Monday, April 12, 2010

Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll

Vote before April 19th in the annual Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll! Do it now! :)

Makin' Bacon

Ahhh, the pig. What's not to love? And what's not exciting about the prospect of making your own bacon? Here's the tale of my experiment in makin' bacon.

When I was in Denver last week, we went to Savory Spice Shop, a local spice store. They had curing salt, also known as pink salt, which essentially is sodium nitrate, a natural preservative used for meat curing. (Celery is high in SN, and many natural hot dog & sausage makers will use straight up celery juice in their "curing" process... I think Applegate Farms is one.) I knew that I could buy SN online or at someplace local like Callahan's, but would probably have to buy a larger quantity than I would ever use in this lifetime. I was able to get 4 oz for about $2.....and I bought some extremely dark cocoa powder (smells like Oreos!), but we'll save that for another time!

The day after I got back, I went to Whole Foods for groceries, and while getting ground lamb for meatballs, I asked the butcher if they had any pork belly. He checked in the back, and lo and behold, he did! I asked for a pound, and asked if he had ever cured it before. He said he had cured other things, but not pork belly; he said you have to have a really sterile environment, and he has a separate fridge that he only uses for curing things. So I was slightly intimidated, but figured at only a pound of pork belly, I wasn't loosing much monetarily if I screwed this up. Furthermore, he looked high and low in all of his books, but couldn't find the proper code for pork belly, so he charged me only $1.99/lb..... I think the total was $2.14 for the little belly!
So got home and started Googling pork belly --> bacon recipes.... found out that for bacon, you really don't need the pink salt, as it was primarily used in the olden days to prevent botulism. I guess since the belly is cured, smoked, and then cooked in a skillet/oven, any chances of botulism are negated. However, if you're making various salumis, yes, use the sodium nitrate.

Looked at a variety of different recipes utilizing different techniques. After a few days, I just decided to go for it, and make it up as I went along, based on what I had read. So on Friday morning, I combined (again, just 1 lb. of belly here):
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. coarse ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. curing/pink salt (I decided just to use it anyway since I had it, it's certainly not going to hurt anything, especially at that small amount)
1/2 tsp. ground bay leaves
1/2 tsp. ground coriander...and then proceeded to slather all sides of the belly, and pop it into a ziplock bag.
And into the fridge for the next 2 1/2 days! Turn the bag every 12ish hours or so to evenly distribute the seasonings and extruded juices. This also gave me time to ponder on how to smoke it. I don't own a smoker. I could have rigged one up with my gas grill or some other Alton Brown-esque method, but ultimately decided to go with a borrowed Cameron Smoker and some applewood chips. (I debated between applewood & hickory, but applewood came out on top.) If you're not familiar with Cameron Smokers, they're great home-kitchen devices! You can smoke ANYTHING in them -- fish, red peppers, meat, cheese... you name it! You can kinda tell from the picture below, it's a metal box with a drip pan in the bottom, and a rack on top. You place your wood chips beneath the drip pan, close up the box, and light it up!

And in my excitement to start smoking it, I forgot to take a picture of it on Sunday evening when it was done curing. It gave off about a quarter cup of liquid, which it's supposed to do (salt extracts liquid, remember?). So I rinsed it off and patted it dry, and let it sit on the counter for about 30 minutes.

I knew from my research, the internal temp of the belly needed to reach 150 degrees. So with the probe thermometer inserted, and it's control set to 150, I set up the smoker, closed the lid, and turned on the gas burner on my stove to a medium-low temp.
Thirty-five minutes later, it was beeping and ready! I was sort of surprised it was done that fast, but the thermometer doesn't lie! So it went onto a cutting board to cool down. About 20 anxious minutes later (it really didn't need all that time to cool down, but I just wanted to be sure), I was slicing it for BACON! I JUST MADE BACON!Into the frying pan over medium-low heat -- you can't rush greatness! And a few minutes later, I was getting my first tastes of pig-fantastic! I MADE BACON! IT ACTUALLY WORKED!!!Overall, I am ecstatic! Very pleased with the flavor, though I don't know that I am 100% sold on the flavors of the cure. I took some to my peanut gallery foodie friends this afternoon, and everyone loved it, and thought the cure was fine, not too sweet with balanced flavors. (Thanks, ya'll!) Might try a brown sugar and cayenne next time. Because there WILL BE a next time! And a time after that! In regards to the actual smoking, I used about 3 tablespoons of the applewood chips; I think 2 T. would have been enough for this size piece. Also, future batches should probably be smoked outside on the back porch, using a portable butane stove...a day later, my kitchen still has a lingering smoke scent.

Anyone reading this ever try this? Any suggestions for a great cure? I am open to them! Very excited about it, and it really was pretty darn easy! I WILL be doing this again! Soon! All hail the very tasty pig!