Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.
— Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
I’ll argue that the remarkable Mr. Johnson never had twelve pounds of ollalieberries in his refrigerator, probably because neither existed at the time he was uttering pearls of wisdom, or else he’d have adjusted his quote to take this into account. Twelve pounds of fragile, astoundingly perishable berries that you yourself have clawed from implacably hostile bushes under an unforgiving sun concentrates your mind, all right. After the initial burst of adjective-releasing terror (see above), you suddenly remember that you also have twelve pounds of pork bellies that you really have to do something about right now.
The ollalieberries had to wait. Bacon must have its day.
These are pork bellies, the foundation of all bacon, a product so central to all-American patriotic-breakfast existence that until 2011 they were traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a commodity. We’re not the only ones that like them, though. The Koreans and the Chinese use this cut to create fantastic dishes like samgyeopsal (slices grilled and served with a spicy pepper paste) and Dongpo pork (pieces first pan-fried, and then slow-braised in wine and other liquids). Oddly enough, the popularity of these cuisines partly explains why it’s much easier now to find pork bellies in American grocery stores — or in the Asian market that just opened down the street. Before the explosion of food shows, expert Asian restaurateurs, and celebrity fusion cooks, you’d have gotten the same blank stare from a butcher when you asked for pork belly as you would if you’d asked for wombat feet. (Word to the hip — wombat feet, next big thing.)
Making your own bacon isn’t difficult, but you do need a special ingredient, a bit of prep time, and, as always, your mise in order. I’d also recommend this before you do anything:
Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (New York: W.W. Norton & Company 2005). Not only does this book have a clear and detailed explanation of how to make your own bacon, it also covers salt-curing, pickling, smoking, sausagemaking, dry-curing, pate/terrine, and confit techniques for virtually every edible object on Earth. (The cats disappear when I take it out).
After the pork belly, the only special ingredient you need is “pink salt,” also known as Insta Cure #1, DQ Curing Salt, and by a few other brand names. It’s a compound of 93% salt and about 6% nitrite, dyed pink so you don’t accidentally eat it. Nitrites have taken a PR hit over the last few years; Ruhlman and Polcyn have an excellent discussion of the benefits and risks in Charcuterie, and I won’t recap it here. But I will note that I don’t make bacon or smoked sausages without pink salt for both food safety and flavor reasons. You can easily get pink salt over the Internet, it’s not expensive, and a packet lasts a long time. My supplier is www.sausagemaker.com.
Once you have the bellies and the pink salt, you whip up your dry cure. You end up making a lot of it, so you can save what you don’t use for later batches. Polcyn likes dextrose because it dissolves more easily, and I’ve used it, but I’ve also used regular granulated sugar with no difference in the end product. Polcyn’s dextrose cure is 1 pound of kosher salt, 13 ounces dextrose, and 3 ounces pink salt. With sugar, it’s 1 pound of kosher salt, 8 ounces sugar, and 2 ounces pink salt.
The dry cure is your foundation stone. What you add to the pork bellies after that is up to you. You can go for a sweet bacon, with maple syrup or honey, or a more savory one with herbs and spices. Breakfast bacon is best sweet, so that’s the type I usually make.
The maple syrup I use always comes, without question, from Quebec. Now I can hear the howling from the Vermont contingent already, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Part of my passion for Quebecois syrup comes from having made it — yeah, from sap, the stuff that comes magically out of the tree — at the farm of Unbelievably Useful Husband’s relative. (That’s a can of the syrup we made in the picture above.) But even aside of that, I simply find Quebec syrup to be richer and deeper in flavor than the thin pale stuff from Vermont.
To start the cure, I pour some of the dry cure mixture into a cookie sheet, grab a belly, and rub it like crazy into the cure. I get a nice thick layer of the cure on all sides, and then pop it into a Ziploc bag. By “popping” it, I of course mean “wrestling it,” and the cure gets absolutely everywhere no matter how clever you try to be. Try to keep animals, children, and house-gnomes out of the kitchen while you’re doing this.
Once it’s in and I’ve finished cursing like a sailor, I add a half-cup or even a little more of maple syrup, about a quarter cup of brown sugar, and a dollop each of molasses and honey to each belly. I’ve found over time and experimentation that the brown sugar, molasses and honey don’t interfere with the maple syrup flavor — they amplify it into the “mind-blowing” category. Give each bag a brief massage, and then they are ready to go into the refrigerator for a week. The bellies will release a lot of liquid over the time they are curing. In effect, they make their own brine. Go in every day and flip them over to make sure the brine is distributed. In a week they should be cured and ready for roasting in the oven, if you don’t have a smoker, or smoking if you do have one.
I smoke my bacon at about 225F, and it usually takes between two and three hours for the bellies to hit 150F. Cherrywood and applewood add a very pleasant and delicate note, but hickory provides the most traditional “bacony” smoke flavor.
At 150F, you take them out and let them cool.
Now’s the time to cut off the rind. The rind is the skin on one side of the belly. Slide a sharp knife under one end, and the rind should peel off very easily. Save some in a bag and freeze it — pieces of rind add spectacular flavor to soups, sauces and especially chowder.
All told, prepping and making your own bacon takes about 3 hours preparation and cooking time (a little less if you’ve premade cure), and a week of allowing it to sit and cure in your refrigerator. But once you’ve made it, you’ll understand why it’s worth the effort and the precious fridge space. As Ruhlman and Polcyn explain, “When you make your own bacon and fry a slice, you’ll know what bacon is all about. Notice the copious amount of fat that renders out, and that the meat doesn’t reduce in size by fifty percent. The result can give you an understanding of why bacon became such a powerful part of America’s culinary culture.”
It’s also worth noting that while pork bellies may no longer be traded on the national mercantile exchange, homemade bacon is a surefire winner in the neighborhood ones. I’ve traded for lemons, grapes, backyard eggs and I’m hoping this time for an ollalieberry pie. Yes, I know I have my own ollalieberries. But some days there’s a limit to the alchemy you can do, and I think that twelve pounds is meeting the freezer.