Makin’ Bacon — BACON PROJECT 2009

This week I started a new project, one which will reach fruition in about ten days. I made a batch of bacon several years ago with mixed results, and now is the time to try again!

I’ve just finished the book Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, which is far more interesting and gripping than one might expect considering the everyday, humdrum nature of the topic. I recommend it highly for anyone interested in food production, food preserving, and food history. Great book!

But the book piqued my interest in how salt (sodium chloride, that is) as well as sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate have been used for centuries to extend the life of the very fragile fuel we require to survive. Salt has been used to pickle vegetables to get us through long winters, to preserve caught fish that would otherwise rot before it came to shore, to cure meats that could keep and remain edible for a couple years. Humanity would not have survived had not our prehistoric ancestors realized the value of salt preservation.

But anyway, I can discourse on salt ad nauseum, so let’s just nip that line of thinking in the bud! Onward to bacon, one the great salt-cured products in human history. Actually bacon (fresh pork belly) is first cured and then smoked, which adds not only flavor but another layer of preservation.

I did a little reading on bacon production and have devised the two following cures. One is a cure composed mostly of salt and some flavoring agents and the other also includes “curing salt” which is primarily potassium nitrate, which has been used for a couple thousand years as a means of preserving meats, primarily pork. The nitrates react with a meat protein called myoglobin, resulting in the reddish tint of ham that we are familiar with today. There is some modern debate on the usage of nitrate as a curative agent, as its reaction with myoglobin produces minute amounts of a potential carcinogen called nitrosamines.

While generally I prefer anything I cook to be as “natural” as possible, I’m on the fence about nitrates. Some people claim to have a sensitivity to it, as some believe that MSG in take-out Chinese food will give them migraines, or as some people find that sulfites or other substances in red wine will give them a headache. I have no such problems, and while I encourage people to listen to their bodies and adjust their diets accordingly, I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough to know that many people with food “sensitivities” and allergies are often only as prone to such ailments as long as the press reminds them of it. I don’t discount that they are real and that some people should avoid foods that their bodies cannot process well, but I believe the actual numbers are tiny. People with actual food issues are far outnumbered by the “food paranoiacs”. Also, if you’re eating so much bacon that you’re worried about about getting cancer from nitrosamines you’ve got much bigger issues.

Anyway, I’ve made two cures – one with nitrates, one without. We will test them side by side.

Bacon Number One:

3 pounds fresh pork belly
½ cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon curing salt (I used sel-ray from France)
1 tsp ground black pepper

Rinse pork and pat dry. Combine all other ingredients and rub all over all sides of the pork belly slab. Place in a jumbo zip-loc bag and place bag on a tray in the fridge. You’ll want to flip this once a day.

I’m going to let this sit in the fridge curing for about eight to ten days. I’m planning on ten days, but we’ll see. I may get impatient!

Bacon Number Two (Non-Nitrate):

3 pounds fresh pork belly
¼ cup salt
¼ maple syrup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon coriander powder

For this recipe we want the pork belly to remain dry(ish), so you need a tray or plastic container with grooves or slits that allow drainage. The salt will pull a lot of moisture from the pork during the curing phase, and we want to give that moisture a way to drip away.

I jerry-rigged a drain pan by taking a disposable plastic baking pan, punching some big holes in the bottom and inserting that into another plastic baking pan of the same size. We’ll see how well it works.

As before, rinse pork and pat dry. Combine ingreds and rub all over all sides of the pork belly. Place in drainage pan and cover.

Each day drain off liquid and sprinkle with another teaspoon of salt all over.

This method requires about 5 to 7 days for curing. We’ll see.

Tune in for updates on the BACON PROJECT 2009!

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