Tuesday, December 17, 2013


A while back (way back, like before the Homestead Laboratory), we got half a pig from a local farmer.  The pig was processed at a local meat market, and we got a variety of cuts--chops, roasts, loins, even some bacon.  But, we wanted to try curing our own bacon as well, since the art (and science) of curing meat is something we've been wanting to learn.  Bacon is most commonly made from the pork belly, but other cuts, such as jowl, will work, too.  The meat market made their bacon for us from the pork belly, and our jowl probably ended up in the ground pork pile, so we ended up with one lonely package of uncured side pork to use as the basis of our experiment.  We're happy to report, after concluding our experiment this weekend, that our homemade bacon is what Minnesotans would call 'pretty good.'  Here's how it went down:

Our saga starts with a package of sliced, uncured side pork.  Why they decided to slice it up we have no idea.  It's about twice as thick (in most places) as the thickest thick-cut bacon we've ever had, but not thick enough to qualify for any other type of cut.  Maybe this was the part between the ribs, but it sure looks like it was sliced on a slicing machine.  Most recipes call for a large chunk of meat, so now we'll have a chance to see if pre-sliced works, too!
We based out recipe mainly off Meathead's maple bacon recipe here (it's just a little brown sugar, salt, pepper, and maple syrup), except we ignored the part about pink salt and the water (although our sea salt is slightly pink-colored).  Why did we ignore the part about the pink salt?  Oh boy, here we go...

<begin rant/discussion about preservatives in cured meats>
There are plenty of articles out there on the Internets claiming that there's no reason to fear nitrates at all (or that they may even be beneficial in small amounts).  However, the problem is not primarily from nitrites/nitrates themselves (unless you're susceptible to blue baby syndrome, i.e., a baby too young to eat bacon), but from nitrosamines that form when the bacon is cooked. (See also here.)  There was even consideration years ago of eliminating nitrite preservatives altogether...except that nitrites do a great job of preventing botulism.  Then it was found that adding a second preservative, such as ascorbic acid or an ascorbate salt (vitamin C), inhibits nitrosamine formation.  Problem solved, right?  Not quite.  Cooking conditions seem to play a significant role (not only the temperature, but the oxidative environment, as discussed in the study linked above), even if there should be enough vitamin C to prevent nitrosylation.  Although strong conclusions are incredibly difficult to draw from dietary studies, no one seems to doubt that nitrites heated to bacon-frying temperatures with amines commonly found in meat form nitrosamines or that nitrosamines are almost certainly carcinogenic.  Similarly, the scientific literature strongly suggests that inhibitors like vitamin C may or may not completely eliminate the risk.

For the homestead bacon-maker, there's another catch: he's now got to find two additional (industrially-manufactured) ingredients that he probably doesn't have on-hand (internet availability of pink salt and ascorbates notwithstanding).  Fortunately, neither are really needed, and there are plenty of recipes available that don't require them.  The majority of the flavor comes from the seasonings in the cure and the smoke (whatever the carcinogenicity of the smoke is...).  Note that adding celery salt or juice or other forms of non-standard salt preservatives are usually still adding nitrites/nitrates, just not as a pure component.

So, our take on nitrates/nitrites in cured meats is this: why bother?  We're going to cure the bacon in the fridge, cook the bacon at temperatures high enough to destroy any botulism spores or toxin, and store it either in the fridge or freezer.  It's not an industrial product with days in transit or on a semi-refrigerated grocery store shelf, so the risk that adding nitrites would prevent is negligibly small for us from the get-go.  In other words, the notion that our bacon-handling procedures will not expose us to botulism seems like more of a sure thing than the notion that adding nitrites plus ascorbic acid (if we had them on hand) will not result in carcinogens upon cooking the bacon.
<end rant about preservatives in cured meats>

Hey, look!  There's almost-bacon on the kitchen counter!
Anyway, we mixed up the cure ingredients well and added it and the side pork to a plastic bag.
And then mixed the cure and the meat together, and gave it a good massage.  The key to good bacon is to have the meat relaxed and stress-free...and also to have the cure evenly distributed across the meat.  Most recipes we've seen call for letting the bacon cure for 7-10 days, but the cure ingredients don't really go into the meat until it gets heated up.  So, why wait for a week when we can get the same effect in a couple hours at elevated temp?  We were going to let it go overnight so the salt would dissolve and disperse, then smoke the next day.  But then we got distracted, left for a Thanksgiving trip halfway across the country, and didn't get back to the bacon until a couple weeks later.  So we'll try 'instant bacon' on the next round.  In the meantime, if you know of a good reason why we need to wait 7-10 days, leave us a comment below!
Finally, with a little daylight time on the weekend, it's smokin' day!  We started up the grill with some homemade charcoal (more on that soon, hopefully), with a layer of hot charcoal on top and a layer of cold charcoal underneath.
Then added a couple chunks of cherry wood (apple, hickory, and oak are our other favorites, but cherry is what we had on hand)...
...and set up the grill for two-zone cooking shown here...
...then put on the bacon-elect to smoke.  Ahh! The cherry wood caught on fire!  Put the lid on, quick!
Half an hour in and it's lookin' good.  We had to keep checking to make sure there was enough wood and charcoal.
When the internal temp of the bacon reaches 150 °F, we're done.  It took about 2 hours for us, but in reality, we could have used a little less smoke.
It looks like it's already cooked, but it has a little ways to go yet.  On the other hand, it works very well in it's current state to make the kitchen smell like smoky maple syrup.  Ladies, take note: perfume with this scent will make you irresistible to men (especially Canadian men).  Men: a word of caution for the same reason.
We decided to finish 'er off in the oven.  Baked bacon!
This bacon can be highly recommended for use on sandwiches with ranch dressing, cheddar cheese, spinach, and tomatoes, accompanied by Katie's buffalo-flavored cauliflower and some apple cider.  As a side note, this bacon may also cure headaches when taken in conjunction with a two-hour nap.

Hey, this is kind of a lunch meat, the production of which is one of our goals for the year! (Half a check-mark for this one.)

Have you made homemade bacon before?  What's your favorite recipe?  Have you used a meat other than pork?  Let us know in the comments section below!

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