Pâtes de fruit

5 07 2010

Well, it seems we are on the path to French candy land. Another day, I will tell you about our caramel adventures. For today, we have a pâte de fruit story. This summer, we have been exploring how to make the fruit jellies called pâte de fruit (pronounced paht de fwee, translated as fruit paste). When done right, they have bright, concentrated fruit flavors. When done wrong, well they are just nasty. My only experience with fruit jellies as a kid was spitting them out. In France, however, they are held in high regard and can often be quite expensive. So, we figured with really good fruit and a solid recipe, we could probably make something quite good.

Fruit pastes are some of the oldest sorts of candies. They are basically stiff jam that has been cut into pieces. The ingredients are the same: fruit, sugar, pectin, and some acid, but it is cooked longer. Pâte de fruit recipes often have corn syrup/glucose to prevent crystallization, too. Quince fruit was historically used as it contains plentiful pectin and tastes wonderful after a long cooking.

Pectin
Now, when we started this project, we thought that pectin was pretty much the same wherever you went. Turns out we were wrong — there are a bunch of different kinds. Generally speaking, there are two types: high methoxyl and low methoxyl. Pectin is a polymer and the number of methoxyl (-OCH3) groups that are attached influence how the pectin sets. High methoxyl requires low pH and high dissolved solids (mostly sugar, about 55%) to set well. Low methoxyl requires less sugar, but needs calcium to set — it is what is used in low sugar jellies. Within low and high, there are additional ranges, with some setting rapidly and other setting slowly. Slower setting pectins are better for clear jellies and faster setting better for things with inclusions. Pectin is unfortunately not labeled very well and it can sometimes be hard to figure out what you are buying. Pectins used for making jams and jellies in the US are not pure pectin and are calibrated to certain recipes. Pâte de fruit recipes aren’t calibrated for these types of pectin. They assume pure pectin and call for things like apple pectin or yellow pectin. Apple pectin and yellow pectin are not usually found in stores. You can find them at L’Epicerie (yellow and apple) and Le Sanctuaire (yellow). If you find other sources, please post a link.

This is our starting formula for pâte de fruit, although the specifics will vary depending on your fruit.

for ~50 small pieces (can be doubled or quadrupled easily)
250g fruit puree (225g fruit puree + 25g sugar)
250g sugar
50g corn syrup
50g sugar + 7.5g pectin, whisked together
5mL lemon juice

This is pretty much the recipe that comes on the apple pectin package from L’Epicerie and is also based on the recipes for Boiron purees, which are high quality purees that are usually used for this sort of thing. We use lemon juice not because we can’t get tartaric/citric/malic acid (check your local brew supply store, here’s ours), but because when we used it, the candy was really strongly acid flavored. We feel that good fruit will have high acid content and if not, lemon juice seems to do the trick for flavor and final gelling of the pectin. We use the acids when we are not using fruit (e.g. vanilla-mint). The amount of pectin that you will use will vary depending on how much is in the fruit. We have found 7.5g/250g puree to be a good starting point.

The Fruit
Now, we finally get to the most important part — the fruit. Make sure to get the best fruit that you can. It doesn’t need to be completely ripe, but it does need to be fruit that would taste amazing when ripe. We find our fruit at Chino Farm, where they consistently produce amazing fruits and veggies. We did a few test runs with fruit we got at a less expensive market and most people had trouble identifying the flavor. By spending $3-5/50 pieces of candy more on fruit, we went from a nondescript sweet treat to a deep fruit experience.

For this summer’s project, we attempted to make 7 kinds and succeeded at 5: strawberry, vanilla-mint, beet, nectarine, and rose geranium. We failed moderately or pretty badly at two: watermelon and corn.

First off, a success:

Beet pâte de fruit:

Now, beets are not normally used for pâte de fruit, but they are naturally very sweet and the Chinos grow wonderful ones. We began with about 5 medium-large beets, peeled & chopped:

And juiced:

Since you will be stirring nonstop, it is important to have everything in place before you start. Set up the sugar, corn syrup, lemon juice, and sugar/pectin mixture in bowls.

