For the record, I wrote this up about 3 years ago but Van busted my balls about getting all “ladies home journal” on the off topic page, lol. So ya know what? Phooey on that. Bacon is MANLY. Smoke is MANLY. Big honkin slabs of meat is MANLY Flintsone kinda stuff. So here ya go, warts and all. No editing. Oh wait, no. Considerable editing As many of you remember, my shit can get pretty damned long and detail intense. I cut a LOT out from multiple gourmet sources. Too frou frou, right? Hope the links still work…
Bleary eyed and stumbling, I found my way into the expansive dining room by smell alone. The aromatic cloud was unmistakable, burned butter and hickory, coffee and potatoes. I was in Tennessee at a divey truckstop but one of my favorites for breakfast because of the Ham. Dear god that ham…and they served it with a generous side of Bacon to boot. Crisp whiskey toast cradled a slick, thick pearlescent over-easy and I was in heaven. A good line cook can make fresh eggs shine but one who insists on locally cured and smoked pork is divinely inspired. Sainthood was in order as this little hideaway not only sold the local stuff from the kitchen, but on modified coat racks by the front counter. Gorgeous 15lb fully cured and smoked shanks could be had for $2 and change per pound. I’ve bought several over the years and never met the guy who brings them in. Lucky for him or I’d have bent his ear for an hour demanding details on the process.
Can any of you imagine life without the Pig? I sure as hell can’t and if the pockylipse ever came? I think I might rather be vaporized than live without it. Think about it, pigs reproduce prolifically, eat damn near anything, are easy to raise and slaughter, and are a great source of lean protein. From snout to tail, we use every darned piece of it in so many ways. Mexicans roast whole heads for tamales and make menudo from the organ meat while the Chinese make crunchy little dim sum delicacies from the ears and a thousand different dumplings from the rest of the animal. Most Americans eschew organ meats in general so we’ve developed a different cult of the pig. Our fixations involve large cuts of meat, salt, and smoke, glorious smoke. Think country hams and bacon. Both of which make for excellent examples of how to store protein without refrigeration. With that in mind I’ll try and give you a rundown on the basics, some specifics, and the necessities you’ll want to keep on hand. I can’t guarantee you a finished product like that joint on I40 but at least you’ll be able to start making your own.
First things first: the Pig
Whether you raised it or hunted one down, pigs have to be cleaned and cooled as quickly as possible. Ideally they’ll be cleaned, cut, and in a fridge within 24 hrs at around 40 degrees. Unlike beef, it isn’t recommended that they be aged. Pigs were traditionally slaughtered in the winter for just this reason. Anyhoo, store bought hams and bellies should be cured at the same temp. When buying bellies look for cuts that are 2-3 inches thick. Mexican markets and Asian markets will special order the bellies for you if you ask. Expect to pay around $2.49/lb. Shanks and Shoulders are seasonally on sale for as little as .99/lb and keep well in the freezer.
Salts: Kosher and Pink
For food preservation and brining, kosher salt works best. It has no caking agents and is usually a coarser grind. Iodized salts discolor meats and vegetables so save that for the table shakers. 25lb bags of kosher salt can be hard to find but Morton sells boxes (8 cups worth) for about $1.50. It also works well as ice cream salt in a pinch.
Because of the slim chances of botulism infecting your meat, Pink Salt is generally recommended for any pork aging process. Pink salt is just kosher salt with Nitrite added as an anti-bacterial agent. You will have to ask a butcher where to get it though as this one is NOT going to be on your local Wal Mart shelf. Pink salt has the added benefit of keeping your bacon and hams that nifty pink ‘hammy’ color. While you can probably ignore this particular additive for homemade bacon, you DON’T want to forget it when curing a Ham. Pink salt is sold under a few names, Prague Powder #1 and Insta-cure #1 will be easiest to find. Saltpeter also works but you would only use a tiny bit, on the order of 1 tsp per 2 cups of salt.
