I know, I know, it's been over a month and no bacon posts. But I do have an excuse - I've been busy on my other blog, A Yankee Bakes the South. Lots to see there, please check it out.
That's really no excuse, however, for neglecting the ever important pork belly. A friend graciously shared the fruits of her family's hard labor--over ten pounds of farm-raised, tenderly cared for pork belly. It doesn't get any better than that.
But what to do with all of it? I decided to make two different types of bacon. The photo above shows the bacon frying gently in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. A bacon tip: cook bacon over medium heat, no hotter. This reduces splatter as well as making superior bacon.
Since bacon is easier to slice if it is a neat square, I decided to make salt pork with the pork belly trimmings. The pieces I used for the salt pork are shown below in their raw state. Interestingly, it looks almost exactly the same when it's cured, although with a firmer texture.
Making bacon could hardly be easier: you mix up a cure, rub it on the belly, refrigerate for about a week, then cook to an internal temperature of 150 degrees. We smoked ours over hickory chunks, but you can finish it in the oven if you don't have a smoker.
The two kinds of bacon I made were both sugar cured--one with crushed peppercorns, the other with maple. I forgot that the recipe I used is a little sweeter than I like, but even so, it's fantastic. There is a satisfaction that you get from making bacon yourself that really adds to the end product (or so it seems to me). The flavor is more complex, and you can take the flavor in whatever direction you fancy by adding herbs, garlic, and spices.
New this year was my attempt at guanciale, which is a cured pork cheek that is used similarly to bacon. You can actually make pork cheek bacon (aka jowl bacon), but I wanted to try guanciale because it's an aged product. There is nothing like going to your upstairs bedroom closet and seeing meat hanging in it. It really makes you feel like a pioneer, even though you couldn't possibly live without central air, the internet, and pedicures.
Guanciale photos and a longer explanation will follow, depending on what the final product looks like. When last I checked it, there was a spot of mold on it (not necessarily a deal breaker but we'll see how it goes).
If you are a mood to make your own bacon, here are instrutions directly from Michael Ruhlman:
(adapted from Charcuterie)
—Order five pounds of fresh pork belly from your grocery store, the pork guy at your farmers market, or from a local butcher shop.
—Buy a box of 2-gallon zip-top bags if you don’t have a container big enough to hold the belly.—Mix the following together in a small bowl:
2 ounces (1/4 cup Morton or Diamond Crystal coarse kosher) salt
2 teaspoons pink curing salt #1 (I use this DQ Cure from Butcher-Packer, $2)
4 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
4 bay leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup brown sugar or honey or maple syrup
5 cloves of garlic, smashed with the flat side of a chef’s knife
2 tablespoons juniper berries, lightly crushed (optional)
5 to 10 sprigs fresh thyme (optional)
—Put your belly in the zip-top bag or on a sheet tray or in a plastic container. Rub the salt and spice mixture all over the belly. Close the bag or cover it with plastic wrap, and stick it in the refrigerator for seven days (get your hands in there and give the spices another good rubbing around midway through).
—After seven days, take it out of the fridge, rinse off all the seasonings under cold water and pat it dry.
—Put it on a sheet tray and put it in the oven (put it on a rack on a sheet tray if you have one) and turn the oven on to 200 degrees F. (if you want to preheat the oven, that’s fine, too). Leave it in the oven for 90 minutes (or, if you want to measure the internal temperature, until it reaches 150 degrees F.).
—Let it cool and refrigerate it until you’re ready to cook it. But I know. You won’t be able to wait. So cut off a piece and cook it. Taste it, savor it. Congratulations! It’s bacon!
Notes: If you don’t have five pounds of belly, either guesstimate salt based on the above or, if you have a scale, multiply the weight of the belly in ounces or grams by .025 and that’s how many ounces or grams of salt you should use.
If for any reason you find your bacon to be too salty to eat (it happens, especially if you measure your salt by sight, which I sometimes do), simply blanch the bacon and dump the water before sautéing it.
Pink curing salt means “sodium nitrite,” not Himalayan pink salt. It’s what’s responsible for the bright color and piquant bacony flavor. You don’t have to use it, but your bacon will turn brown/gray when cooked (you’re cooking it well done, after all), and will taste like pleasantly seasoned spare ribs, porky rather than bacony.
If you have a smoker or a grill, you can smoke the bacon (strictly speaking, it needs to have the pink salt in the cure if you’re going to smoke because, in rare instances, botulism bacteria from spores on the garlic could grow; pink salt eliminates this possibility; but I never worry about this, you’re going to cook it again in any case).