Okay, I got to admit I absolutely love bacon. As one comedian I saw on Last Comic Standing once put it “I’m Jewish, but I eat bacon, because no religion is worth giving up the finest meat known to man.”
I’m not Jewish, but I thought that was really funny. My former business partner is Jewish, and he loves bacon (and all things pork, to be sure). I am half Iranian, with a large Muslim contingency in my family, and they all eat bacon. Let’s face it...bacon is the meat equivalent of sex - maybe even better, because you can enjoy it in public without turning too many heads (except, of course, in Iran or Israel).
There I go off on one of my tangents again. Anywhoo...
I was thrilled to get an invitation to submit a post for the Foodbuzz BACONALIA challenge for a chance to win a $500 prize. It finally prompted me to tell my story.
After enjoying decades of bacony bliss, one day I decided it was time to try my hand at making my own bacon. I have no problem with all the great bacon you can get in your local grocery store. All bacon is good bacon, if you ask me. Once again, bacon is like sex. When it’s good, it’s great, and when it’s bad...it’ still pretty good.
Nonetheless, I am the same guy who decided that making my own Worcestershire Sauce was one of those “must do” cooking things, so how could I possibly go through life without curing and smoking my own pork belly? I don’t need that sort of regret in my life!
I set out to make my own bacon, and I immediately hit a wall. All the recipes I looked up called for curing salts, which is essentially sodium nitrates and nitrites in various combinations with table salt. There are a couple of issues with this. One is that it is not readily available everywhere you go, and the other is that it is fairly toxic and apparently carcinogenic when heated to high temperatures (such as when cooking). Being someone who likes to keep toxic materials out of my kitchen whenever possible, I was not too excited to get my hands on any of this.
Yet we have a bit of quandary. The curing salts are needed for two reasons. One is for preserving the meat and preventing botulism (never a good thing...unless you are trying to fix crows feet on your face), and the other is for transforming the pork belly into what we know as bacon. Anyone who has cooked pork belly before knows that, while it is quite delicious, it is NOT bacon. Without the curing process, pork belly does not go through the transformation that changes the flavor and texture to what we know and love. My hopes for home curing seemed to be dashed...or so it seemed.
I was shopping at my local Trader Joe’s one day, and saw something peculiar. It was a package of bacon that was labeled as uncured. This was a bit misleading, since it was indeed cured, but it was not cured with the use of curing salts...at least not in the traditional sense. A bit of review of the ingredients revealed that they had used celery powder as a curing salt. Yes, the very same celery we all enjoy with our chicken wings and blue cheese dressing.
This lead me to do a bit of research, and I discovered that celery (and other vegetables) contain natural nitrites. The nitrites found in vegetables are no less toxic than they are in concentrated form, except they are considerably less concentrated. In fact, further research led me to understand that the concentrated nitrites taken from celery are just as bad for you as the synthetic ones.
I buy celery all the time. It is easy to get, and I (and my children) would have to eat a lot of celery to go through any sort of toxic effect from the nitrites (or so I have heard). I also do not feel nervous about having it around my house. The curing salts I have seen are colored pink to avoid confusing it with table salt. That is all good and well, but my 4 year old daughter loves pink, and will eat anything if it is pink (even if it is not food), so I do not feel comfortable having this around my house. If she chooses to go all out on the celery, I am okay with that.
So I decided that I would try using celery to cure my pork belly. I was not sure how to do that, but I was suddenly inspired. I got some celery, and then I ran into another wall. Pork bellies are not readily available at my local standard grocery store (unless, of course, you buy them as cured bacon). Argggggh!
Then something wonderful happened. A large Asian supermarket (Ranch 99) opened up nearby. As I perused the various interesting meat products and by-products, I spotted a nice pile of pork bellies in the meat case. I immediately purchased one of them (about 3 pounds) and darted over to the produce section for a large stalk (bunch) of celery. Interestingly enough, this market also had bottles of the pink curing salt, but I was having none of that. I was on a mission to do this MacGyver style.
