Demystifying Bacon

I- The Mystique of Bacon

Bacon: There are few foods that are worshipped with such a carniverous fervor. What is it about this substance that inspires such love? Such unquestioning devotion? Perhaps it is the flavor, the delicate ratio of meat to fat, set off by a carefully crafted seasoning and smoking process (Okay, now we’re talking about the real stuff). But, I think it is more than that. I think it has to do with the act of cooking bacon. Cooking bacon is in itself a bold contradiction to our societies’ widespread fat phobia. The aroma of sizzling bacon permeates a household. It is unapologetic and impossible to hide. Cooking and eating bacon is a statement. Bacon is tasty, but it is also a rich food. The fatty richness and distinct flavor mean dictate its versatility. It can serve as accompaniment to eggs, flavoring for soups or stews, or indulgently paired with the sweet of dates or yams. It is rich, also, because bacon is limited and as all scarce resources, highly prized and sought after. There is only so much, “bacon,” or pork belly on a pig. But, hold on, I am getting ahead of myself. As someone who chooses to carniverate, participate in the process of raising animals for meat, and enjoys cooking, I have been curious about where bacon comes from. I think this story, told from the beginning, can deepen our understanding of this food with such allure.

II-Pork Belly

Bacon, or at least the bacon most of us our familiar with, is made from the belly of a pig. Simply, bacon is pork belly that has been cured and then smoked. The day that I first started to learn about this bacon makin’ process, I was to help a friend skin and gut a pig. Then we would take the, “halves,” as they’re called to a local smokehouse. They would hang overnight in a walk-in cooler and be cut the next day into roasts, chops, spareribs…and hams and bacons separated to be brined and smoked.

We started off early in the morning on a brisk November day. My friend shot the pig in the middle of the forehead to stun it and then made a deep cut in the throat so that the pig would bleed out. For a few minutes, the pig went through its death throes or spasms and then it went still. We began skinning from the feet towards the middle and exposed the tendons on the back two legs so that we could hang the pig from these points. Once the pig was hung, our setup consisted of a gambrel on which to secure the pig and was hung with a length of chain from a raised front loader bucket on a tractor, we began the main work of skinning. The goal was to make precise strokes with the knife, pulling the skin taut away from the body of the animal and trying to merely separate the skin from the underlying layer of fat. This seemingly simplistic task quickly exposes inexperience. An expert’s hand will reveal a skinned hog with a smooth and even covering of pale, white fat. A beginner’s result is much less pretty. Each errant knife stroke is punished by a layer of fat remaining with the shedding skin. Those places where the knife entered too deeply reveal exposed meat, which is most cases can be salvaged into the underlying chops and roasts one would expect. The place that excuses no error is the belly of the pig. The delicate layers of belly meat, with fat overlaying them, are slangily (and appropriately) known as, “the bacons.” Cut too deeply in this zone and your bacons will be severely diminished.

We finished skinning the pig, the patchwork of fat and flesh, successes and mistakes staring back. Then, finally, we split the pig in two, cutting flesh with knife and bone with saw and pulling out the guts as they were exposed in the chest cavity. Once the guts were removed, there appeared a layer of leaf lard, which ran down the rib cage and could be pealed out by hand and ultimately rendered into what chef’s prize as the purest lard to come from the pig. This particular pig, we sent to the smokehouse, but the next pig we were set to process would be an introduction to the art of butchery.

On our next pig, we performed the same skinning and gutting procedure (with a few modifications- we skinned this pig in strips, which greatly improved the quality of our finished product). After hanging the carcass to chill for a night, we set to work the next morning. Butchering or breaking down into useable cuts of meat begins with the idea that meat is made up of muscles and muscle groups. It follows, then, that the cuts one makes are some what intuitive. Certain muscle groups are left in tact, bone and membranes serve as rough guidelines. The true test and teacher of a skill like butchery is in the practice. So, armed with a couple printouts of meat cutting charts and half a days worth of youtube video viewing, we began to cut.

Much of the meat we would grind and later season for sausage, but we were determined to preserve the prize pieces of recognizable cuts. The ribcage was cut in half, bisecting the ribs and leaving the top- loin and rack, and the bottom- belly. I took the belly and began separating the bacons from the spare ribs. Feeling along the edge of the ribs with my left hand, I took a sharp boning knife in my right hand and I began teasing the meat from the bones. I held the knife with a butcher’s grip, picture an overhand stabbing type grip (horror movie grip, maybe?). This way of positioning the knife was supposed to provide for better leverage and I felt it provided me with surprisingly good dexterity despite the nervousness it provoked in my co-worker. Once the spareribs were removed, we were left with a whole “side” of bacon.

III- The Cure

If we would have stopped there, we would have been left with uncured pork belly- tasting like, well, uncured pork: a pork chop perhaps? A fatty pork chop, but pork chop flavor nonetheless. How to transform raw pork belly into bacon? As simple as a cure and a smoke. First, there are two types curing employed: wet curing (aka brining) and dry curing. The majority of cured pork that we are used to eating is wet cured or brined: hams, hocks, bacon, ham lunch meat. Lesser known today, and more intriguing for me is dry curing. A traditional dry cure is performed on a fattier cut than the belly and yields a richer and rarer bacon. “Guanciale” is a traditional Italian bacon made from the jowls of the pig and is sometime also called cheek bacon. Having saved the two jowls from the recent butchering and planning to smoke some bacon and a ham hock anyway, I thought I’d try my hand at Guanciale.

