Store-bought bacon, especially the high-end stuff, is so delicious that there's little point in making it at home, except that homemade bacon is even better. I know it's hard to imagine bacon being improved, but it's more flavorful, fresher, more unctuously crispy and not full of unnecessary bletch. Curing your own pork belly is an easy way to gently enter the world of home-curing meats. One waltz around the kitchen creating your own smoky bacon, and you'll be looking up prosciutto recipes and impressing your friends with artisanal holiday logs of cured beef loin. We've been culturally overwhelmed with bacon the last few years — I am not a fan of bacon candy, bacon marmalade, bacon as a wiener or pizza wrap or as headgear — but I usually have a small piece paper-wrapped in the fridge because it's indispensable for the carnivorous home cook. Cured meat keeps for weeks, if not months, so I make it a few times a year. I eat bacon for breakfast once in a while and I use it weekly for seasoning and for cooking fat. Sweet potatoes get fried in it, broccoli and pine nuts get tossed with it, it gets chopped for cauliflower carbonara and, when I'm nostalgic for Scotland, bread, tomatoes, eggs and mushrooms get fried for a Sunday "fry-up."
Since pork belly became fashionable, it's usually carried at the meat counters of our local markets. It used to be mind-bogglingly cheap, but foodie gits like myself have set that ship sailing. Still and all, try this recipe based on my father's; it's delicious and it's cool to do it yourself.
Ingredients and method:
3-pound piece pork belly
1 1/3 cup kosher or sea salt
½ cup white sugar
First, the "dry cure." Trim off any loose bits and skin from the meat, rinse and dry. Mix the salt and sugar and rub it evenly all over the meat. Lay the pork in a dish and cover it closely with plastic wrap. Leave it in the fridge for 48 hours.
Remove some of the saltiness by soaking the meat in lots of cool, fresh water for 1 hour and 15 minutes. I don't know why you just don't add less salt from the start, but science. Curing is all science. You can store the meat in the fridge for a couple of days before soaking it if you're not ready to smoke. It is even fryable at this point (the "green bacon" stage) but it won't taste traditional. To make bacon taste like bacon, you have to smoke it.
You can use an ordinary home kettle barbecue. Clear the bottom of the grill and set in a pan to catch drips. Make a tiny fire over on one side of the grill bottom using 3 or 4 chunks of natural mesquite charcoal. When it's smoking, add a few chips of smoking wood like apple or alder. Adjust the air intake at the bottom to a quarter of the way open.
Put in the grill rack and place the pork over the drip pan, and an oven thermometer next to the meat. Cover the barbecue and close the air holes on the lid 75 percent of the way — they should be on the opposite end from the fire. Smoke should soon pour out. Check thermometer every 30 minutes or so and adjust the air intake to ensure it's between 110 F and 150 F (120 F is perfect — this is not a cold smoked recipe). Smoke the meat for 4 to 6 hours, turning it every hour.
There. You have bacon. Slice some off and fry it. If it's too salty, you can soak it in cool water for an hour — the smoked flavor can't be soaked out, so only the salt will dissipate.
You can play around with the flavorings too. Bacon doesn't have to have a dry cure. This brine makes maple bacon. Brining takes 48 hours, lots of fridge space and a cooler cooking temperature because sugar burns, so the maple flavor comes at a price.
Ingredients and method:
In a non-corrosive container like a plastic or stainless steel bowl, mix till dissolved:
1 gallon water
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup kosher or sea salt
1 cup pure maple syrup
2 teaspoons fenugreek (it heightens the maple taste)
Put the pork in a bowl with the mixture and weigh the meat down with a plate so it's submerged. Soak the meat in the brine for 24 to 48 hours. Rinse thoroughly. Smoke the meat as above, but keep the temperature between 80 F and 120 F via the air intake valve and smoke it for 5 to 6 hours.