Also, get ready whatever you are going to use to form the candies. You can use a rectangular container, lined with plastic wrap. We have these aluminum bars that we got from Online Metals that work as caramel bars. We set them up on a silpat on top of a marble board to insulate the heat from the table. There is no need to oil them as the candy will pull away cleanly.

To cook the candy, we have seen a number of different methods. You can bring the fruit puree to a boil, then add sugar/glucose, bring to a boil again, and then add pectin. When it reaches 224F, you add the acid and pour into the mold. You can also make a syrup with the sugar/glucose and a little water, boil to ~230, add half the fruit, boil, add the rest of the fruit and the pectin, boil to 224F, and add acid and pour. You always add the acid at the end. Adding fruit later I think helps the flavor, but I am not sure. For this version, we added the fruit later. Both ways work. Here’s a pic of the beet with everything but the lemon juice added:

And poured into the mold after reaching 224F and adding lemon juice:

After about an hour, the candy is cooled, ready for cutting, and tossing in sugar. We cut with a chef’s knife into 3/4 in x 3/4 in pieces. We use normal C&H sugar for this, but you can get fancier with larger crystaled sanding sugar. Here’s nectarine, beet, vanilla-mint, and strawberry.

Nectarine pâte de fruit
5g pectin

Strawberry pâte de fruit
5g pectin

Vanilla-mint pâte de fruit
enough water to make a syrup (1/2 c)
1 Tahitian vanilla pod, scrapped into syrup while cooking
bring to a boil & then add pectin

1/2 bunch fresh mint, chopped, added with acid
4g citric acid in a little water

Rose geranium pâte de fruit
1c water + 25g sugar
1 small bunch (7-8 flower clusters) rose geranium, with flower petals separated and reserved.
Bring to boil water, 25g sugar and rose geranium leaves. Add 250g sugar, and corn syrup. Bring to a boil and add 7.5g pectin.
4g acid (half citric, half malic), in a little water
When solution reaches 224F, remove from heat and add acid. Stir in acid and boil for a minute. Add reserved flower petals and pour into mold.

For watermelon, we reduced the juice about 2.5x before making it with 7.5g pectin. The result was sticky and gooey and never really set well. We’re wondering if there wasn’t too much glucose/fructose in the reduced fruit juice. We’ll try leaving out the corn syrup next time and see if that helps.

For corn, we weren’t sure what would happen. We used less pectin (5g) because we thought the natural cornstarch would add some thickening power. We also doubled the lemon juice (10 ml) because the corn doesn’t have that much acid. It didn’t set up and was super sticky. After sitting a day, it developed a crystallized crust.

Ick!

The flavor, however, was unreal and I suspect a quest is in our future. We’ll try going heavy on the pectin and acid next time.

Well, did we badge? We’ve sourced pectin and fruit/veggies well. We’ve researched the science and history to some extent, and we’ve made the recipe a number of times until we usually get it right. I’d say that qualifies as a badge. However, I think the key to pâte de fruit is being able to optimize to the particular ingredients that you have. I see an advanced badge in the future about optimizing the recipe to new ingredients. Not that we need to get the corn right, mind you, but figuring out a harder one like watermelon would be nice!

References
eGullet Pâte de fruit
Chocolates and Confections by Peter Greweling
Hungry in Hogtown’s description of El Bulli’s Vanilla pâte de fruit
Sweets: A History of Candy by Tim Richardson





Butter Badge: Making Cultured Butter

2 05 2010

As usual, we were getting an ingredient from a good supplier when all of a sudden they stop carrying it. So then what? We have to figure out how to do it ourselves.

This is the story of how we lost butter and found it again, picking up creme fraiche/crema, marscapone, and buttermilk along the way.

We had been buying Plugra from Trader Joe’s, a higher milkfat butter that I had thought was cultured to give it a more buttery flavor. It was reasonably priced at about $4/lb and better than a lot of other butters we had tried at the time. But one day, it was just gone. When we checked, the Trader Joe’s in San Diego wasn’t intending to carry it again.

In trying to find a replacement and searching for cultured butter, we found a number of sites with directions on how to make it yourself. Here are some good ones: Positron, Cook Like your Grandmother, What Geeks Eat, Traveler’s Lunchbox, and more recently, Michael Ruhlman.

