Just the name ignites the imagination and awakens the taste buds. Sizzling in a cast iron pan, the scent summons sleeping beasts from the far corners of our house. Dogs, cats, men. They arrive one by one, yawning, stretching, and licking their lips. Matt, the last to lumber out of bed, smiles like a child and says “Is there bacon?” As if he didn’t already know…
Homemade bacon is nothing like the uniform strips of guaranteed shrinkage that comes packaged in plastic and Styrofoam from the ubiquitous grocery fridge. Homemade bacon is a thing a of beauty and a work of art. Each cut is as unique and varied as the pig it came from. And that’s where bacon starts. With piglets.
Well, actually it starts much earlier with thousands of generations of pigs raised, selected, and bred for qualities that humans prefer. There are pet pigs, meat pigs, lard pigs, and even bacon pigs. Ok, no there aren’t really bacon pigs, but there are some meat or lard pigs that have distinctly more bacon than other breeds. Additionally, the more common breeds of commercial-style pigs are raised to specific ages and sizes for optimal meat to fat ratios and uniform flavors. For Yorkshires, those in the know have told me that 250-270 is the optimal weight for best bacon and that you need to get there in under six months so the meat is not “gamy”.
But I digress. This post is about bacon, not pig breeding. So, let’s start again where homemade bacon begins.
Raise happy pigs. Extraordinary homemade bacon, starts with homegrown pigs. Piglets should nurse for at least eight weeks before being weaned and separated from their mothers. Then, over the next four to six months of their lives, they should dig, run, and romp through some kind of pasture, play and sleep under the open sky or huddle with their companions under a shelter of thick trees or a roof-covered structure, and they should gleefully come running to greet their keepers when head pats, belly rubs, or dinner are being dished out.
Process outdoors. After a good life, a quick and surprising death comes next. Followed by cleaning, scalding, scraping, eviscerating, decapitating, splitting and hanging the carcass. For more details on this process, read my TGN blog on Hog Killin.
Butcher with your product preferences in mind. We live in northwestern North Carolina where it is difficult to get a string of cold enough days to age a carcass before butchering. Therefore we are always in a rush to transform hundred pound hog halves into freezer or curing-sized hunks of meat. Luckily, bellies are easy to carve out. After removing the leaf lard and tenderloin, we immediately take off the belly. We trim off excess fat to use as sausage, but leave the skin on.
Curing bacon is simple and humbling. Expert home butchers have told us it is better to cure bacon and hams with the skin on. We don’t fully understand the logic, but we trust the wisdom of our mentors. Even with the skin intact, it is a humbling experience to trim up the belly. So much of it goes to the bits and pieces pile for sausage. Only the parts with layers of lean meat striped with fat are cured. Regardless of how we cut it or how carefully we raise our pigs, there is simply never as much bacon in the belly as we want.
Side note: Even though I can easily recognize what qualifies as bacon, I can never convince myself to trim as much as I should. Later, when the bacon is cured, I always have to trim more. I console myself for these perceived bacon losses by rendering the cured fat into “bacon lard” which tastes and smells just like bacon and can be used to flavor dishes when your meager bacon supply has run out.
Once trimmed, as much as you can force yourself to do, weigh the belly to figure out how much cure to make and apply. There are a lot of variations on cure recipes and special ingredients used, but for home curing, we use instacture # 1, per the instructions on the package (1 teaspoon for every 5 pounds of meat). Then we basically use Meredith Leigh’s procedure and cure ratios from The Ethical Meat Handbook (3.5 oz sea salt, 1.75 oz. brown sugar, and 3-4 cloves garlic minced, plus instacture, for every five pounds of meat).
Once you’ve got the proportions worked out, rub the cure into your bellies and package them up. You can put them in a bucket or tub. But since we have a vacuum sealer, we put them in vacuum bags. We just use the sealer function on both ends of the bag, not the vacuum, so there is still some air and all the liquid left inside.
Flip your bacon daily. Bagging the bellies up makes it easy to store them on the short shelves in our fridge for fourteen days. Then once daily, we take the bags out, massage the meat inside the bag a little, and flip them over on the opposite side.
Smoke the bacon. After 14 days of flipping, massaging, and curing in the fridge, we open the bags and rinse and pat dry the contents which is now technically bacon. But, in our process, there’s one more step. We put the bacon in our cold smoker for 4-5 hours.
For more details on our smoker, check out Matt’s two detailed posts on construction – Smoke it – Part 1 and Smoke it – Part 2. We use mixed fruit wood trimmings from our winter tree prunings for flavor.
Slicing is next. After smoking comes the fun. If the weather outside is about the same as refrigerator temperatures, we leave the bacon in the smokehouse over night to let the meat chill and firm up to make slicing easy.* Then we take it in the house and cut off the skins (and the rest of the trim I couldn’t convince myself to remove before curing). Finally, we run the meat portions through an old, but perfectly functional, electric “West Germany made” meat slicer, on loan from Matt’s brother. The slicer can only take 5 inch by 5 inch hunks of bacon, so our pieces end up shorter than your grocery store variety. But trust me, this is one scenario when size really doesn’t matter. Even fractional pieces of homemade bacon pack a potent taste punch.
* If fridge temperatures are not possible, then bring the meat inside, and put in the freezer for a few minutes to harden up before slicing.
Sizzle and serve. After six months of pig raising, two weeks of bacon curing, and two hours of slicing, the proof is in the eating. So heat up your pan, plop in your bacon, and inhale the incredible aroma. Then prepare for a taste explosion.
Save and savor. Cured, cold-smoked bacon needs to be refrigerated or frozen for longer term preservation. Package it up in one pound increments and parcel it out. When you make bacon from scratch, including raising the pig, you realize that the amount of time, work, and the life that goes into this incredible food makes it a luxury item to be savored.
Bacon done right is slow food. And slow food, to me, is reLuxe food.