Okay, enough chit chat. Here is how I went about curing my first bacon:
Naturally Cured Bacon
Note: This uses both a wet and a dry cure. It is very important to keep your work area, hands, and everything clean. The pork belly will cure for many days, and introducing pathogens into the process could lead to illness. The gin gives the bacon a nice flavor as well as helps keep the bacteria count down. You can substitute brown sugar or maple sugar for the maple syrup (only use REAL maple syrup). If you do not have any seasoned salt, make some up by making a combination that is half table salt and half paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, and whatever dried herbs you like (thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leaf).
This bacon will be a bit salty, which is meant to keep it bacteria free. If you want it a bit less salty, soak it in water for about an hour or two (under refrigeration) before allowing the pellicle to form.
1 each Pork Belly (about 3 pounds)
1 stalk (bunch) Celery
2 Tablespoons Kosher Salt
1/4 cup Gin
1/2 cup Maple Syrup
2 teaspoons Black Pepper (freshly milled)
1 Tablespoon Seasoned Salt
1 Tablespoon Smoked Salt (or any Kosher Salt)
2 Tablespoons Brown Sugar
2 Tablespoons Maple Sugar (or more Brown Sugar)
• Combine the Wet Cure ingredients in a food processor and puree until liquid.
• Put the Pork Belly in a large Ziploc bag and pour the Wet Cure ingredients in the bag and seal it (remove all the air you can).
• Let this sit in a shallow dish in your refrigerator for 4 days.
• Drain off the Wet Cure and rinse the Pork Belly.
• Rub the Dry Cure ingredients on the Pork Belly and put it in another Ziploc bag. Let this sit in the refrigerator for 1 week. Every day turn it over and drain off any liquids that gather in the bag.
•At the end of the week remove the Pork Belly from the bag and rinse it off. If you want it to be less salty when finished, soak it in cold water for 1 or 2 hours and drain the water.
• Pat the Pork Belly dry and let this sit on a plate, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight so that it dries and forms a pellicle.
• Smoke in a smoker at no more than 240 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 hours.
• Let this cool to room temperature and peel off the hide. Save the hide in your freezer for cooking with beans or collard greens, or soups. It is very flavorful and makes a great seasoning.
• Chill the bacon overnight and slice about 1/8 inch thick and use as you would any other bacon. It is easier to slice this if you freeze it until it is about half frozen.
The first time I made this, I served it with some Banana Waffles for Sunday breakfast:
Yield: 12 Waffles
Note: For best results use bananas that are ripe until they turn almost black on the outside. They have much more banana flavor then.
3 1/2 cups All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup Granulated Sugar
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda
3/4 teaspoon Salt
5 each Large Eggs (separated)
1 3/4 cups Milk
1 cup Buttermilk
3/4 cup Melted Butter
1/2 teaspooon Vanilla Extract
2 each Bananas (VERY ripe and mashed)
• Set aside 1 Tablespoon of the Sugar
• Combine all the dry ingredients and sift them well, and set them aside.
• Combine the Egg Yolks, Melted Butter, Milk, Buttermilk, Vanilla Extract, and mashed Bananas.
• Beat the Egg Whites with a pinch of Salt in a very dry and clean bowl until they form soft peaks, and gradually beat in the reserved Sugar.
• Add the liquid ingredients on top of the dry ingredients as well as the Egg Whites, and fold all together well. It can be a bit lumpy when done. Do not overmix this.
• Cook in a waffle iron and serve with maple syrup and butter.
This bacon is much richer and heartier than most bacon you find in your local grocery store. You can find bacon like this in great gourmet markets, or even order it online, but be prepared to pay through the nose for it.
Although I enjoyed this for breakfast, it is so flavorful I reserved it for my cooking (such as for my Scalloped Potatoes), and use regular old standard store bought bacon for most of my bacon devouring needs. About one slice of this is all I need to intensely flavor anything I cook with that delicious bacon essence. Keep it in you freezer and it will last a very long time.
I was very proud of myself for figuring out a way to naturally get to that bacon flavor, and this worked out quite nicely. I suggest you try this yourself, and let me know how it turns out.
Enjoy in good health!