From Peach Tree to Bacon — Smoking Literally Start to Finish

Our friend, the scarily smart Ollalieberry expert and Chicken Alchemist Natty, had a peach tree in her backyard.

The valiant Peach.

It was an intrepid little tree, producing as many peaches as it could.  It withstood the cold winter rains, blustering windstorms, broiling summer sun, and the other various indignities suffered by trees in backyards with dogs.  It kept up its job like a trooper, even when Natty noticed that it seemed unwell, and had to prop it up.  It was not too much later that she discovered that it had been infected with oak tree fungus. Soon afterward, it died.

Having a tree die on you is not an easy thing when you don’t have that many.  First of all, you feel like you’ve let down Mother Earth and/or Gaia and Arbor Day and Al Gore and the reversal of global warming and pretty much every National Geographic special you saw as a kid.  Second, you have to find somebody to do something about it, which usually requires money you don’t have because it’s a TREE and not some random weed, unless you’d like to wake up at midnight and see its tortured skeletal remains lurking in the dark like some sort of creepy spiritual entity, and then suddenly you’re in a horror movie.  All of these results suck.

So what Natty did was exactly what any decent thinking Alchemist would do — use the tree to create something new.  She cut us off a beautiful branch when she took the tree out, and we left it outside to season the entire winter.  It dried through the late spring and then baked a few weeks in some hot summer sun we were lucky to receive.  A few days ago, we took a look at it.

The peach tree branch, seasoned.

It was ready.  I needed to make a batch of bacon — you can see how it’s done here — and to do it properly, you need to smoke it.  Yes, yes, you can roast it in the oven or cook it on the grill and it’ll be perfectly fine.  But it’s not bacon unless it’s really smoked, not just doused with smoke flavoring and caramel coloring (which is the stuff you get at the grocery store).  Really, truly, smoked.

That leads us to the next question. You can’t just stuff a branch into a smoker or a grill. You have to prepare the wood first.  Now there’s a dispute among folks who smoke meat that has reached almost religious proportions — what types of wood to use, pellets versus sawdust versus chips versus chunks, and the breaking point — to soak first or not.  I’m not afraid to draw my own line and say I prefer fruitwood over hickory, cherry over apple, chips over sawdust, and I soaked. Briefly. (I am impatient.)  But here I had a big-ass branch of peach, which I’d never used, and somebody had to do something about it.

Enter the UUH and the Den Of Dangerously Sharp Things That Make Loud Noises And Probably Won’t Stop When You Want Them To.

The UUH in the Den, with him and the branch eyeballing each other.

I handle large quantities of caustic lye on a regular basis for soapmaking — stuff that can burn your eyes out and strip your skin like a knife if you screw up — and yet I am absolutely terrified by some of the machines that the UUH has in the Den.  (Note please that this does not make me a “girl,” it makes me a “wuss.” Precision is important.)  When the UUH whipped out the Sawzall and what looked like a clamp from a medieval torture house I fled to eat bonbons or watch soap operas or do my nails or something.

The Sawzall. I sawz it not for long.

After it was chopped into manageable pieces, then the Other Thing was employed.

The Other Thing. I’m pretty sure this is a primitive SkyNet extensional.

This bandsaw is about a million years old.  Okay, not a million, but it’s old — decades at least.  (At least 26, says the UUH.) The manual, which the UUH somehow found on the Web, looks like it was designed by Don Draper in “Mad Men.”  And you can still find parts for it and it still works.  That’s how we used to make things, I think.  So once the UUH had Sawzalled the branch into manageable pieces, it was up to the bandsaw.

I have to hide when he’s using things like this.

OHGAWD OHGAWD

 

 

I have visions of emergency rooms and prosthetics and extensive occupational therapy.  I am a catastrophist.

 

But in the end, we had first this:

Not so tough against the ancient bandsaw, are you?

And then the bandsaw again to get them into chunks.  My first chunks. I was so proud.

Peach tree wood chunks, ready for the smoker.

 

I’m not going to go through all the prep stages for bacon again, as you can see them here.  But this is what the smoker looked like, once those beautiful peach chunks got themselves up and going.

Whoah!

 

I don’t have one of the high-tech, programmable beauties that I know some folks have.  Mine is a steel box with a few vents, a propane burner, a thermometer that’s about as reliable as a politician (I use an oven therm inside for reliable reports), and a desperate need for niggly vent-attention if the wind or temperature fluctuates even for a few minutes.  God help us all if it rains.

