Bacon Badge

22 01 2010

This is the report of the Bacon Badge Trial. We started making bacon about a year ago and have made it 4 or 5 times since then, but haven’t been totally happy with the results. We think we’ve picked up some info along the way, though, and are pretty confident that this version will work well.

Bacon is a cured piece of pork belly, which has usually been cooked or smoked after curing, but can also be hung and dried as in pancetta. The cure is a mixture of salt, spices, and nitrites.

Nitrate/Nitrite Interlude
You know all those organic bacons that call themselves nitrate or nitrite-free? They aren’t really at all. Bacon doesn’t taste like bacon without the nitrite giving it the cured flavor. What they add instead is a vegetable that is naturally high in nitrates like celery (look for it on the label). They will often add bacteria — the bacteria break down the nitrate and turn it into nitrite, which is the active compound that flavors the bacon and gives it a nice pink hue. So, they can get away will adding a “natural” nitrate and calling it “nitrate-free”, even though there is little difference between synthetically made and natural nitrates.

In order to make bacon, you need to buy “pink salt”, which is table salt mixed with 6.25% sodium nitrite. It is colored pink so that you don’t get it mixed up with regular salt — nitrite can be toxic at high enough levels. We got our pink salt as DQ curing salt from Butcher & Packer.

Pork bellies were the next challenge. We have a few good Asian markets here and the first bellies we got were from 99 Ranch. The first bellies we got seemed pretty good and were from Denmark. They were about 1 1/2 inches thick, did not flop around a lot, and cost $3 a lb.

Floppy Bellies Interlude
It turns out that fat composition of meat can vary a lot and that this can affect all sorts of things: like flavor, time to go rancid, and floppiness. Floppiness makes bacon hard to cut and is often a product of diet. You see, pork producers like to feed their pigs dried distiller’s grain with solubles (DDGS), which is what is left over after corn is fermented and distilled for ethanol production, and this affects the meat. It is cheap food, but has a lot of corn oil and makes the fat high in polyunsaturated fats, which are soft. It tends to go rancid more quickly and in our book they do not taste as good at all. So, we try to avoid the floppy ones.

We had been pretty happy with our Denmark bellies, and with the ones from Sweden we saw after that. After that, though, it seemed all we could get were American bellies for $2 a lb that were about an inch thick and quite floppy. They were pretty anemic, too. We made some bacon with them, but it wasn’t so great. So, we stopped making bacon for awhile.

Then, we were shopping at a neat Korean market Zion and saw their display of pork bellies — 3 shelves, 4 different cuts, and 2 breeds. Amazing, really. The black hog bellies (also called Berkshire or Kurobata) were from Canada and on sale that week down from 4.50 to 2.50/lb. We asked the nice guy stocking the shelves if they had any whole ones in the back, as they pretty much only sell chunks and sliced belly for things like bbq. We ended up with this gorgeous thing:

Here it is cut in ziploc sized pieces. One thing that is interesting about this belly is that it has an extra layer of muscle from near the rib cage that is usually cut off of others. It has a little extra gristle, too, that we’ll have to cut off when we cook it, but that shouldn’t be too bad.

We mixed up a dry cure based on the pancetta recipe in Ruhlman’s Charcuterie with the exception that we cut the pink salt and the pepper in half and we added 1/4t. ground allspice to each 5 lbs. The full belly was just under 10 lbs and we portioned the dry rub to each ziploc based on the weight of the piece. We had tried to get even cuts, but they varied from 2 3/4 to 3 and 3/4 lb.

Dry cure vs. Wet cure Interlude
What we are doing is a dry cure — the salt is rubbed on the pork belly and allowed to sit for a week or so. A wet cure is when you make a liquid brine and soak the belly in the brine for a few days. Sometimes a brine is injected into the meat, which speeds up the process. The wet cure is the cure of choice for most industrial bacon because of the speed.

We then rubbed the cure into the meat, zipped up the bags, and stacked it in the fridge. We flipped it every couple of days. As it cures, you can feel the texture of the meat get stiffer — faster at the edges and slower closer towards the middle. It is ready when the middle gets moderately stiff — about a week per inch or so. We took ours out at 12 days.

When it is ready, you take it out, rinse it off, and cook it at 200F for about 2 hours until the meat reaches 150F internally. You can also smoke it or hang it at this point. Our meat thermometer is being particular at the moment, so we cooked it until the middle got firm when we poked it.

Here it is when it came out…mmm…bacon…the house smelled amazing.

After letting it sit on the counter until it cooled, we cut a few slices.

We fried these up. This bacon is perhaps not at its best when fried in slices because it is not very sweet. It has a rich, meaty flavor with a long taste on the tongue. I think a lot of it has to do with the fat giving it a nice depth.

My favorite way to have this bacon is diced, fried up, and served over poached eggs with creme fraiche and green onion.

Some other stuff we’ve had with bacon
Sauteed with shallots and vegetables like Brussels sprouts or broccoli
Any egg dish (souffle, omelet, etc.)
Scallops and cream sauce
Bacon frisee salad

So, did we get the badge?
Well, we’ve learned quite a bit about the various ingredients that go into bacon (check!).
We’ve sourced the main ingredients at prices we’re happy with (check!).
We’ve learned about the various ways that bacon can get made (dry cure/wet cure, smoking or not) (check!).
We have made one version at least enough times to feel pretty comfortable with the recipe (check!)
And, we were quite happy with how this last version came out (check!).

Alright, I say that passes! On to the next one!

Useful References
Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman
Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli
Making Bacon at eGullet