A while ago, Papa Squirrel and I were checking out the butcher shop selections at Sara Market when we saw something that made our little hearts dance with glee. What was this meaty delight, you ask? PORK BELLY!!!
Most grocery stores around town don’t carry pork belly. Unfortunately, it’s become something of a specialty meat. We’re lucky to have such a great ethnic butcher shop that consistently has items that we can’t find anywhere else.
So what’s so exciting about a pork belly? Well, the possibilities are almost endless. There’s no savory delicacy that melts in the mouth quite like crispy skinned braised pork belly. The meaty chunks make for really nice pickle meat. The skin can turn into ethereal pork rinds. While it’s not the best fat for it, the fat from a pork belly can be rendered into beautiful lard. All that’s nice and stuff, but you can get all of that from other cuts of pork that are more readily available everywhere around town. There’s one thing, though, that you just can’t get from any other cut of pork. The meat above all other meats. Quite possibly the ultimate accomplishment that has raised man above the apes. Bacon.
So how do you make bacon? It’s a three step process.
Step 1: Acquire a pork belly. Or two.
You want a whole belly. Look for one with a good ratio of meat to fat. If you ask your butcher nicely, he’ll remove the skin in one nice beautiful piece, or you can leave it on if you like your bacon with rind.
Step 2: Sweet talk not one but two professional chefs into coming over for a day. Bonus points if you can get them to bring over lunch. Tip: mention bacon.
The Viking and the Honeybee came over to spend the day with us and our bellies. Along with their culinary expertise, they also very nicely provided us with pork shoulder for lunch.
We started with gathering our supplies. You need to decide what containers you will be using for your cure time. A baking dish is a good choice. Also, be sure you have plenty of plastic wrap to be able to seal in your dish. Aside from the belly, the most important ingredient for making bacon is curing salt. Yes, you can use normal table salt to make bacon. But your bacon will be very gray instead of staying pink and rosy. Curing salt should be found in your grocery store’s canning section. You’ll also need to decide on your seasoning blends.
We decided to have 3 different flavors. Our first was Michael Ruhlman’s standard recipe from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing with nothing extra added. The second was a Mexican inspired blend using panela sugar from El Salvador and spiked with ground pasilla chiles that we picked up at Sara. The third was our Louisiana inspired blend with Steen’s cane syrup replacing some of the sugar and cayenne and paprika for a kick.
Trim the meatiest sections of your pork belly into roughly squared pieces that will fit snugly in your chosen curing dishes. Coat the belly thickly with your curing blend, making sure that you cover every exposed piece of belly. Put the belly in the dish and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. I would suggest that you wrap it twice just to be sure that you don’t have any openings where air might get in. Refrigerate and wait.
Once the bacon was wrapped, we moved on to using the rest of our bellies. We trimmed the fat from the remaining meat and cut it into small chunks. We placed this into another sealable container with a pickling brine. For those of you not familiar with pickled meat, check out Nola Cuisine’s explanation of and recipes for this Creole delicacy.
We took the fat and rendered out lard. For a much better explanation of how to render lard than any I could provide, take a look at Homesick Texan’s recent lard rendering post. Once you have lard, you’ll have something special that you can use in many of your cooking experiments.
We learned from Antonio at Sara Market that pork rinds puff from being fried twice and the addition of baking soda to the second frying. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn that until after we attempted to make them on our own and ended up with a tough, chewy and far from ethereal creation. Now we know, though. We’ll try it again.
Step 3: Bacon.
Check on your curing bacon every day. Somewhere between 10 to 14 days, depending on the thickness of your belly, you’ll notice that the meat isn’t soft anymore. You’ve got bacon. You’ve also got options. If you so desire and have the equipment, you can smoke your bacon for an extra layer of flavor. You don’t have to smoke it, though, and we decided not to. Be sure that you rinse it well. The flavor from the cure will have soaked into the meat, but you probably don’t want the extreme saltiness to stay around. If your bacon took more than 14 days to cure, you may even want to soak the bacon for a couple of hours in cold water to leech out the extra salt.
Slice your bacon as thick as you like it. Fry it up, and enjoy.