Last month I had the pleasure of being invited to purchase a share of a Mangalitsa pig. The Mangalitsa is one of those wonderful heirloom breeds where the fat is not bred out of the animal like our modern day pork, in fact this breed of pig has a prodigious fat layer and is one of the most prized breed of pork in the world.
This particular pig was finished on acorns, which means for the last few weeks of its blissfully unaware life he was fed mounds and mounds of acorns. To us humans acorns are unconscionably bitter but pigs eat them up like potato chips. Besides the no doubt gustatory delight of crunching them up in their forceful jowls it has an ancillary benefit of infusing the meat and fat with a delightful nuttiness reminiscent of hazelnuts. An acorn finished pig is a marvelous thing and I bought lots of it.
My modest meat budget was consumed by this purchase but the enormous 10 pound side of pork belly, a sizable pork loin, a tub of creamy, pure lard and a substantial pork neck was enough to pack my freezer and will provide me with porky enjoyment for quite some time.
My plan was to cure the pork belly in two ways, one with maple, bourbon and brown sugar and the other with a more traditional fresh and dried herb and spice blend.
To approximate the effect of smoked bacon, for which I completely lack the facilities to achieve, I used crushed black pepper that had been smoked over defunct bourbon barrels and a simple syrup infused from local pine trees from Mount Tamalpais.
I never really realized how easy it is to cure bacon. The most difficult part was cutting the massive 10 pound pork belly into two pieces because the skin is so very tough. 10 pounds of pork belly is quite large.
I cut them in half, look at that glorious fat!
I had two ziplock bags, one for the sweet cure and one for the savory cure. I chucked in the ingredients into each bag and shook them around to mix.
On a clean cutting mat I arranged the pork belly, skin side down, poured over the cure mix and patted it around a bit before sliding the belly into the same bag.
With both pieces of pork belly rubbed in their cure and sealed in their bags, I massaged them a bit and put them into the fridge. See you in a week!
That was not hard at all, nor was it hard to pick up the bag during the following week and give it a little massage, flip it over once in a while and just admire it.
To make the slabs even I had to do a little bit of trimming. The skin side of these pieces had the nipples of the pig! Well, we all know that pigs are animals and are mammals and that mammals have nipples but nonetheless it was a tiny bit of a surprise. However, I am at the top of the food chain and have butchered my own animals for food, in my distant past, so it just made my eyebrows rise a moment then I continued on with my trimming. I used these pieces, which weighed about a pound and a haf, into red cooked pork belly last Sunday.
A week later it was time to cook the cured raw bacon.
In lieu of smoking, I used the aforementioned flavorings in the cure to provide a smokey flavor and set about baking the slabs in the oven on low heat until the meat reached 150 F. This was last Sunday during my cooking explosion and it wasn’t much work to add baking the bacon to my list of cooking projects that day.
I removed the raw bacon slabs from their curing bags and gave them a good rinse. They certainly didn’t look like much but their aroma was fantastic. The peppercorns discolored the skin, which I found interesting. I used my nonstick cooling rack for cakes set inside a half-sheet jelly roll pan.
(Note the peppercorn stains on the skin, interesting!)
Cured and rinsed and ready to bake! I poured in a good slug of bourbon into the bottom the the baking sheet before sliding it into the oven. I was hoping this would add extra aroma to the finished bacon.
After baking, not a lot of fat was in the bottom of the pan as you can see, and the slabs looked just as they should, very bacon-like. I slid a meat thermometer into the sides of the slabs at various points to check the desired temperature of 150 F.
Check out the thick layer of fat! I could really smell the difference between the two slabs with their very different cures, but overall there was a rich nuance of nutty fat that I have never detected with ordinary bacon. This is the delectable Mangalitsa acorn enhanced fat. Wow.
(these look like small pieces but my carving knife is 14″ long!)
I cut the bacon slab in half and then sliced off the skin to reveal the pearly, nutty fat. The meaty underside was particularly gorgeous too.
The same process was repeated on the other slab of bacon. I wrapped two of the half-slabs in plastic wrap then secured them airtight in a ziplock bag for the freezer. The other two half slabs went into the fridge for immediate use.
It was immediate too, I sliced off two slices of the herb and spice cured bacon with the pine syrup, and one slice of the bourbon maple pepper bacon and fried them up. Just these three small slices gave off a lot of fat, which I saved for making my steak dinner later that night.
You can almost hear the sizzle.