Yet this peach wood is a beautiful thing. Deciding to explore one side of the religious war, I’d chosen not to soak the chunks but rather let them start dry.  We’d experimented the day before with this approach on a tri-tip and it came out like it’d been made by an angel.

There she is! THERE SHE IS!

So for the bacon, I did the same thing.  There was no bitter scent at all, no hint of creosote, even with a heavy smoke at the beginning.  It settled down, started smoking evenly, and then laid down the work after it was done.  It took another hour or so to finish cooking the bacon to the appropriate temperature (150F, as the bacon is cured).

 

And now, here we have it, right out of the smoker.  I’ll be peeling the rind after it cools a bit and wrapping it, and feeling it was a good day’s work — even if I do smell like a forest fire and the neighbors are almost certainly going to report me to the Bay Area Air Quality Nazis any minute now.

Maple syrup bacon, smoked over peach.

But for real bacon, what sacrifice isn’t worth it?

 

 

A Day’s Alchemy

But the daily we have always with us, a nagging reminder that the dishes must be done, the floor mopped or vacuumed, the dirty laundry washed . . .  Precisely because it is so important, so close to us, so basic, so bound up with home and nurture, it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public . . . This may be an example of a familiarity that has bred contempt, a kind of hubris that allows men and women alike to imagine that by devaluing the bonds that connect us to the womanly, to the household, to the daily, we can rise above them.  — Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

But it is in this work — the daily, the tedious, the repetitive — that our deepest alchemy can and does reveal itself.

For most of us, the day has a predictable routine.  For me during the summer mornings, it’s making coffee, ensuring the cats have breakfast, opening the windows and screen doors to bring in the fresh morning air and the birdsongs, and then a little later making breakfast for Unbelievably Useful Husband. (The Kid is usually sleeping in.).  There’s usually some kitchen cleanup that needs doing during all this, and probably a laundry bump, and the dogs always desperately need to go out just when I’m involved in something requiring my total attention. (This set of behaviors is called “clearing the decks.”)  But breakfast is always a pleasure to cook.  If you recall from “Belay those Olallieberries,” we make our own bacon:

Homemade smoked bacon. Maple syrup, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and a bit of sweet cherry smoke.
Sliced homemade bacon. Ready to go, Captain.

. This is what the bacon looks like, when it’s sliced and ready for cooking.  Unless you have a meat slicer, you can’t get the see-through, weirdly clingy, paper-thin slices of commercial bacon, but a sharp knife and a steady hand creates a pleasantly thick piece that will fry up beautifully in the pan.

 

Frying homemade bacon. In the pan, slow and steady.

Homemade bacon requires a bit more time and care to cook.  All that lovely maple syrup, honey, brown sugar and molasses will burn in a flash if the heat is too high, so slow and steady wins this race.  You’ll not see any of the strange gray bubbly water boiling out of it as in commercial varieties; just bacon fat, rendering cleanly and purely and stupendously fragrantly as you cook.  Frequent turning makes sure each side is browned and crisped evenly.  A quick blot on a towel, and there’s breakfast.

No magic here except for heat — judiciously applied to an egg and some meticulously spiced, cured and smoked pork belly.

Cooks (usually women) since the dawn of more-or-less civilized time have understood the principle of judicious heat; it took medieval alchemists a lot longer to stop blowing up their labs.  More fire is not necessarily better.

Once the breakfast cook and cleanup and various animal and house-tendings are done, it’s usually time for the garden walkabout. Today, I noticed that the beautiful Gulf Fritillary butterflies were bombing around the garden again; I talked about them a bit in “The Passion of the Passiflora.”  It was the time of day, though, when the sun had just dried the dew off the herbs. Herbalists say that this is the time to harvest what you need — it’s supposedly when the essential oils contained in the herbs are at their height — so I armed myself with a basket and scissors and got the job done.

Herbs from home garden.Lemon verbena, tarragon, golden lemon thyme, various basils, oregano, and more yarrow aerials were up today.

Once you’ve harvested an herb, the clock starts ticking — you have to decide what to do with it.  Some people swear by freezing tender herbs like basils in ice cubes, saying that the technique reliably preserves the flavor and texture of the leaves.  I have no doubt that this is true, but I also have no room in my freezer because it is almost entirely occupied by a million pounds of olalliberries.

Home-grown herbs ready for dehydrating. Off to the Lab.

