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The S.O. and I threw a barbecue for my research group last weekend.  With an easy meat-and-potatoes menu, I wanted to add something extra-special to the lineup.  So I decided on homemade bacon to crumble over our baked potatoes.

Since I’d never made bacon before, this was quite the learning curve.  Bacon isn’t just marinated meat.  A marinade only gets you so far — just a couple of millimeters into your meat for an overnight marinade, to be precise.  Bacon — and other “cured” meats like salami, pancetta, and hard sausages — essentially needs to be marinated for a very long time to get that delectable saltiness throughout its entire thickness.  Problem is, the meat will spoil before the marinating is through.

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Solution:  curing salt.  Curing salt is just table salt containing sodium nitrite, which prevents bacterial growth and preserves the natural color of the meat.  So we can buy enough time to get that delicious, salty flavor throughout our meat.  There are two types of curing salts, commonly known as Prague Powder #1 and Prague Powder #2.  #1 is intended to be used for short-term cures, in the 7-10 day range.  #2, however, contains sodium nitrate (in addition to the sodium nitrite) — the nitrate will break down into nitrite over long periods of time, providing chemical stability for long-term cures of weeks to months.  Bacon falls into the short-term cure category, so I ordered some Prague Powder #1 on Spice Jungle.

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This was my first foray into curing meats.  Turns out, it’s pretty easy.  Just make your cure, pour it over your pork belly, then let the pork belly bathe in cure for a week.  You would ideally smoke your bacon over hot coals and wood chips (cherry wood proved delightful).  But if you don’t have a smoker, you can fake it in the oven, and I’ve provided some instructions for that.  After the bacon has been smoked, use it as you would store-bought bacon.  Thinly slice the bacon — I finally used my electric meat slicer I impulsively bought several Black Fridays ago — and fry it up for breakfast, BLTs, or for crumbling over potatoes or salads.

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And good golly miss Molly, these were the best bacons I’ve ever had, and they were a huge hit at the barbecue.  The sweet tea + bourbon has a muted bitterness from the Lipton tea leaves, which helps balance the syrupy brown sugar and the bite of the bourbon.  The peach + molasses has a more conventional bacon flavor, but on a canvas of plush summer stone fruit and sultry, slow molasses.

This experiment in curing turned out far better than I expected.  I’m already scheming my next cures!

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Bacon Two Ways

1 lb pork belly = 3 servings | Prep time 5 minutes, Smoke time 2 hours

For the Sweet Tea + Bourbon

  • 1 lb pork belly
  • 5 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp Prague powder #1
  • 3 Tbsp Lipton tea leaves
  • 5 tsp dark brown sugar
  • 5 tsp honey
  • 2/3 C bourbon (or enough to fully submerge pork belly)

For the Peach + Molasses

  • 1 lb pork belly
  • 5 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp Prague powder #1
  • 5 tsp molasses
  • 2/3 C crushed peaches (can use other stone fruits as well)
  • 1 Tbsp paprika
  • 1 Tbsp crushed red pepper flakes

Directions

  1. Remove skin from pork belly if the belly is sold skin-on.  Rinse pork belly and pat dry.  Place into a gallon-sized zip-top bag or other airtight container.
  2. Place remaining ingredients into a medium mixing bowl, and stir until well-combined.
  3. Pour mixture over pork belly, and ensure pork belly is fully submerged.
  4. Refrigerate 7-10 days, flipping pork belly every few days to ensure even curing.
  5. After curing, prepare to smoke the bacon.  Soak some wood chips for 30-60 minutes.  Drain wood chips, and wrap them into a foil pouch.  Use a fork to puncture several holes on the top of the pouch.
  6. Bring a smoker to ~225°F, ideally with the heat source concentrated on one side of the smoker, with the other side free to place your pouch of wood chips and your bacon.  For my charcoal smoker, a small pile of 5-6 coals was sufficient to bring the smoker to temperature.
  7. Once the smoker is at temperature, place pouch of wood chips into smoker but not directly next to the heat source, and place bacon on a rack above the wood chips.  Maintain the smoker between 200°F and 250°F, until bacon internal temperature reaches 150°F, about 2 hours.
  8. Now you can use the bacon as you would store-bought bacon.  Slice thin strips of bacon to fry or wrap around petit filets.  Store wrapped in foil in refrigerator up to 2 weeks.

No Smoker?  No Problem!

  1. Follow instructions 1-5 as above.
  2. Preheat oven to 225°F.
  3. Place pork belly in a roasting pan.  Arrange roasting pan on an upper oven rack, and place pouch of wood chips on a lower rack.
  4. Roast until bacon internal temperature reaches 150°F, about 2 hours.
  5. Use as you would store-bought bacon.  Store wrapped in foil in refrigerator up to 2 weeks.

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