Have you ever had one of those days, where you have an idea that at the time seems absolutely brilliant, so you dive into it, trying to get reality to match what’s in your head, only to find that it isn’t as simple or obtainable as you imagined and in fact takes you veering along the edge of the cliff of sanity and you know you’re going to plunge off the side into spectacularly horrible defeat?
So have I. But this is not one of those times. Lucky you.
In my life BC (that’s before cancer, for those of you unfamiliar with the history here and who have not perused some of the more gruesome photos in my collection), I watched the Food Network quite a bit. By “quite a bit” I mean that if I was interested in having the television on and wasn’t watching a movie for the billionth time, generally speaking the screen had FN on it. Back in those days, the programming, while it could be uneven, was generally not full of the spastic, heavily caricatured “personalities” it features now, and that’s one of the primary reasons I hardly ever watch it currently. I know Emeril can be annoying as hell, but we have to give credit where it’s due: the man obviously loves to cook and he just as obviously loves food. Out of all his catchphrases, “pork fat rules” is probably the most apt right here, right now.
Because there’s something about pork, isn’t there? It’s versatile in ways that chicken is not. Consider this: there are thousands of different ways to prepare chicken. When you’re a broke college student also working full time, or a slave in ISP hell not making a ton of money, chicken can be stretched out to make eating more pleasant than the standard ramen/mac and cheese duo. And beef – grassfed, organic beef especially: well, there’s nothing like a medium rare ribye off the grill, or a braised roast, or even just a nice juicy hamburger to get you powered through your day.
Pork could be in an altogether separate class. In fact, I will go so far as to say that Homer was on to something. Don’t get me wrong. I love the beef and buffalo and chicken and fish and shrimp and turkey. When I put 40 pounds or so of ribs on the smoker, though, they are pork spare ribs. When I make barbeque, it’s pulled pork via a Boston butt. During the holidays, you can always find ham on the table or in the fridge here. Bone-in pork chops, fried and then topped with gravy, served alongside fried okra, mashed potatoes and biscuits with some sweet tea on the side? Southern heaven.
But the defining moment for pork, to me, is bacon. What else can you eat alone as part of a meal, or include as part of a trio singing in harmony in a BLT? What else can be wrapped around so many other things – steak, shrimp, asparagus – to take them to a higher level than they could ever reach on their own? What else can you render as a base for another dish and then turn right around and sprinkle over that same dish in a cloudburst of porcine goodness that adds just the right note?
That was the thinking I had when I decided to cure and smoke my own bacon. That, and the “wouldn’t it be cool to try this” line of thought. Both work equally well. As it turns out, the process is much less involved than people think.
Step one, as linked above, was the curing phase. Get the cure mixed, slather it on, stick the belly in the fridge for a week or so. Simple. Once that phase is over, pull it out, rinse it thoroughly, pat it dry, and back it goes in the fridge for a day.
The underside is dry and we’re ready to go on the smoker.
I smoked this batch over hickory for about three hours or so. When it had reached a temperature of 150F, I pulled it out. Next step: trimming the skin from the belly.
The skin could be saved, I suppose, to flavor soups and such, but when I looked at this belly, I knew there would be scraps and pieces and fat left for that purpose, so I tossed the skin. Without its skin, and from the side, it now looked like this.
Everyone knows that there must be a tasting. The two outside pieces are the ends that were directly exposed to the smoke. They are naturally darker than the slices from the interior.
It fried up nicely.
It tasted like: bacon. Pure, unadulterated porky goodness. I sliced up the remainder for packaging. I could have tossed the bellies in the freezer for a bit and then used the handy slicer the fam gave to me, but I had my sharp knife and the time, so I went ahead with that job.
Ready for packaging and distribution.
Packed, labeled, and ready for the freezer – or, in the case of the pack on the left, ready to go to my aunt and uncle’s place for them to enjoy. The smaller bags on the right are scraps and fats for soups, flavoring, and rendering when needed.
Overall, from an eight pound belly with the skin on, I wound up with five pounds of bacon, which is about what I expected to get. On a price per pound basis, this batch ran $7.20. That is at or lower than bacon by the pound in the store, since most of the packages now come in 12 ounce packs rather than full pounds.
Was is worth it? Absolutely. I know where this belly came from. I know exactly what was in the cure and at what ratios, how it was handled, and how it was smoked. The active work time from an overall standpoint is minimal, and the cost is about the same as me climbing into my car and going to the store.
Would I change anything? Next time, I think I will change the cure a bit. The fam likes sweeter bacon, and it was difficult to taste the maple and brown sugar in the cure this time, so that needs to change. I also think an extra day in the cure would be a good idea.
If you’re considering doing this, but don’t know where to get pork belly with the skin on, head over to Niman Ranch and try them. I’ve ordered from them in the past and used them for this belly and the fat. They’re excellent.