My condo smells like bacon. I don’t notice it unless I’m outside first. The other day, walking up the stairs that lead to my floor, I smelled salt and pork, heavy and smoky like the air wafting a short distance from a summer barbecue. I thought a neighbor was having a party.
But the lovely scent was left over from the six strips of bacon, cut so thin that they were almost translucent when raw, that I fried up that morning. This, finally, is my homemade bacon.
In its initial stages, making homemade bacon is like cooking a roast in a slow cooker: The process takes time, but requires very little effort. After I called a local butcher – Galvinell Meat Co., Inc. for Marylanders who may be interested – to reserve a thick slab of pork belly and, a few days later, picked it up, the hard part was done.
As this homemade bacon experiment was part of the Charcutepalooza project – it was actually the very first apprentice challenge back in January- I used Michael Ruhlman’s charcuterie book to get a recipe for a bacon cure. His savory cure is made with kosher salt, pink salt, sugar, garlic, bay leaves, and peppercorns, a coarse mixture that feels like sand. (If you don’t have the book, here’s his recipe for a basic cure.)
I felt like Wilma Flintstone as I unpacked my eight pound pork belly from it’s plastic bag. Meat is so new to me that working with such an imposing piece feels almost prehistoric.
But from here all I needed to do was blot the pork belly to remove its extra moisture, then massage the cure into both sides of the flesh, like rubbing lotion on skin.
I then slid the pork belly back into its plastic bag. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because the plastic bag fit the pork belly perfectly, an important factor in bacon-making because the meat releases liquid as it cures. A bag that just fits the pork belly ensures the cure is always rubbing up against the meat.
That’s it. The pork belly goes into the fridge, and gets turned every day to redistribute the cure. After seven days the meat should be firm and will spring back slightly when gently poked.
I let mine cure for two weeks, perhaps too long but I was working with a thicker slab of belly. When I finally poked the belly and it was firm, I felt like I had figured out the secret to a magic trick. I knew how to transform pork belly into bacon!
The bacon is then cooked low and slow in the oven, the skin is peeled off, and the meat is sliced. And this last part is when I bowed out of the process.
Pork belly can be sliced to any thickness with a knife, or even cut into lardons, those small cubes that are often cooked with Brussels sprouts. But because my dad has an old rickety meat slicer, we used that. Because I do not like electrical blades – I sliced off the tip of my thumb in eighth grade industrial arts class, the only person ever to do so, and I’ve stayed away from moving blades ever since – he handled the slicing. It was quite exciting to watch the fresh bacon slide off of the slicer and onto a plate, where it laid in a curly pile like ribbons.
I fried up a few slices for my parents, Kenny, and me and wrapped the rest in six makeshift aluminum foil packages for later. This was a few weeks ago, so I’m embarrassed to say we haven’t done anything too creative with the results. Kenny does lay strips across his egg and cheese sandwiches.
For me though, this project was all about the science. I got a big kick out of seeing how bacon is made.
Have you ever experimented with charcuterie at home? Tell us about the process!