As mentioned previously, I no longer have much interest in store-bought bacon, so naturally when the bacon supply in my freezer dwindled, it was time to buy another pork belly and start the curing process. Last time, I smoked the cured belly on our little Weber kettle grill and sliced it with a chef's knife. This time, I got to try out more purpose-built tools for the job.
Like last time, I followed the recipes and methodology from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. I split the roughly six-and-a-half pound belly in half. One half was cured in a simple mixture of coarse kosher salt, sugar, and pink salt. The other though was cured with the same base ingredients and the additions of bay leaves, black peppercorns, and garlic, all crushed to release maximum flavor. After about eight days in their respective cures, I rinsed the belly pieces. Since the bacon came out a bit too salty last time, I spent extra time rinsing this time around.
Next, I let the belly pieces sit uncovered in the refrigerator so a bit of a pellicle could form, giving the fantastically tasty smoke particles something to cling to. The skin felt a bit tacky the next morning, so I knew it was time for smoking.
Here's where the purpose-built equipment comes in. We bought a very inexpensive smoker – the Brinkmann 852-7080-7 Gourmet Charcoal Smoker and Grill, Black. I added the link from Amazon, but we actually found it on sale for less at our local Lowes. There's a tray in the very bottom for the charcoal and the soaked wood chunks. Above that is a bowl for water (or other more flavor-contributing liquid) to add moisture throughout the smoking process. And above that are two separate racks for whatever items will be smoked.
Used the extra room on the grill to smoke a couple of hatch chiles as well
The only wood we had around the house were wood chips, but despite an hour-long soaking in water, the chips burned away very quickly. I had to restock the chips about halfway through the smoking. In the future, I will seek out wood chunks to smoke instead.
I expected the bacon to take two to two and a half hours in the smoker to reach its target internal temperature; however, it wound up only taking about an hour and a half. My one beef with this smoker is that the built-in thermometer doesn't actually tell you the temperature. Instead it gives the essentially useless readings: WARM, IDEAL, HOT. Turns out that “ideal” is in the eye of the beholder. I'll have to experiment with alternate methods for determining the real temperature in the smoker.
The next purpose-built tool was a loaner. My favorite offal-blogger, Ryan of Nose to Tail at Home fame, was kind enough to lend me his slicer. Last time I had a terrible time slicing the bacon and had to resort to calling it “rustic” to cover up my crap slicing job. After a fair bit of shopping, Ryan managed to find a fairly inexpensive slicer – the Chef's Choice 610 Premium Electric Food Slicer, and at least for the six pounds of bacon I sliced, it worked beautifully. There's even a hand-guard, so the risk of me bloodying up the borrowed slicer by shortening my fingers was all but nonexistent.
And finally, the taste. Well, unfortunately it was still a bit too salty. It was suggested to me by the aptly named baconator that I give the bacon a soaking for an hour or so after curing to bring the salt level down to a more palatable level, so we'll try that next time.
We vacuum-sealed the extra bacon in half-pound portions and froze
Otherwise though, the flavor was again incredible. Rich, creamy fat and clean pork flavor came through on the slab cured with the basic formula. More incredible though was how well the garlic and bay and pepper came through on the other slab. Even though the solids are rinsed well away before smoking the meat, the flavors have infused the brine and carry all through the meat during the curing process. I know I've said this before, but it is completely worth your time to do this yourself, even without the smoker and the slicer.
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