Heres a place to find the salt…there are plenty of suppliers actually
You can go 2 ways with this really, good brown or turbonado sugar, and molasses. Turbonado sugar is pricey as hell and molasses just isn’t that sweet. Brown sugar stores easily and imparts the most flavor.
From the little 2 shelf bullet smokers to the monsters you could park a VW Bug in, all must be able to do one thing; control temperature. Temperature is of critical importance because it determines whether you will be cooking or preserving the meat. Temps under 100 f are considered cold smoke, over 200 means hot smoke. Cold smoking can take 24hrs or more depending on thickness but will keep insects off the product as it finishes curing. Virginia hams and the best bacon are smoked at <100.
You can probably guess what your favorites are already but the obvious choices are Apple, Hickory, Maple, Cherry, Pecan, and Oak. All are hardwoods but that’s about the only requirement. Soft woods spew resins and absolutely ruin the meat. About the only exception to that rule is Mesquite but I’ve never much liked it in pork. You might disagree. Remember that some smokes are extremely strong, like Hickory, and can overwhelm whatever flavor subtleties you may have imparted during the salt cure. Learning the tricks of smoke is a hands on experience so take mental notes as you try variations.
This one is almost entirely up to particular tastes. Common dry rub spices include Juniper berries, Sage, Black pepper, and Garlic. Believe it or not, coffee grounds and good green tea leaves are also considered great in dry rubs. Like I said, it’s up to you. Experiment. Mix up the salt and sugar, store in an airtight container, and add spices as you need them for each batch.
Brine cure vs Dry cure:
In the broadest sense of the concepts, Brine vs Dry is the difference between city hams and country or old world hams. City hams are chewier, less silky, and retain a much higher water content. Think deli meats. They are partially cured then fully cooked. Store bought bacon is almost exclusively brined bacon which explains the shrinkage when cooked (the water is being cooked out, right?) Conversely, country hams are old world. The have a much denser flavor profile, are fully cured, but uncooked. They may or may not even be smoked. Prosciutto and Pancetta are both uncooked and prosciutto is generally eaten ‘raw’. The dry cure process insures them against spoilage and allows the meat to age into buttery smoothness as it hangs for a year or more. Dry cured smoked bacon is denser, more flavorful than brined bacon, and doesn’t shrink nearly as much.
Dry curing is the technique to learn if you expect the grid to fail and worry about meat supplies in 6 months. But keep the following in mind.
Dry curing large cuts of ham like shoulders and shanks can take 30 to 60 days in a cold salt and spice blanket. Temps should be in the upper 30’s and the mix has to be refreshed often. This means most folks would want that ham in the cure no later than January. It takes a long time to get that salt deep into the meat to insure against microbes and in the process the meat gets pretty, well, salty (if you’ve ever bought a Virginia country ham you’ll remember having to soak it overnight to remove the saltiness, right?). After getting out of the cure the large hams must be cold smoked for several days at sub-100 degree temps to penetrate the meat completely. Only after all that can you hang them to age through the summer months. Ideal temps for aging allow for a temperature range between 75-90 degrees but lower temps won’t harm the process, just slow it while adding flavor density. There is a LOT more on the specifics here courtesy of the UM Extension in Missouri.
OK then, now that THAT is out of the way and you have a lay of the land, how about some easy things to try while we still have modernity on our side?
I say we start with BACON!!
For comparisons sake I’ll give you two recipes, one wet, one dry. Try them both and you’ll see the differences I suggested above, but both will make damn fine bacon.
When buying your pork bellies pay attention to the marbling and thickness of the cut. You will end up with a significantly denser cured slab so size counts. I’d suggest you make friends with a butcher and order ahead. Pork bellies aren’t usually available in grocery stores so it may become something of a treasure hunt. Large Mexican grocery chains get shipments and trim it aggressively but, if politely asked, will order for you and get you a reasonable price. Asian markets turned out to be the best place for me in Texas with prices in the $2.50lb range.
