Due to my career choices and wonderful friends, I am often the lucky recipient of some good things. Most of these good things, again due to the above, are food. And booze. I am gifted a lot of booze but that’s another story for another day. Right now both my freezers are completely packed and most of it is pork. Neatly wrapped and labeled packages of really good, farm raised pork. Not long ago, I was digging around and deep amongst these neat little white packages were three good-sized pieces of pork belly, that delicious cut we often know as bacon. I needed to make some room fast so I threw one of those bellies in the fridge to defrost while I thought about what to do. There really was no question. It was going to become bacon. In addition to being delicious, homemade bacon is incredibly easy. After a week long cure, I didn’t feel like firing up the smoker and babysitting a temperature gage all day so I did something I’d never done before: I baked the cured belly. And it was amazing.
I brought a tidy package over to a friend who looked at me flabbergasted: “You MADE bacon? Who does that? How do you even DO that?”
Fair enough. I laughed, as I don’t think it’s all that unusual or special, as homemade bacon has been circling the meatier food blogs for easily 10 years. Bacon is often the entry point to a whole world of home cured charcuterie. It’s the gateway to the rabbit hole of cured meats because it is incredibly easy and the results are consistently great. Besides, who doesn’t like bacon? But my friend put it into perspective for me; “normal people”, she said, also known as those that don’t obsessively cook like I do, don’t typically make bacon. They buy it. But they should make it. You should make it.
I was skeptical about this post as it’s been done 10,000 times already. What could I possibly add to the mix? But yet, those friends of mine who don’t cook much were baffled that one could make bacon. The more we talked about it, the more I realized how intimating it seems. Curing, smoking, worrying about things like botulism. I get it, I get it but it’s really not that hard especially with the baking method rather than smoking. There are far more difficult kitchen projects that you likely do every day. The process is very simple: rub a whole skinned pork belly with a combination of salt, brown sugar and spices. Refrigerate for a week, giving it a flip when you remember. Bake in a 200°F oven for 2 hours. Slice. Cook. Eat. Repeat.
No kidding, it’s that simple. You can certainly hot smoke if so motivated but it bakes in a low, slow oven incredibly well and the way I see it, we all have an oven. The one controversy seems to be the use of “pink salt”. Yes, pink salt is sodium nitrite, but used in very small quantities. Nitrites keep the fat in meat from going rancid while inhibiting the growth of dangerous bacteria like listeria and botulinum, which is incredibly important. Are nitrites bad for us? Well, there’s no simple answer and I’m not in any way qualified to address the topic so here’s a good article to learn more. According to Michael Ruhlman, pink salt is what’s responsible for the bright pink color and bacon-y flavor we all know and love. You don’t have to use it since the bacon will be cooked through before consuming but I’ve found that when I don’t, my bacon isn’t that pleasant bacon pink when cooked, rather an unattractive brown/gray and tastes more like spareribs, porky rather than bacony. You can also substitute celery powder, a natural nitrite, though I’ve never tried it. If you google “bacon recipes” you’ll find a bunch – with or without pink salt, information on celery powder, every variation of spice rubs, smoked or not smoked. It’s all there.
The hardest part, in my opinion, might be finding the pork belly. If you know a farmer, fantastic! Definitely get it from them; beautiful pork makes absolutely beautiful bacon. If you have a butcher, ask them for a belly. Butchers are a wealth of resources and information; use them. I just discovered that Costco sells whole pork bellies for around 20 bucks. It’s commodity meat, not my favorite, but it’ll still be better than any commercial bacon you’ll buy. I’ve also seen bellies in Asian grocery stores, particularly the Korean markets. There are options, you just have to chase them down. Once you’ve got a pork belly lined up you have to track down some pink salt next, as that’s not on the standard grocery store shelf. I found some easily at my butcher shop; one jar is far more than I’ll ever use but it was cheap. It’s also easily obtained online, as is most everything. If you’re on good terms with a neighborhood restaurant that is known for making a lot of things in house, I bet they could hook you up with a little bit too.
After curing and baking there’s final decision: how are you going to divvy it up? My preference is for slices and a few chunks. I like big, diced chunks of bacon in things like baked beans and pasta carbonara so I keep a few bigger pieces stashed in the freezer for this purpose. The good news is that you don’t need a fancy meat slicer, only a sharp knife, to cut the bacon into neat strips. Easy.
If you can, buy a skinless belly but if it has skin, don’t fret. Ask your butcher to skin it for you or get out your sharpest knife and have at it. Start at one end and make a small cut, cutting as close to possible to the skin. Start slowly pulling back the skin, rolling it up as you go to make a sort of handle and continue cutting the skin free from the fat. Save that skin! It is great cooked in a pot of beans for some extra flavor and texture. The secret to great cassoulet beans is that bit of skin.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: SUPERHERO TYPE OF THING. This is one of those things that will knock peoples socks off. You made bacon. It’s incredibly easy and the results are amazing, better than anything you’ll buy in a grocery store. Really. I like a peppery bacon, hence the recipe below, but feel free to mix it up with any spice/herb mixture you prefer. Use brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, honey; whatever strikes your fancy. Anyway you go, it’ll be mighty delicious. I ate bacon every night for week and you will too. With really good garden tomatoes on the horizon, visions of BLTs are dancing in my head.
Seven years ago: Chino Farms Strawberries
Six years ago: Cobbler & Cabining Annoyances
Five years ago: Puff Pastry Asparagus Spears
Four years ago: Pear Frangipane Tarts
Three years ago: Lime Angelfood Cake
Two years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Last year: Pickled Green Strawberries
EASY HOME-CURED BACON, OVEN METHOD (slightly adapted from Michael Ruhlman’s post)
If your pork belly is less than 5 pounds, adjust the kosher and pink salt accordingly but leave the spices the same.
5 pounds of fresh pork belly (skinless)
¼ cup kosher salt (if the belly is less than 5lbs, adjust the salt accordingly)
2 teaspoons pink curing salt #1 (if the belly is less than 5lbs, adjust the pink salt accordingly)
4 Tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
4 bay leaves, crumbled
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ cup brown sugar (or honey or maple syrup)
5 cloves of garlic, smashed
5 sprigs fresh thyme
- In a small bowl, combine the salt, pink salt (if using), pepper, bay leaves, nutmeg, brown sugar, garlic and thyme.
- Rub the pork belly on all sides with the cure.
- Place in a large, 2-gallon Ziploc bag or in a large plastic container with a lid. The belly should lie flat in a single layer; cut it in half if it will fit better. If using a Ziploc bag, place that in a plastic container or sheet pan just in case the bag springs a leak. Its been known to happen.
- Refrigerate for 7 days, flipping the belly daily if you remember. Don’t go longer than 7 days; it’ll be too salty.
- After seven days, remove from the fridge. If you like, rinse off all the seasonings under cold water and pat it dry. I typically just give it a good brush to leave most of the pepper on because I like it that way.
- Place a wire rack in a sheet pan and place the belly on top.
- Bake in a 200°F oven for 1 ½ – 2 hours (or to an internal temperature of 150°F).
- When cool enough to handle, slice and package tightly for the freezer. Be sure to leave a little in chunky pieces for dishes like baked beans or pasta carbonara.