Cultured butter is a pretty straightforward process. You take heavy cream, inoculate it with bacteria that make lactic acid, let it thicken overnight, and then beat/churn it until the fat congeals together and the whey/buttermilk is expelled. The first half is very similar to making yogurt, but you start with cream instead of milk and the specific cultures that you use can be different. The butter culture bacteria are mesophilic (medium temp) and thrive at cooler temperatures (64°- 77° F) whereas the yogurt cultures are often thermophilic (warm temp) and grow closer to 110°.

Butter flavor interlude
The flavor of butter is dominated by a couple related chemicals called diacetyl and acetoin. They are made during fermentation — usually by bacteria or yeast. In wines, like chardonnay, wine makers can set up the conditions just right for yeast to make a lot of diacetyl, giving the wine a rich mouthfeel and buttery flavor. In butter, the compounds are made by bacteria (including this guy:
Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar diacetylactis). Or, if you get the cheap stuff (or butter-flavor popcorn), they just add it as a natural flavoring.

We have tried using yogurt as a culture starter (Fage and Trader Joe’s Greek Yogurt) before upgrading to a mail order butter culture from Dairy Connection. The first attempts with yogurt worked, but the flavor really doesn’t get to buttery without the diacetyl/acetoin producing bacteria. We use the Flora Danica culture — for $10 + shipping, we can culture 50 gallons of cream.

This culture has 4 bacteria friends — 2 which seem to primarily drive the acidification (Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris) and 2 which drive the flavor production (Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar diacetylactis, Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris).

The cream that you use is surely important. And as soon as we find a good creamery in San Diego, we’ll tell you just how important. For the time being, we’re relying on heavy cream from Costco (Swiss Dairy, which seems to be based in Riverside and is part of a conglomerate Dean Foods, which also makes Alta Dena and Berkeley Farms, among others).

Like most creams on the general market, this cream is ultra-high pasteurized, and has some additives like mono and diglycerides. The price is cheaper than anywhere else we can find at about $3.10/quart. We have had very good results with it, though. The main thing to remember is always use the freshest cream possible to start. Don’t let it sit in your fridge for weeks and don’t use it if it has been sitting open in your fridge for long (a week was too long for us). It may taste ok as cream, but the bacteria somehow find a way to amplify slightly off flavors into straight yuckiness.

To culture the cream, we start by placing Flora Danica culture (1/8 t. per gallon of cream) in a clean bowl and add about a tablespoon of cream. We make sure to clean the bowl, but we don’t sterilize or go to great lengths to purify our tools. As long as the cream is fresh, we haven’t had a problem.

We let the culture thaw and then work it with a spatula to resuspend the culture in the cream, resulting in a paste.

We heat the rest of the cream to 77 F (25 C) and pour in, mixing well. Then, it gets loosely covered with plastic wrap and set on the kitchen table for 18-24 hrs until thick like sour cream.

Then, in a very boring, but very important step, the cultured cream gets refrigerated for 24 hours. If you don’t do this, the final butter texture is kind of flaky, not smooth and creamy like good butter. It is the kind of butter that breaks when you slice off a piece instead of smoothly cutting through. The flavor also seems to develop some.

After a day in the fridge, the cultured cream can be used as creme fraiche or crema. If you strained it like Greek yogurt, you’d end up with marscapone. It will keep at least 1-2 weeks in the fridge. We usually make a gallon, keeping a quart for creme fraiche and using 3 quarts for butter.

To make butter, you begin by warming the butter to about 50-60 F, which I think is supposed to help it separate when you are beating it later. We do this by placing the bowl in hot water in the sink and stirring until the cream doesn’t feel cold to the touch anymore.

Then, it is off to the mixer. We use a 6 qt. Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Because the beating incorporates air, I would suggest that you make no more than 1/2 the volume of the bowl in cream. We use the paddle attachment because whisking, although effective, seemed to incorporate more milk solids (proteins, etc.) into the butter. When we spread it on bread, the butter melted with a punctate pattern of milk solids. With the paddle attachment, it just melts.

Beat the cream on medium speed (4-5). It will take about 15 minutes or so to turn into butter. First, the cream whips like whipping cream, incorporating air to about double its volume.

