Thank you so much for sticking with me but this is when the bacon gets really good! I got this recipe from here.
Let’s start with a gratuitous pork belly photo.
It’s a nice piece of belly. It’s earned a bourbon cure. Use the following ingredients:
1 cup of bourbon, divided
1/2 cup Kosher salt
2 tsp curing salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp black pepper
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
Now the recipe calls for brushing the bourbon on the pork belly before combining it with the dry ingredients. I don’t do that. I pour ALL THE BOURBON into a ziplock bag, add the dry ingredients and put in the belly. Like this:
Pro tip: Double bag it or else you will end up with cure dripping all over your fridge. It will make your fridge smell good, but it is messy.
Put the belly into your fridge for 7-10 days, flipping once a day.
Thank you so much for sticking with me and following along on this process. I’m really enjoying this project and I would especially like to thank Bob for allowing me to use his blog.
So let’s cure this piggy’s belly! I’ve cut it up into smaller pieces so we can try a couple of different cures. I’m using a recipe out of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie. I love this book and even if you aren’t even going to cure meat, it’s great reading. I also recommend their Whiskey-Glazed Smoked Chicken and their Smoked Scallops. I’ve also made their chorizo and someday I will try their Canadian Bacon recipe.
A word about the maple syrup. The Crown maple syrup was on sale at the grocery store and I’m a sucker for bourbon barrel-aged products. I don’t drink bourbon, but I love the flavor. And this stuff is nectar. If you get a chance to snag a bottle, do it. It’s not that much more expensive than ordinary maple syrup (which already costs a fortune).
My pork belly weights about 7 1/2 pounds so I adjusted accordingly.
These pork bellies came with the skin still attached. You can slice it off now, but I’ve found its easier to cut it off after it is cooked.
Mix all the ingredients and then slather on the belly. Rub it in so it comes into contact with as much the surface as possible.
Then the belly goes into a plastic bag for the next week to 10 days. I stock up on the 2-gallon plastic bags when they go on sale and use painter’s tape for notes. Since I’ll be doing 4 more cures, it helps distinguish the different recipes once they go into my fridge. Tomorrow, I’ll show you a recipe for pepper bacon.
Before I show you the curing process, we need to talk about salt and how it turns pork belly into bacon. Curing doesn’t happen without salt. If you look back into the history of bacon, humans all over the world were packing pork belly into salt to preserve the meat. The Chinese and Europeans started curing meat as early as 1500 BC. According to the Pork Board of America, Hernando de Soto’s herd of 13 pigs sparked early conflicts with Native Americans who developed a fondness for the taste of pork. His herd eventually grew to 700 hogs, not including those that were eaten or ran away to breed and become ancestors of today’s feral hogs in the Southeast.
While I don’t know the exact process de Soto’s contemporaries used to cure bacon, they had to have used salt. Today, everyone uses pink salt or Prague Powder or Curing Salt #1. Some might confuse it with Himalayan salt. Don’t do that. These are 2 different substances.
Both could be called pink salt, but only use curing salt for bacon.
Most Himalayan salt comes from Pakistan which means it should really be called Pakistan salt, but that doesn’t quite have the mystery or cache of Himalayan salt. Thanks marketing team! It is purer than table salt, but it is the impurities that give it its pink color. Some people claim it has special health benefits, but I just find it tasty on baked red potatoes.
Curing salt was trademarked back in 1925 as Prague Powder by Karl Max Seiffert. He turned around and sold his patent to Griffith Laboratories in 1934. Here’s the super cool thing about this…I am not from Chicago but I lived here for more than 20 years and love Chicago’s history. Griffith Laboratories was started in Chicago in the 1900s by a father and son who assumed ownership of a pharmacy. The son backed out of attending agricultural school at U of Illinois and went Northwestern to study pharmacology. Once he graduated, he and his father changed their company direction to “bring science to the food industry”. They initially focused on bread and baking, but in 1934, they bought Seiffert’s patent and began distributing it across the country. Griffith Labs still exists today as Griffith Foods and their global headquarters are in Alsip, Illinois. You can buy Prague Power directly from them OR order it off Amazon.
Curing Salt #1
My curing salt came from Williams Sonoma. When you buy curing salt for bacon, make sure you get Curing Salt #1. Curing Salt #2 is meant for cuts of meat that cure for longer periods of time. Think pastrami or ham.
Curing salt is also known as pink salt. Manufacturers dye it this color to distinguish it from table salt. Curing salt should NOT be consumed or used like table salt. It contains 6.25% sodium nitrite which is what prevents the growth of botulism or the other icky things that grow in meat over time. We will apply this salt to the pork bellies but will rinse it off once it does its job. Do not use curing salt for any other purpose.