My own bacon, fried up and gorgeous. The pine syrup and herbs really shone and matched well with the rich fat. The bourbon flavor was very strong in the bourbon maple slice and it tasted too salty to me, but I have never minded a strong bourbon flavor nor salty bacon and it certainly didn’t deter me from enjoying this wonderful treat.
My recipes were inspired by a lecture I attended by Michael Ruhlman for BlogHer Food a few years ago. When I talked to him after the lecture and mentioned my hesitation over making bacon without a smoker in my very urban apartment (aka no ventilation in the kitchen other than a window on the far end of the dining nook), he assured me that baking it off is just as wonderful as smoking and never to fear the bacon. His book on charcuterie is fantastic and one day I will indulge myself.
Making your own bacon is much less expensive than buying it already cured and prepared, and you get to customize the flavors just the way you like it. Even if you can’t find the luxurious Mangalitsa bacon, any fresh pork belly from your butcher or Asian market will make fantastic bacon. It was so easy too, the hardest part of the entire process was being in my apartment as it slowly cooked in the oven. The aroma of the bacon was incredible, and if you are a restaurant in San Francisco, it can cause your neighbors to try to shut you down.
5# fresh pork belly, skin on
large ziplock bag
1/4 cup Kosher salt (Diamond salt)
2 tsp pink curing salt or sodium nitrite (not Pink Himalayan salt) (I got mine here)
1/4 cup sugar (brown, maple, honey, agave)
Additions - These can be anything you fancy, but here are some good basic recommendations:
4 T ground or crushed black peppercorns
4 bay leaves
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
5 cloves of garlic, smashed flat
5-10 sprigs of fresh thyme, or any herb you like
1/4 cup booze
My savory herb and spice cure:
1/4 cup Kosher salt
2 tsp. pink curing salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup June Taylor pine syrup
4 T bourbon barrel smoked course ground pepper
4 dried California bay leaves
10 sprigs of thyme, spanked between my palms
5 cloves of garlic – smashed flat and skins removed
1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
My bourbon, maple, pepper cure:
1/4 cup Kosher salt
2 tsp. pink curing salt
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 T brown sugar
4 T whole peppercorns, crushed coarsley with a mortar and pestle
1/4 cup bourbon
Mix together the bacon cure in the ziplock bag and shake or squish well to mix. Put the pork belly on a cutting board and pour over the raw pork belly, massage in and place the belly back in the bag (with any of the cure that might remain on the cutting board. Remove all the air from the bag, seal and store in the fridge for at least 7 days. Every few days massage the pork belly a bit and return to the fridge.
On the day to cook the meat (oven method), turn on the oven to 150-200 F. Put a rack on a baking sheet large enough to hold the raw bacon. Rinse the bacon well, pat try with paper towels and place on the rack. Pour a good slosh of bourbon into the bottom of the pan. Place in the cold oven and set the timer for 3 hours. Add more bourbon to the baking sheet every hour or so, if desired.
Check the temperature after 3 hours to see if the meat has reached 150 F. If not, give it another 15-20 minutes or until it reaches 150 F. Allow to cool, trim off the skin and chill until ready to eat.
When ready to eat your bacon, slice of a thin or thick slice, add to a cold skillet with a dash of water and fry until as crispy as you like. If your bacon tastes too salty for you, add more water and cook for a few minutes, then pour off the water and fry until crisp.
Another advantage to having slab bacon is to make your own lardon. A lardon is a pinkie-sized rectangle of bacon that is delicious in a warm salad or in soups or just eaten out of hand. Cut the bacon 1/2″ thick then again into large even matchsticks, add water, and then drain and fry on all sides. Delectable.
Makes 5 pounds of bacon
(printer friendly recipe)
A note about the pink curing salt, or sodium nitrite. It is a naturally occurring salt found in many vegetables and is also used for curing meats and is approved by the FDA. The salt inhibits the growth of certain nasty bacteria such as botulism and listeria and it is highly recommended when making charcuterie and bacon. But because bacon is cooked again after its curing and baking, aka in your skillet, you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to. You will find that your bacon tastes more like ribs or roast pork than bacon and will not be pink but will be grey or brown. That’s perfectly fine bacon, however, it is really easy to buy a bag of pink salt and you will have it forever. I bought a pound bag for around $6.00 and used 4 teaspoons for this batch of bacon so I have plenty left! If I ever wanted to make other cured meats such as salami or guacinale or any cured meat that is not cooked or smoked, the it is really crucial for the success of the recipe and one’s health to use the small amount of sodium nitrite. It does not cause cancer, like many incorrectly people assume; sodium nitrate or saltpeter is toxic but it is a very different thing altogether.