If there is one thing folks on a Paleo diet love to brag about, it is the fact that the diet includes bacon. In fact, to listen to some people describe their experience with this lifestyle, eating bacon without any guilt seems to be near the top of what they share with others. To some degree, I think this happens due to the shock value. For those people following a typical American diet and the conventional wisdom on the consumption of animal fats, bacon is a giant splurge. Bacon, real bacon doesn’t conjure up an image of a lean cut of meat in anyone’s mind. So if you are looking to shock someone about how vastly the foods you are eating and thriving on differ from the conventional mindset, putting emphasis on bacon is a sure winner.
But how many Primal folks are eating traditionally prepared, non-industrialized bacon? I’d wager very few. It’s tough enough to find organic/free-range pigs, much less find bacon sourced from them; particularly not in the quantities that Paleo folks claim to eat. I’ll be upfront right now, and say I’ve had more than my share of supermarket injection/wet-cured bacon. Most of this bacon, marketed as naturally hickory or applewood smoked, has never seen a drop of real smoke vapor except that from whatever truck hauled it to the supermarket. The smokey flavor of this bacon is simply part of the wet-cure which allows the manufacturer to compress the multiple day long traditional process of curing into a few hours. Since they are using liquid smoke, created from burning real wood, they are allowed to still to call it ‘Naturally Smoked’ on the package.
Like so many other ‘natural’ industrial products, wet-cured, factory produced bacon pales in comparison to the flavor of it’s traditionally prepared counterpart. The result of this process is a thin strip of water-filled meat that even when cooked until crispy is only a weak imitation of real bacon. Unfortunately, finding traditionally dry-cured versions of bacon in the store is quite an expensive endeavor, if you can find it at all. At the same time, preparing your own bacon at home isn’t difficult and is quite a rewarding experience for anyone who considers themselves a bacon fan (or in my case addict). On top of that, depending on your source of pork belly, this may not only be some of the best, but also some of the cheapest bacon you’ve ever had.
While bacon means a great many things depending on what part of the world you are in, here in the United States it means essentially one thing: a pork belly which has been dry cured in salt and nitrates then smoked once it’s cured. While much of the genuine bacon flavor is coming from the nitrates pork also easily takes on the flavor of smoking, like almost no other meat. Because when smoking bacon, we are not trying to cook it, the act of smoking it is essentially like adding one last bit of seasoning.
Before we get started though you’ll need a few things:
- Pink Curing Salt or another nitrate source.
- A whole pork belly, ideally with the skin on.
The pink curing salt is essential, while some large manufacturers may claim to either offer nitrate free bacon, or more often “no added nitrate bacon” preparing bacon without nitrates is dangerous. Often what you buy as bacon with no added nitrates is just bacon that has been cured with celery salt, which naturally contains nitrates, thus there is no need to “add” them. Whatever dangers you may think nitrates in your food have, Foodborne botulism is vastly more dangerous. Since we will be smoking this meat as low and slow as possible without nitrates we would be dramatically increasing the risk of dangerous bacteria forming. Having nitrates in the cure will prevent this. I highly recommend using them and they are easy to find online.
A pork belly may or may not be easy for you to find, it’s generally not going to be something you can walk into the local supermarket and pick up. You’ll need to find a good butcher shop or market that will, most likely, have to special order it for you. (It usually takes a few weeks after I order a full pork belly for my local meat supplier to fill the order.) Ideally you want this cut to have the skin on.
Be sure to specify you want it whole. Make sure to talk to your supplier, communication with your butcher is important. My first time around, looking to cure some bacon, my local meat processor helped me out by slicing the pork belly into uncured bacon sized pieces for me, which was very disappointing. (It helped make nice venison sausage in the end though.)
Once you have those two harder to find ingredients you should be ready to get started. The first thing you will need to do is prepare a basic dry cure. Feel free to experiment if you want by adding herbs and spices to the cure. Herbs such as garlic, thyme, rosemary, or juniper berries are all regularly added to different bacon cures I make.
- One three-to-five pound slab of pork belly, skin on.
- ¼ cup coarse kosher salt
- 1 teaspoons pink curing salt
- ⅛ cup white sugar (Optional)
- If you leave out the sugar, your bacon may have a bit sharper/saltier taste. You also could substitute a sweetener of your choice such as rubbing the belly down with a bit of maple syrup or honey instead as well.
- That is all there that is needed. Combine the salt, sugar, and pink salt together and rub over all sides of the bacon, make sure all sides are coated.
- Place the pork belly into a large Ziploc bag, and keep it in the fridge for a week, turning every day. You will notice liquid starting to accumulate in the this is normal, don’t remove it. This liquid released from the meat forms a salty cure which must be allowed to surround the meat for continuous curing in the refrigerator. Turning the plastic bag allows you to redistribute the cure without coming in contact with the meat.
- After one week, check the pork belly to see if it’s become firm. If it feels firm at it’s thickest point it’s cured and ready to be smoked. The thicker the belly, the longer it will take the cure.
- Remove the belly from your cure, rinse thoroughly with cold water, pat dry with paper towels and discard the cure liquid. You can return it to the refrigerator to rest covered for up to 3 days.
- If you are smoking the bacon optionally the night before you can leave it uncovered to allow a tacky pellicle layer to form, this will allow it to absorb a bit more smokey flavor while in the smoker.
- If cooking in the smoker, try to keep the smoker temperature around 150-200 degrees, smoke until bacon reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees.
- If cooking in an oven, preheat oven to 200 degrees and roast until belly reaches 150 degrees.
- Once done remove the skin or rind while the belly is still hot using a thin, sharp knife.
- Allow the bacon to cool to room temperature, wrap well and refrigerate.
Home cured bacon freezes very well due to it’s high fat content. It will also keep fresh in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks. It will be easiest to slice when cold or slightly frozen. If your bacon, unfortunately, turned out too salty, simply blanch it for a minute in simmering water before frying it. This will reduce the saltiness, and as a bonus allow it to crisp up more easily when fried.
Beyond the basic recipe above there are literally dozens of variations to try such as slathering the pork belly with maple syrup while it cures, adding spices like juniper berries, crushed garlic or thyme to the cure, or heavily peppering the bacon just before smoking. These types of additions, along with the choice of wood you smoke it over, will result in a distinctively different types of bacon.
Home-made bacon is something every bacon fan should attempt, at least once. I’ll wager a majority of those that do, won’t want to go back to whatever bacon they were having before. Every true bacon fan owes it to themselves to try making it at home once, even if they only have a conventional oven to cook it in.