Tired of salt? Fret not. Tomorrow’s post will be all about combining curing salt with other seasonings and getting on with the bacon process. Lots of cool pictures and much fun.
Yesterday as I muddled through a data reconciliation, my oldest daughter texted me “Your meat is here”. My daughters aren’t really that interested in my bacon curing projects but they knew I had been waiting for 100 lbs of pork belly to arrive on my front porch. My youngest even obliged me with a picture. I couldn’t get home for another 3 hours and there was no way the girls would be able to carry that much weight into the house. All I could do it count the minutes until I could get home and dig into the boxes.
I’ve worked for Morningstar for almost 11 years. During that time, I’ve learned so much about markets, trading and economics. Morningstar was founded in Chicago which, at one time, boasted of being the hog butcher to the world. Frozen pork bellies were traded as a commodity on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange under the symbol PB (electronic symbol GPB) starting in 1961. There’s more info about commodity trading here.
3 of the pork bellies
If you are interested in following pork commodity information, Urner Barry Pork tweets a lot of market information under the handle of @UBpork. Did you know there were $17.554 million of pork bellies in cold storage in July? That sounds like a lot to me but this number signals an industry-wide shortage. Urner Barry has the details which, even for a hobby baconista, are really fascinating. They also cover egg, seafood and beef market trends.
Once I got home, I broke into the boxes and hauled the 4 frozen bellies into the houses individually. Factory farm-raised hog bellies run around 18 lbs. These bellies, raised on smaller farms with a little more care, ranged from 20-30 lbs apiece. This was the biggest one (pictured to the right…underneath it is my 6-burner stovetop…just for reference) after I cut it up . Once it was sliced into 4 pieces, the smallest piece weighed 7.3 lbs.
1 pork belly cut into 4 pieces
When these 4 pieces thaw, the next step is to apply a cure and let them sit for a week to 10 days. I cut the belly up because over the next four posts, I am going to show you how to prep the following:
Red Wine-Cured Bacon (throwing in an experiment with port wine on this one)
Bourbon & Brown Sugar Bacon
Black Pepper Bacon
Stay with me folks. If you like bacon, I hope these next few posts will convince you to start making your own.
This isn’t the way I intended to start this blog. I imagined my first post would be pictures unveiling huge boxes of soon-to-be bacon and describing the mouth watering ways I would convert it into bacon, but my pork belly order has yet to arrive. It was supposed to leave Iowa on Monday, August 21 and get here in Illinois the following day. It’s now Wednesday, August 30 and the magical box of pork belly has yet to appear. I’m hoping for the best and a call to the farmer did reassure me.
In the meantime, this delay gives us the chance to cover some background info. I’ve been a DBA for 15 years and met Bob working together at Morningstar. But you are here for the bacon, so let’s focus on that. Roughly 9 years ago, my dad cleaned out and welded an old oil drum into a smoker and presented it to my husband for a Christmas present. We joked that it was the largest smoker in our Chicago suburb. It’s huge and we could smoke 4 turkeys at once on it. My husband used it a lot and I assisted.
When my husband died, I ignored the smoker for a good year. I had plenty of other things to manage and it wasn’t on my radar. I finally resurfaced and started using it again for the customary brisket, hams and ribs.
About 4 years ago, I had an epiphany. I wanted to smoke something different and I decided to try bacon. I was surprised how easy it was and how much better it tasted than store bought. You just put the bacon in the cure, let it sit for a week and then cook it to about 140 degrees. That’s it. So simple and so much better than the stuff you get from Oscar Meyer.
At some point in my bacon adventures, I started researching heritage hog breeds and that lead me to the following article in the New York Times about the work Carl Blake was doing establishing a heritage hog farm in Iowa. The description of the pork was mouth watering.
I contacted Blake begging for a pork belly. That was about three years ago. Last week he posted on his Facebook page that he had boxes of Mangalitsa bellies for sale. If you’ve not heard of Mangalitsa hogs, they are a Hungarian breed, rare in this country as the hogs don’t grow well in industrialized farm settings. Google “fuzzy pigs” and you’ll also learn that they are the Kobe beef of the hog world. Their high fat content means much more flavor than regular hogs and makes for excellent bacon.
Mangalitsa hog are also known as fuzzy pigs
As soon as I saw Blake’s post, I called him asking to buy 2 boxes of pork bellies. That’s 100lbs and is probably excessive but I’ve waited three years to get a chance to do this.
Knowing how much bacon is revered in DBA circles, I asked Bob if I could use his blog to share this bacon adventure and he obliged. My plan is to to walk you through the entire curing and smoking process complete with photos of every step and the final product. I hope you will stick around for the whole bacon process.
Postscript: I came home yesterday to two huge boxes on my porch. My next post will show you exactly what 100 lbs of pork belly looks like.