So off to the McGuffin the herbs will go — the Excalibur dehydrator that lurks in the Lab. I have a nine-tray model, so there’s usually no issue about running out of space. Once they’re done (a few hours at 95F for most), I’ll take them out and garble them, and then put them into my herb bottles. There — unirradiated, unpesticided, and uncrushed, they’ll retain their flavor for a long time.

The Gulf Fritillaries were still in the back of my mind even as I was fussing with the McGuffin.  I saw a few of them dancing while I was out harvesting, weeding, and watering the garden, so I thought I’d take a look at what was happening to the Passiflora incarnata.  Sure enough, we had our annual visitors.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar on a Passiflora incarnata. Oh, there’s more than one of me.

Caterpillars don’t move fast, but the butterflies do. These butterflies move like fighter planes, fast and unpredictable, and I have about ten thumbs with this camera, so my brilliant idea to try to catch a picture was probably hopeless as a start.  Hope springs eternal, though, so I planted myself next to the Passiflora and waited.  One butterfly circled my head about fifteen times before she settled down.  When I took the picture, I realized that she was overseeing two large caterpillars directly below her.

Gulf Fritillary adult butterfly and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Mom, checking on the kids.

As I appeared to be entirely harmless, she stayed only a few moments before she decided that she was required elsewhere.

Adult Gulf Fritillary and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Everybody looks okay. Off to yoga.

There were other household management things to do, some of which can take hours.  But after all that was done, I had a few other things to do:  I’d been infusing a jojoba and fractionated coconut oil with yarrow and mullein flowers, and it was ready for pressing and straining.  Yarrow is well known for surface skin-repairing and smoothing effects, and has been used since the classical age for stanching the bleeding from battlefield wounds.  Mullein is spoken about frequently as an assisting herb for lung conditions (Native Americans are reputed to have smoked it).  Another of its reputed effects, though, is as a healer for deeper tissues and structures even in a carrier oil.

Jojoba and fractionated coconut massage oil, infused with herbs Yarrow, mullein and Ginger Thomas herbs, infused in jojoba. I think gold costs less than jojoba.

Some minutes wrestling with cheesecloth and multiple strainers later, I had the oil I was after. I’m probably going to use it in a soap, though I’m not sure which formula yet.  Jojoba and fractionated coconut oil have absolutely marvelous moisturizing and smoothing qualities on the skin, and the herb infusions, I hope, will only amplify them.

 

 

Finally, I saw from my calendar that a curing soap was about ready to make its way in the world.  Making cold-processed soap (e.g., soap that is made from scratch, with specifically chosen oils, waxes, butters, and other ingredients, saponified with lye and left to cure for several weeks to harden) is a practice that requires patience.  It is also one of the best examples of ordinary alchemies that exist.  From a bowl of liquid oils and fragments of lye arises something entirely different.  It’s been changed in its essential nature by a chemical reaction that must have seemed like  magic for most of human history.  (Soapmaking isn’t the only process where this occurred — in the Middle Ages, alewives would mix their wort and then cross themselves and say a prayer, as the wild yeasts would begin the fermentation process.)

This soap is part of the “Sky” series I’ve been working on.  It was inspired by a photograph of the clouds, sea and horizon taken from Buck Island on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Handmade soap, inspired by St. Croix “Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

It was made with pure coconut, olive, palm and castor oils, and colored with ultramarines. The fragrance is “clean and marine” with just a touch of musk and citrus to deepen it.  I cleaned up the edges a bit, made sure it was pH safe, and told it to say “Cheese” while I took its picture.  While it’s not gold — the goal that every medieval alchemist was after, if not the elixir of eternal life — it’s still a pretty good thing to have made at the end of the day.

The same goes with breakfast, and dinner, and bacon, and herbing, and growing things, and even doing laundry and dishes and cleaning up after the spills and flaws and damages of daily life.   Each action requires some kind of applied change, a thoughtful — even if passing — alchemy to the circumstances around us.  And even if they are the things that Kathleen Norris mentions as so basic, so bound up in home and nurture, the “little things” that we disregard now in preference for the public, it’s worth remembering what Sister Teresa of Calcutta said:  “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”

 

 

 

 

The Bacon Diversion, Or: Belay Those Ollalieberries

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.

The Belly Of The Beast

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:

The Bible.

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.

 

I’ve used a few pictures from an older batch to illustrate. The song, however, remains the same.

 

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.

 

Magic happens.

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.

Be prepared to smell like a forest fire for hours while doing this.

 

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.