoke to blow out of the grill in a different direction.
The full maze when cold smoking can go for about 8 hours, though I think mine went for 9 hours once. I love the smell and flavor of smoke so I like to leave it on for a while.
My final result was a great bacon that was pretty strong on the maple flavor. Next time I would use a lot less maple syrup than I did, possibly not even adding it to the cure but applying it at a top coat for during smoking. Either way, the final result was an absolutely delicious bacon!
I immediately started coming up with different ideas in terms of what I might want to do for different flavor combinations. I wanted to try beef bacon as well. I just couldn’t wait to get started. My parents were pretty excited about the project as well and so they funded me two more pork bellies.
One, I brined in apple cider, which I had first boiled with a bit of brown sugar, some salt, rosemary, thyme, garlic, a bit of sage, and smoked in apple-wood.
One I split in two so that half was done with salt, pepper, and Cajun spices; a dry rub recipe I got from someone who worked with my ex at the lab.
The other half I did in a paste of sorts made up of coffee and molasses, with salt and pepper.
Both halves were then soaked, dried, and topped with a light coat of maple all around before being smoked in a mix of maple-wood and apple-wood.
ALL of the experiments turned out great. I even did a boneless beef rib shank in a mix of maple, mustard, and garlic and smoked in maplewood, and they all worked out really really well.
Making Bacon is Fun! And Delicious. And OMG the Bacon grease I am left with smells like the smoke too and I can wait to use it to flavour some of my baking, or anything that needs a little oomph.