Then, like over-whipped cream, it takes on a granular structure. This is the milk fat globules starting to clump together.

The globules keep clumping together and it starts to look like butter, but it isn’t there yet. You may want to reduce the speed at this point so it doesn’t splash out of the bowl.

Finally, the buttermilk separates and the pieces of nascent butter form together.

At this point, you can take it off the mixer. You’ll work it with a spatula to get the butter to become one big clump and then pour off the buttermilk.

The milk is thick and rich. If you haven’t had buttermilk from fresh butter, this will likely be a treat. It is actually drinkable and great in other recipes, which is much more than I can say of the kind in the store.

Then, you wash the residual buttermilk from butter by adding cool water and working it with a spatula. After 3-4 additions of water, the water is not milky anymore and mostly clear.

Then, pour off the last of water, work the butter some to expel the residual water, and you are ready to salt or wrap. We don’t normally salt, but this time we tried 1 teaspoon/lb of salt. Salting seems to vary between .5% and 2% salt (3-9g/lb). It sounds like you need less salt for cultured butter and this time was a little salty. Next time, we’ll do 1/2 t. per lb. To salt, you just work in the salt with the spatula. Then, wrap up for storage. We wrap 8 oz. in plastic wrap.

Three quarts makes about 2 1/2 lbs. of butter. This will keep 3 weeks or so in the fridge and gets better with time. If you are going to keep it longer than that, just put it in the freezer, preferably vacuum packed. It easily takes on fridge/freezer flavors if left too long without good wrapping.

And was it worth it? Well, although we’ve been making the stuff, I think we’re even more likely to buy fancy butter now than before. In comparisons, we think this butter is better than any uncultured butter we’ve had — including Strauss European Unsalted. It is not as good as Echire or Le Gall Beurre de Baratte. If we had to price it, we’d put it at $8-10/lb — as tasty as anything we’ll usually find in the specialty butter section of Whole Foods, but not elite. And as for Plugra? Well, it turns out it isn’t cultured at all, but has “natural flavorings” added (i.e. diacetyl). It now has a harsh artificial taste like microwave popcorn. Ah well.





Nougat Badge

15 02 2010

I think nougat has gotten a bad rap, at least in the States. Most nougat that gets eaten these days is like the puffy, empty sweet nougat in Snickers bars. I didn’t think it was all that great either until we found this book: Chocolates and Confections by Peter Greweling. The author is a professor at the Culinary Institute of America and this book could function as a class text book, coffee table book, or a basis for starting a business in chocolate or candy making. I am sure this book has been at the core of all the “how to open my own chocolate shop” Google searches, too.

We got this book last year and had a blast learning how to make molded chocolates, caramels, and nougats, which we handed out for Christmas last year. This week brought a couple of excuses to brush off the book and see if we couldn’t officially get our badges.

On our visit to Schaner Farms in the Little Italy Farmer’s Market this week (who we religiously visit at opening time every week to get our eggs), we came across a pretty basket of Kaffir limes.

These limes are usually not eaten much, but the leaves are used extensively in Southeast Asian cooking. The flavor is pretty unique and is dark green, fresh, and slightly bitter lime. The basis of nougat can often be a candied fruit or rind and once I saw these, I knew we had to try out candied Kaffir lime peel.

The Greweling book lays out how to make candied or “confit” citrus peel. You first blanch peel from quartered citrus to remove the bitterness.

Kaffir limes are quite bitter — their peel will make your lips tingly if you try to eat it straight. So, instead of blanching the three times recommended, we added a fourth. After the fourth, we could not taste much residual bitterness in the peel. Here they are after the last blanching.

After blanching, you simmer the peels in a sugar/glucose solution for anywhere from 60 min to 2 1/2 hours (he says 90 min, but we’ve always needed longer) at a very low heat. In order to keep them submerged, we used a drop lid. We first learned about drop lids when we tried Japanese cooking. The Japanese do a lot of simmering and use a drop lid to keep the food submerged under water for even cooking. We got ours at Daiso, the Japanese equivalent of a dollar store (but a lot better). You could also use a plate.

We checked on them every 10 min or so to make sure they were not simmering too hard (the skins get tough if they boil). They go from opaque white in color to purely translucent over time. We cooked them for 10 min after they had first all gone translucent. This time, it took about 2 hrs 15 min. Here they are when they are done.

