AUSTIN, Texas — Peter Maffei makes 60 pounds of bacon every month, and it took me six years to finally get up the guts to make 3.
What was it about homemade bacon that put me off for so long?
I’d need to acquire the pink curing salt and pork belly and clear out a section of my fridge for a week to accommodate the slab of meat, and then I’d have to fashion a makeshift smoker on my backyard grill or stovetop.
Was all that work really worth it?
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Earlier this year, Maffei, the executive chef at Finn & Porter in Austin, showed me his technique for making all that cured pork for his restaurant downtown. Then for three months, I continued to buy 1-pound packages at the grocery store, at increasingly higher prices thanks to the ongoing drought and increased demand.
The truth is, even with the rising cost of bacon, DIY projects like this are hard to justify as a purely economical endeavor, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable when you’re ready to take them on.
For me, the biggest hurdle was the smoking. I don’t have the proper equipment or expert knowledge of how to work them, but I thought maybe, just maybe, I’d rig something up that could get the job done.
Maffei smokes his bacon in an electric smoker inside the kitchen on the first floor of the Hilton. Cookbook author Michael Ruhlman, the reigning king of at-home charcuterie instruction whose book “Charcuterie” is considered the bible for at-home curing, encourages home cooks to simply bake the cured pork belly in a 200-degree oven for about 1½ hours.
When I realized that I didn’t have to smoke the pork belly to make good-enough bacon, the task suddenly seemed far less daunting.
So what is unsmoked but cured pork belly? It’s not exactly salt pork, the fatty staple of American pioneering; with the spices, it’s more akin to an unrolled (and lightly sweetened) pancetta, the unsmoked cured pork belly from Italy. (Canadian bacon is smoked pork loin, more similar to sliced ham than American or “streaky” bacon, as it is known outside the country.)
As you’ll see in the recipe, this kind of at-home bacon doesn’t require many steps or ingredients — the mix of spices is infinitely customizable to your tastes and what’s in your pantry. Buying the meat is what will trip up most of us.
Most regular grocery stores don’t carry pork belly. The prices will vary widely, from $3 to $8 a pound, and the quality of meat you buy is as personal as your reasons for taking this culinary journey in the first place.
Mixing together the ingredients and rubbing them into the belly took all of 10 minutes, and then it was time to wait. I turned the pork every few days for a week, but in hindsight, since the slab was on the small side, I should have taken it out of the fridge after five days instead of seven.
Though counterintuitive, the next step calls for washing off the cure, but as I discovered, you’re not just washing off the salt and spices; you’re doing your best to scrub as much of it off the outer layer as you can because so much flavor has been infused into the meat during its time in the fridge.
Instead of smoking the bacon to par-cook it, I followed Ruhlman’s advice to slow bake it until the internal temperature reached 150 degrees.
Pressing the bacon after it has par-cooked will help improve the texture, which is a step Maffei takes, but by that point, you’ll probably be ready to cut off a slice and fry it in a skillet to see how you did.
Mine was packed with pepper and nuances of juniper berry and coriander and lots of salt, and after I got used to nibbling on the pieces instead of inhaling them like flimsy store-bought bacon, I became increasingly pleased with my debut attempt.
Don’t fret too much if your first slab cures into a salt flat, Maffei says. Even in a worst-case scenario, you’ll end up with pork in the freezer that will improve every pot of beans, stew, chili or dumplings you make for the next six months.
When it comes time to cook the thick-cut slices of bacon, Maffei turns not to a skillet but to a 350-degree oven. At 15 minutes in the oven, the bacon will crisp up in its own fat.
At your own house, making your own bacon means you can cut fancy cubes of bacon to sear in a skillet, finish in the oven and serve with soft scrambled eggs at your next brunch party.
CORIANDER BLACK PEPPER BACON
Larger pieces of meat need more time in the cure, while smaller cuts of pork belly will be seasoned in a shorter period of time. If you don’t have a baking dish that will contain the belly, a two-gallon plastic zip-top freezer bag will work. If you are preparing a pork belly that is smaller than 5 pounds, reduce the quantities of salt and seasonings accordingly.
Sodium nitrite, like any kind of salt, is a polarizing preservative, especially when consumed in large quantities, so don’t make a habit of making bacon and eating it at three meals a day for a year. If you’re eating store-bought bacon, you’re likely eating sodium nitrate already. Also called pink salt, the ingredient is available in the bulk spice department of grocers. You can also order it online.
If you have a smoker and know how to use it, you can skip the cooking step in these directions and smoke the bacon at 200 degrees for an hour or two. Use a thermometer to determine when the meat has reached 150 degrees internally.
2 ounces (about ¼ cup) kosher salt
2 teaspoons pink curing salt
3 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ cup maple syrup (can substitute brown sugar)
2 tablespoons juniper berries (optional)
1 (4-5 pound) pork belly
1. Combine spices in a small bowl.
2. Place pork belly in a 9- inch by 13-inch glass baking dish. (You might need a larger vessel, depending on the size of your pork belly.) Pour salts and spices on top of the belly and, using your hands, rub all over the meat.
3. Cover the dish with a piece of plastic wrap or, if you have one, a corresponding lid or top. Refrigerate. Once a day for the next five to seven days, remove the dish from the fridge and turn the pork belly.
4. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Rinse off all the seasonings under cold water, washing as much of the mixture off as you can. Pat the pork belly dry and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 60 to 90 minutes, or until the meat reaches 150 degrees.
5. Let cool completely and refrigerate. Slice into strips and cook in a pan or store in the fridge for up to two weeks.
— Adapted from recipes by Peter Maffei and Michael Ruhlman