Dry Cure version:
15-20 lbs of pork belly, approx 2.5 inches thick cut into 10 inch sections
Four 3 gallon ziplock bags
2 cups kosher salt
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup fresh course ground Pepper
2 cups maple syrup
Various spices if you want, see above. Go easy on them, the cure will last for days and intensify…
Mix up dry rub mix and set aside.
Remove skin from the bellies and set aside for other uses (smoked cracklins, dog treats, etc). Using a very sharp knife take JUST the skin leaving as much fat as possible in place. If you’ve ever skinned a salmon it’s the same technique.
Spread some of dry cure mix on a cookie sheet, lay a belly portion across it, and rub in on the top of the fat taking care to cover the whole surface. Flip, repeat. Cure should be dense but not caked on. If excess falls off it wasn’t really needed anyway as this is a quick cure. Slip into a 3gal bag and repeat the process until you have them all bagged up. If you did it right you should have about half of your cure mixture left unused. Split the maple syrup between the bags and seal em up.
Place the bags in your fridge, grab a beer, and forget about them until you wake the next day. Flip them in the morning, and then ignore them.
Do this for 2-4 days, never emptying the bags. The meat will shed a LOT of liquid but that’s just fine. By day 3 the meat should have shrunk by about 1/3 and become much denser. You can remove it from the brine if the belly feels about as stiff as playdoh. Yeah, that’s pretty vague but you’ll see. A 2.5 inch thick slab really only needs no more than 4 days. Much longer than this and it starts getting very salty. You can of course remedy that later but the goal is to not HAVE to, right?
Remove the cured belly from the bags and wash under cold running water. The goal is to remove all the excess salt but don’t go crazy scrubbing it.
Pat dry and allow to sit and reach room temp while you get the smoker going. I will assume you know enough to SOAK YOUR WOOD OR WOODCHIPS IN WATER THE NIGHT BEFORE.
I smoked with 2/3 hickory and 1/3 apple but go wild, try what you have on hand. If you intend to do a true cold smoke version you’ll need to maintain 90-100 degree temps for about 12 hours. I don’t see the need really, so I keep mine hovering around 175 and give the slabs about 2-2.5 hrs, turning a couple times. Do NOT get it hotter than this or you’ll cook it. Bad, very bad. All we need to do is infuse it with smoke so keep it away from the heat, capiche?
Once smoked, let cool to room temp. If a hard rind developed on the fat cap feel free to remove it by slicing a VERY thin layer off but be careful not to get too deep. If you aren’t that great with a knife, don’t bother. Instead, trim the sides square and save the scraps. Individually wrap each slab in plastic and chuck it in the freezer. By the next morning it will be ready for the slicer. No slicer? Again, VERY sharp knife and aim for 1/8 in slices.
Before slicing it all up, slice off a piece of heaven and cook it to check for saltiness. If it’s too salty for your tastes, put the uncut block of bacon in a shallow dish and cover with water for 30 minutes. Drain, repeat, reslice and retest. Should be perfect.
You’ll notice this bacon doesn’t fry like store bacon so pay attention until you learn how REAL bacon fries on the stove.
Theoretically you could store a bacon slab treated this way on a hook in your pantry. I wouldn’t suggest it. If that day ever comes and you NEED to, well, double the salt cure time and cold smoke it. Then hang it in a cool place away from insects. You’d also want to leave more fat on the bellies when you cure it. The bacon will be exceptionally salty but that can be removed by soaking in water.
Start with the same ingredients as above but double it and substitute 1 gal of apple cider for maple syrup then proceed as follows.
In a pot large enough to hold 3 gallons, set the fire on high until the pot smokes, then add the pepper, salt, and spices. Stir for 30 seconds to break the essential oils then add 2 gallons of water and remainder of cure mix and apple cider. Heat just until sugar and salt dissolves then cool brine to room temp.
Pack belly slabs, cut as above, into 2 bags and pour brine equally between them. You want the bellies immersed completely in the brine. If you need to you can add water to top them off but it probably won’t be needed.. Place the bags in your fridge, cure for 3 days.
After 72hrs remove, rinse, and proceed as above. The bellies will NOT be as hard as dry cured so don’t expect them to be.