Which brings us back to nougat. Nougat is pretty close in many ways to meringue: egg whites that have been stiffened with boiled honey and/or sugar. The less water, the harder the meringue and the harder the nougat. Meringues can be baked to completely dry them out. In nougat, water is removed by boiling the sugar and honey to higher temperatures before adding it to the egg whites. You can, as Greweling does, also use powered egg whites instead of regular whites and this removes more water.

Today, we’re making a French-style “Montelimar” nougat. The region of Montelimar in south-eastern France is renowned for their nougat. According to our friends at Maison en Provence, a very cute housewares store specializing in products from Provence, Montelimar nougat should be white, chewy, and only made of almonds, pistachios, sugar, and lavender honey.

Greweling deviates from this in his Montelimar nougat and adds hazelnuts, dried pear, dried apricot, and dried cherries, and regular (!!) honey. We’ve tried a bunch of versions — almonds, pistachios, and dried cherry; with added candied yuzu; a chocolate version with candied Seville orange peel; with French lavender honey; with Spanish lavender honey; and with Costco clover honey. Today, we are making a Thai-inspired nougat: candied Kaffir lime peel, candied ginger, toasted macadamias, and French lavender honey.

Lavender Honey Interlude
Most lavender honey that is available in the States is lavender infused honey. So, it pretty much tastes like soap. True lavender honey, on the other hand, is from bees that have lived on nothing but lavender flowers. It fills your nose with a heady floral sweetness that makes other honeys seem coy — nothing like soap. We’ve tried Spanish lavender honey ($10 for 12 oz.) and French lavender honey (Ours Brun brand, $20 for 13 oz.). Turns our the Spanish bees have nothing on the French — as for the price, we just have to suck it down. Even if it triples the cost of making nougat, the quality of the honey is directly related to the heavenliness of the nougat, no matter what else you put into it.

This recipe is all about timing. It takes about 45 min to get everything set up and then it all executes in about 15. You have the egg whites sitting in the mixer; all the inclusions (nuts & fruit) toasted if needed and waiting in a warm oven; sugar, corn syrup, water, and vanilla sitting in one pot; and honey in another. You turn on the mixer with the whites when the honey reaches 226 F and then the fun starts.

You begin by making an Italian meringue. This is whipped egg whites, into which you pour boiled honey while whipping. If you follow Greweling to the letter, you start with some powdered egg whites and ultimately end up with a hard-ish nougat. We use 70g egg whites (about 2) to start instead. Using the same temperatures for the rest of the recipe results in a great soft, chewy texture.

As soon as the honey reaches 248, you have turned on the sugar solution to boil, and take the honey off the stove and pour it into the whipping whites (pour down the side so the hot honey doesn’t get in the whisk!).

You then wait for the sugar solution (sugar, corn syrup, water, and in our case a Tahitian vanilla bean) to boil to a temperature of 300-311. Any hotter and the glucose in the corn syrup will start to caramelize and you’ll get nougat with a brown hue. For this, and the honey step, a good candy thermometer is important. We have ruined a couple digital probe-style thermometers because they have gotten too hot in the sugar or on the bottom of the pot. Greweling uses 311 here, but you could go a little lower for chewier texture.


Glucose/Corn Syrup/Maltose huh?

Greweling uses “glucose” in all his recipes, which is corn syrup, but he uses the general term because it could be made industrially from any starch. Corn, when it is in the cob, is mostly made up of starch, which is a big molecule made up of a bunch of glucose (a type of sugar) molecules stuck together. It can be broken down with enzymes — in your mouth, starches get broken down into sugars by an enzyme in your saliva called amylase (you could make your own corn syrup by chewing on corn starch, but that might be taking “homemade” a little far). Industrially, people use enzymes, too. The result is a solution made up of glucose, maltose (2 glucose molecules stuck together), and some larger molecules made of glucose, the whole thing of which is called corn syrup. Karo syrup is corn syrup with vanilla flavoring added. We get our syrup at the Korean market Zion, where they call it malt (maltose!) syrup. It has the advantages that it has no vanilla and is a third the price of Karo. None of these syrups taste very sweet. High fructose corn syrup (which we are not using here), has another step to convert the glucose to fructose. The stuff in soda is about 55% fructose to 45% glucose, making it about as sweet as table sugar or honey.

