Meat Candy
Makin' Bacon!

6 cups water
1 cup kosher salt
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons of curing salt

1/2 cup maple syrup
-or-
1/2 cup molasses + 4 tablespoons coarse ground black pepper

3 cups ice cubes

The skin comes off easily once it's smoked.  It cooks up chewy to crunchy depending on how you prepare it.  That is a nice texture contrast for some people, I happen to like it, but feel free to remove it if you don't.  With that will go a bunch of the smoke flavor, but trying to remove the rind from a raw belly, is not an easy thing to do, and it leaves a huge exposed surface area of fat, that will melt off if you have trouble keeping the heat level down.




Some people advocate the use of curing salts, sold commercially under the name Insta Cure.  It is a combination of salt and sodium nitrite.  The salt is just a carrier.  Sodium nitrite is not something you will find on the shelf at your local grocer, and even if you did, the amount used is too small to be accurately measured in the kitchen.  Conversely, some other folks don't like the idea of using nitrites in meat processing.  It's function is to prevent bacterial growth during a long smoking time, when the meat is between refrigerated and cooking temp.  I think it is a reasonable precaution.  The amounts in the mix are again very  small.  Make up your own mind.
Next comes the smoke.  After three days in the brine, although the meat has been soaking in liquid, it will have lost a bit of it weight.  During this time water has been moving into and out of the meat.  With it the flavorings that are dissolved in it have been moving as well.  The net flow in this case is out of the meat, but some of the solute, in this case the salt and the sugar are trapped and held in the tissue.

Dry the belly and place it in the smoker.  If you have an upright like this one with a water pan, fill the pan with ice.  If you have an offset smoker, one that separates the smoke from the heat, this won't be necessary, and you can cold smoke for 8 hours.  If not, try a more intense smoke for a shorter duration.  Remember to keep it cool, the object is to smoke the meat, not cook it.  The best wood for this is apple or hickory, but I have sampled mesquite bacon, and it isn't bad.



This is one of those things that one can ask oneself, "Is it really worth it?"  In my opinion, yes!  Anything that is handmade, homemade, is better than what you will find in a store.  You control the ingredients and the process, you are connected to the finished product, and like a clean car runs better, food you make with your own hands tastes better than anything you can possibly buy.  The cost savings on this varies depending on what you normally buy, apples to apples, artisan bacon as opposed to artificially flavored, chemical laden, fluid injected "bacon like" product, it's real.  The investment of time is likewise real, but not significant, and consists mostly of wait time, and it is again very much worth the end result.
I use this process to illustrate osmosis to my students, and how bacterial cells respond to environmental stress.  Blah, blah, blah, right?  It's actually a pretty cool process if you look at it that way, but it's also pretty cool if you just look at it from the standpoint of turning this thing, which is a whole, nine pound pork belly (or side), into a salty, sweet, crispy, rasher of bacon!

Once you have a golden, aromatic slab, remove it from the smoker and wrap it loosely.  Don't use plastic wrap or tightly fitted foil.  You don't want the meat to get soggy as it cools.  Use parchment, butcher paper, or paper bag stock.  Place it immediately in the refrigerator and get it nice and cold.  Slice to your desire thickness, and cook it up.  Because of the sugar in this recipe, it bakes better than it fries.  It tends to burn really easily with high temp cooking.

First comes the brine.  This will help set up the meat to resist spoilage (which was the original intent of this), as well as flavoring it and removing some moisture, which concentrates flavor.  With modern refrigeration, the former is not as much of a concern, but the latter, is a very desirable goal in this process.

Mix the brine ingredients in a stockpot until the sugars are dissolved.  Apply a little heat to assist, just keep in mind the brine must be cooled before it is used, that's what the ice is for.  Combine the belly and the brine in a vessel large enough to hold it all, but also deep enough to keep it submerged.  A weighted plate or other suitable device can be used to keep the belly under the surface of the brine.

Brine the belly for three days, refrigerated.

After the belly is brined, it is ready to be smoked.
It may help to cut the belly in half.  Here you can already get an idea of what it is to become.  The stamp is called a "bug."  It's the USDA identifier for the plant that produced the cut, it certifies that it has been inspected.
I have found that this bacon gets better with a little age on it.  I sliced up one slab after I finished the first project, and immediately put it in play, and it was very good.  Smoky, savory, and not too salty.  I ate it for breakfast, in salads and on pizza, and I used the ends for flavoring sauces and vegetables.  It was absolutely awesome.  The second slab went into the freezer until the first slab was used up.  That took several weeks.  This second slab had a more mellow smokiness, and more balanced sweet/savory flavor.  It had definitely improved, if that's possible.  From now on, I will cold age this stuff before getting into it, if I can exercise that much restraint.

I won't bother continuing to extol the virtues of bacon.  If you are still reading, you get it.  This is definitely something I will continue to do, because again, there's nothing better on a nice bacon, avocado, and sprout sandwich, or beside your eggs and toast, or in your favorite bean soup, than bacon made by your own hands.  "Nuff said.