My daughter was reading Highlights for Children magazine last month, and she got to the brain-stretching questions section.
“What are some things people can buy that they might choose to make instead?” she read aloud.
“Bacon,” I replied. It was true: I had two kinds of homemade bacon curing in the fridge at the time. It was an experiment, designed to answer a brain-teaser of my own.
Some of my friends are very into curing and smoking their own meats. Matt Wright of the blog Wrightfood, for example, keeps homemade salami and bresaola hanging in his garage. (When he gets home from work, he pulls his car into the garage and stops just as the hanging salami hits his windshield. Just kidding.)
I, however, have a small apartment. There will be no smoking or hanging here. (Coincidentally, that’s also the sign on the wall at my local saloon.) So here was my brain-stretching question: Could I make decent bacon using just the refrigerator, the oven, and some simple ingredients?
First, though, another question: Why would I want to make my own bacon when there are dozens of good bacons on the market, including Nueske’s (our family favorite) and the venerable bacon-of-the-month club?
I can think of four reasons:
Bacon is nothing more than cured and smoked pork belly. Both of those adjectives put me in touch with ingredients that have rarely come into my kitchen before.
The “cured” part comes from sodium nitrite. Nitrates and nitrites have a bad reputation as health risks and cosmetic additives. Most people who have heard of them probably think they’re a creation of the industrial food complex, like yellow #5.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Nitrates and nitrites (in the form of saltpeter, which is potassium nitrate) have been used to preserve meat for centuries, and probably since prehistoric times. They are as much a traditional food as carrots.
I’ve eaten some good bacon cured only with salt, but it was heavily smoked. Generally, I prefer the flavor you get from a bit of pink salt, which is salt with added sodium nitrite. I buy it from Butcher & Packer, where it’s known as DQ Curing Salt. One teaspoon per three pounds of meat is about right, which means my half-pound bag of pink salt will last me until 2028.
As for the “smoked” part, let’s talk about the Great Bacon Controversy: liquid smoke. Do you have any barbecue people in your life, people who use the phrase “low and slow” a lot? They are good people to know, but mention liquid smoke and actual smoke will come out of their ears. It’s like telling a Texan you put beans in your chili.
Oddly enough, liquid smoke is also all-natural: it’s made by burning wood chips and filtering the smoke through water. It does not, however, make your bacon taste like it was applewood-smoked for hours in an old oil drum behind the barn. It makes your bacon taste like, well, fakin’ bacon.
I say that like it’s a bad thing. Not necessarily. If you’re going to use liquid smoke, don’t try to emulate an austere double-smoked country bacon. Instead, take a cue from bacon candy. Following a recipe from the book Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It, I made a sweet bacon rubbed with molasses and brown sugar and finished it with liquid smoke. It’s the bacon equivalent of a sea-salt caramel, and my daughter pronounced it “beautiful.” So there.
As for my other homemade bacon, it was done with a simple dry rub (salt, curing salt, a touch of sugar), and it was too simple. I’m still eating it, of course — last night it went into spaghetti all’amatriciana, with tomatoes and onions — but next I’m going to try a more pancetta-like cure, with garlic, nutmeg, and black pepper.
While it’s curing, I’ll work on some of those other things people can buy that they might choose to make instead, like caramel sauce.
Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.
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