Vanilla Sourcing
Go into a random grocery store and buy a vanilla bean and you will seriously wonder what all the fuss is about. They will charge you $4-10 and it will be dry, old, and pretty tasteless. Grocery stores just don’t get the traffic to warrant having good vanilla and you are better off using extract. The internet, however, can come to your rescue. We found this site from a guy that seriously knows his vanilla. He seemed to think that Beanilla was a pretty good place to get beans and we followed his advice, getting soft, pliant, vibrantly fragrant beans for $1 – 1.50 each. We tried 5 different kinds and settled on our 2 favorites: Mexican, a smooth, creamy vanilla with deep notes (think “The Most Interesting Man in the World”); and Tahitian, a bright, fruity, floral vanilla (think a stylish, flamboyant gay man about to throw a party on a gorgeous tropical island).

After you pour the sugar solution into the honey meringue and whip for a few minutes, you are ready to mix in the inclusions. If you’re not a purist, these can be anything. This time around we have diced Kaffir lime peel, candied ginger, and toasted macadamia nuts. Since we were going with a Thai theme, we also used coconut oil (also a hard fat) instead of cocoa butter. Here is the nougat going into the bowl with the inclusions and coconut oil.

When to add cocoa butter?
In the recipe, you also add melted cocoa butter to the nougat to help with mouth feel and to ease in cutting it later. The recipe says to add it in the mixer. This introduces all sorts of drama. First, the nougat, which was all puffy, collapses. Then, little pieces of nougat (which is very hot!) come flying off the mixer unless you have it covered. It is supposed to come together again, but we’ve always ended up using a hair dryer to heat up the nougat to get it to come together again. Luckily, someone on eGullet (Drewman, see here) had the bright idea of adding the cocoa butter to the inclusions instead. This works beautifully.

After mixing it up, you pour it out onto sheets of rice paper. It helps the nougat to keep from sticking to things, like the plastic that you wrap it up in. The paper dissolves quickly in your mouth. We got our rice paper from a cake decorating store called Do it with Icing! — they sell by the sheet. It can also be found online, but you’ll likely have to buy a bunch. It is often used to print pictures in edible ink, which get placed on top of cakes. The paper melts into the frosting, leaving the picture.

After you spread it around with your hands, you place another piece of paper on top and smooth it out (you can use a rolling pin) so that the nougat is even.

After it cools overnight, you can cut it into pieces with a chef’s knife. If it is too sticky, chilling in the fridge can help.

Nougats absorb water from the air, so you need to protect them with a covering. You can enrobe (cover) it in chocolate or wrap in plastic or wax paper. We use these cellophane “caramel wrap” sheets that we ordered from Sugarcraft. Other places sell as well, but you need to make sure that you get the kind of cellophane that will stay put after you twist it. The type that is used for bags won’t work. Half the work for these guys is cutting and wrapping, but it’s fun to hang around the table and chat.

You’ll end up from this recipe with about 1 1/2 lbs of nougat. It keeps well for 4-6 weeks, but can then start to develop a grainy texture. It is still good and will keep for months, but is not quite as good as during the first month.

The Thai nougat was surprisingly good — we think it is the best one we’ve made so far. It is a lot like a Thai curry in more than just the taste profile — the flavors merged really well together. We thought the Kaffir would dominate, but because it wasn’t bitter, it was a bright initial flavor that faded into the hot ginger with the macadamia anchor. The Tahitian vanilla and the lavender honey come in with strong fruity, floral notes and the coconut smoothed everything out and helped to merge the flavors together. All in all, really awesome.

Badge Check!
We’ve sourced most of the ingredients, finding good quality at prices we think are fair. We’ve also learned how to make one (candied peel) ourselves.

We’ve learned about different types of nougat, making one style pretty extensively.

We’ve made the recipe enough times to 1) feel comfortable making it, 2) optimized a number of steps, and 3) are damn happy with the result.

I’d say that passes! Nougat for all!!





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
Burgers
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