After a year of leafing through the excellent book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn , and vowing to make sausages, bacon, etc. “one of these days”, I decided it finally was time for action. Fresh bacon seemed like a good starting point, the recipe didn’t look too difficult. Make the cure, rub it all over the pork belly, put it in a Ziploc bag in the fridge, and turn it every other day. Once it was cured you could smoke it, as is traditionally done, or just cook it slowly in the oven. Big shot that I am, I decided to try and smoke it, more on that later.
The first challenge was getting the two special ingredients, pink salt (sodium nitrite) and pork belly. Pink salt was easy enough to get through Butcher-Packer (sold under the name DQ Curing Salt), I also ordered dextrose, which is what the authors prefer to use for the sugar in the cure (they give formulas for making the cure with both dextrose and regular sugar). Pork Belly was another story, not something that you find on the supermarket shelf. They say that you can try to have your butcher special order it for you, but since that would require me talking to somebody, I saved it as a last resort. Luckily, you can order it online from Niman Ranch, once I factored in the shipping costs it was expensive enough to make me hesitate, but I was able to justify the cost in the name of science.
My pork belly arrived on a Friday, a big 8.5 pound slab of meat. I cut it into 2 manageable pieces that would fit into 2.5-gallon Ziploc bags. In the book they say the easy way to do it is to put a 3.5 to 5 pound belly in the bag, add 1/4 cup of cure and shake it up to cover the belly. I am always for the easy way so that’s what I did. I decided to eliminate as many variables as possible and just go with the basic cure of kosher salt, sugar (dextrose) and pink salt. If you want you can take it in a sweeter direction adding maple or brown sugar or a savory direction with garlic, herbs, pepper, etc. It wasn’t too long after I added the cure, shook the bellies up to coat, and refrigerated them that I started to have my doubts that it was enough cure.
They say that the pork belly will release “a lot” of liquid while it is curing and needs to be kept in contact with that brining liquid throughout the whole process. Since it did not look like what I would consider a lot of liquid, the doubts about the amount of cure continued to nag at me. It eventually got the best of me and after a couple of days I added a little more cure to one of the bellies.
After the seven days passed I took the bellies out and the one I added the extra cure to definitely seemed more cured, it was nice and firm, while the other was mushier. The latter also had a blotchy appearance to it. I decide to not take any chances and just smoke the first one. I know it was wasteful but quite frankly I am glad that I was able to get one slab out if it.
Anyway, I rinsed the belly, patted it dry and proceeded to rig up my Weber kettle Grill for smoking. I had never smoked on the grill before but had read a lot about doing it and knew the basic concept, just enough coals on one side to keep it at a low heat, with something to generate the smoke on the coals, and put the belly on the other side to cook slowly with indirect heat. For the smoke I used hickory wood pellets that you put in an aluminum pouch. Poke a small hole in the pouch, and place it on top of the coals and boom, smoke.
As I hinted at earlier, the smoking did not go well. The first problem was the pellets suck. They burned out very quickly, and even trying to add another pouch didn’t work out too well, because once the coals burned down to a low steady heat it didn’t seem to be hot enough to make the pellets smoke. Next time I will have to try soaking wood chips and placing them directly on the coals.
In addition, it was very tough to regulate the heat correctly, at first it was too hot, then when the coals burned down, and the temp started to get too low, I had to add more coals and it would take a while for them to catch, and once they started burning it would get too hot. It is definitely going to take practice and a well planned out system for feeding the coals to get it right. I have a feeling I will buy a smoker before I get that down. Still, even though it didn’t quite smoke the way I wanted, and it was frustrating I think just cooking it on the grill and the little smoke added some extra flavor. And it sure did look good when it was done.
Cutting the skin off was pretty difficult, but doing it while the belly was still hot as the book recommends definitely helped. I cut a slice and tasted it just like they recommend and boy did it taste good. Did not seem too salty from the extra cure. After letting it cool, I wrapped it and put it in the fridge and bided my time until the next morning when the real test would come.
The moment of truth, breakfast, nice thick slices of bacon frying in the skillet. I took my first bite and I realized I had never really had bacon before, at least not as good as this. I ran into a few bumps along the way, but none of the problems were show-stoppers. I need to find a cheaper source for pork belly, because I am definitely going to be doing this again. Next time I will try 2 slabs again, only I will go beyond the basic cure and do one slab sweet, and the other savory. Also, I am going to try the saltbox method of coating the meat mentioned in Charcuterie, just dredging it in plenty of cure making sure all sides are covered and shaking off the excess. I think this will work out better than trying to measure it out.