Friday, June 10, 2016

Adventures in Smoking: Makin' Bacon

As my next step in learning how to smoke meat, I decided to make my own bacon. I had read on that she made bacon using Bill Gillespie’s Smoking Bacon and Hog Cookbook. The book sounded like it would be a good resource as I learn how to smoke, so I purchased a copy for myself.

Unlike Grillgirl, I didn’t want to use expensive Kurobuta pork belly for my first attempt. So we purchased about three pounds of regular pork belly at the Butcher Block. (My wife loved watching them use the band saw to cut our portion off.) As a side note, one of our initial concerns about making our own bacon was being able to slice it, since we don’t have a meat slicer. I had the idea to ask the guys at the Butcher Block if they could slice it for us if we brought it in. They said they could, and that was the final obstacle in our way cleared.

The recipe called for a 3-4 pound piece, but it also called for it to be stored in a gallon freezer bag while curing. The piece we had (about 2.85 pounds) was still too big for the bag. We considered taping two bags together, but I ultimately decided to trim just enough off the end to fit into the bag.

I combined apple butter, brown sugar, kosher salt, cinnamon, allspice, ground cloves, and curing salt in a bowl until I had a nice thick paste. (I had to order the curing salt from; everything I read about curing bacon made it very clear to not confuse curing salt with Himalayan pink salt. Once I opened the package, I suppose I could see how someone might get confused, since they are both pink. Me, I was very careful to get the right salt, since I am terrified of smoking a big pile of botulism.)
The bright pink stuff is the curing salt

The instructions said to put the pork belly into the bag and cover it with the paste. That seemed odd when I read it; surely it would be easier to coat the pork belly before putting it in the freezer bag? However, I followed the directions, and now completely understand why. The paste is so thick on the pork belly, it would be very difficult to get it into the freezer bag if it was all slippery and covered with the paste.

Once I got it into the bag, I managed to get it zippered shut. This was no mean feat; even with my trimming, it barely fit into the bag. And then I got a bunch of the paste smeared into the zipper part of the bag, and had to wipe that clean to get it to seal properly.

Once I had it zippered up, I set it in a pan and put it in the fridge, where it stayed for the next seven days, being turned once a day.

After seven days, I took it out of the fridge and rinsed it off. This is where things went slightly off the rails, as my wife noticed that the pork belly still had the skin on it. (I hadn’t realized it, as it was the same color as the fat, and this was my first time dealing with pork belly.) She helped me slice the skin off, and we cut off a small piece of the meat and cooked it to see if it was too salty.

Sure enough, it was a bit salty, but that was okay; the recipe had warned us this might be the case. We soaked it in water for an hour, and tried again. Less salty, but still a bit too much. We repeated the process a couple of times until we had the flavor where we thought we wanted it.

Unfortunately, in addition to curing it with the skin on, I also hadn’t remembered that once we were done curing it, we were supposed to leave it sitting in the fridge overnight to allow it form a pellicle, or sticky film that would allow the smoke to stick better to the meat.

We decided to put the meat back in the fridge for five or six hours, and that turned out to be enough time for a pellicle to form.

In the meantime, my wife prepared a pot of bourbon bacon baked beans to make in the smoker. The plan was to put the pot under the pork belly, so that the fat would drip down into the beans as they both cooked.

Baked beans out of the smoker!
I fired up the smoker, brought the temperature to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, and put in some applewood chips. Then in went the meat and the beans.

The book had said it would take about three hours to smoke the bacon. Lies! It reached 150 degrees in about an hour. This freaked me out a little, but I checked the temperature in a number of places. When I was convinced it was thoroughly cooked, I pulled the meat out. (The beans still had a few hours to go. Once they were done, we had them with a 2 lb. bone-in ribeye steak, split between the two of us. They were fantastic.)
Pork belly after it was done smoking

Two days later, I brought the smoked bacon to the Butcher Block to have them slice it into strips. 
Slicing my bacon

At the butcher shop, the butcher asked me what I had used to cure it, and I told him. He told me a couple of times that it smelled really good, and that made me feel really proud. I asked him to wrap a third of the bacon in paper so we could use it immediately, and to vacuum-pack the other 2/3 in two separate packs for freezing. I was amazed that it looked just like the bacon we buy from them!

When we finally tried the bacon, it was really good! It was a bit saltier than the bacon we get from the butcher shop, but not to the point that it tasted too salty. Next time I make the bacon, I will definitely soak more of the salt out, now that I have a sense of how it will taste in the finished product. But for a first attempt, I’m really happy with how it worked out, and I’m eager to try making another pork belly (although not until we’re finished with this one). 
Bacon on the griddle!

Crispy bacon with eggs in jail (grilled in the bacon grease). Delicious!

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