My preparation:

The day of slaughter I rubbed the fresh jowls with the salt and spice mixture so that all surfaces were thoroughly covered. Then I placed these in a plastic zip-lock bag in the refrigerator and turned them every other day for 11 days. My Guanciale recipe is as follows:

2.18 lbs. fresh pork jowls

70g kosher salt

70g brown sugar

35 twists of coarse black pepper grinder

2T dried thyme

1 bay leaf, crumbled

The brine that I prepared for the hock and small piece of bacon was even more simple. I merely dissolved kosher salt and brown sugar in heated water. After cooling the brine overnight in the refrigerator, I submerged the bacon and hock in the brine in a food grade plastic container and weighed these down with a plate to keep them below the surface. My brine ratio was: 4 L water, 1 1/2 C kosher salt, 1 C brown sugar (packed).

Kosher salt or curing salt is used for both brining and dry curing because of the size of the salt crystals. The granules are different from those of sea salt (coarser) or table salt (finer, I believe?) and thus affect the surface area of the meat differently. The antibacterial or “curing” effects of the salt are two-fold. Firstly, salt itself has antibacterial properties, making the environment less likely to harbor bacteria and secondly, salt acts to draw water out of the meat itself. Water being an encourager of bacterial growth. Many people elect to include a nitrate or nitrite in their cure as well. The debate on this issue is a complicated mix of science, tradition, and lore and is best saved for another time. Suffice it to say, there are those who cure without nitrates/nitrites and this is what I chose to do.

IV- A Smokin’ Finish

The final stage of transforming raw pork belly into delectable bacon is the smoking. There are a plethora of recipes for the smoke process- types of wood, smoke heat and durations… But, the basic formula goes like this: make fire, add wet wood (creates smoke), suspend meat in a chamber away from the direct flame and sustain the heat until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Smokehouses serve such a purpose, as do smokers build simply with metal drums off of pit fires. I’ve even heard that you can smoke small cuts of meat in a charcoal grill by simply building a small fire on one side and placing the meat on the other side.

My options for smoking were made easy because I am lucky enough to know some friends with an electric smoker. The use of which was negotiated with the promise of some sample bacon. The night before I was going to smoke the meat, I took all the meat: the Guanciale (dry cure), the hock and belly bacon (brined) and rinsed each piece thoroughly. After patting these dry, I placed them back in the refrigerator. This process lessens the saltiness and also coaxed the last bits of moisture from the meat. The next day, the cuts were all a little bit tacky on the exterior, exhibiting this final drying.

I was hit with a little bout of nervousness on the day of smoking. With the mental energy attention I had put into this project, I was counting on not just an edible product, but one with a truly special flavor. The electric smoker was plugged in, I placed wet oak on the heating element and carefully positioned each cut of meat on the two racks sitting in the metal chamber above before setting on the lid, enclosing the heat and much of the smoke. The different sizes of the cuts meant various cooking times to reach the desired internal temperature. After 3 hours everything was ready. Back into the fridge it went to cool and set.

Then, arguably the hardest part of the whole process began: the overnight wait to let the meat rest until it could be sampled. The next morning, I eagerly awoke and pulled out the two types of bacon. I carefully carved off of slices from each. The Guanciale was slightly firmer, I noticed, probably because the dry cure pulled out more moisture. The smell from the sizzling fat was intoxicating, but I had just enough willpower to let the cooked strips cool a bit while quickly cracking two eggs into the greased pan. With anticipation, I cut a bite of the Guanciale first…the crispy texture was superb and the salty, sweet, and smoky response from my taste buds was the reward I was craving. Both types of bacon were fantastic. The delicious end product strangely justified and exalted the time I had spent reading recipes, examining the process, and executing the steps, in a way that a taste disaster would not have.

I can’t say I’m not completely biased about the taste, but, like many things, bacon is best if you make it yourself. I now appreciate how each step contributes to the finished product as a whole. The specific cut of meat, the pork belly, is fatty but inlaid with tender meat, the cure is necessary to impart those salty and sweet notes, and the rich smoking finish ties everything together. This, then, is bacon’s secret of attraction: just as an artist creates a masterpiece with brilliant colors, the best bacon is made with strokes of flavor at each turn. Oh, and what a masterpiece it is to behold!

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. andihodo
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 06:49:49

    Man, change in gears from your new zealand posts! Great read, Leda

    Andi Sent from my iPhone

    Like

    Reply

  2. 365daysofbacon
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 21:05:31

    great post! thanks for sharing

    Like

    Reply

  3. Jesse
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 06:56:32

    I’d like to share this with the world. Can I? One of the best posts about bacon ever!

    Like

    Reply

  4. Don
    Jan 18, 2013 @ 17:13:47

    Wow, Leda! Thanks for putting this process into words. What a great experience.

    Like

    Reply

  5. Trackback: Robb Wolf - Leda McDaniel - Makin' Bacon
  6. Trackback: Demystifying Bacon | | DEKA CROSSFITDEKA CROSSFIT
  7. Jim
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 00:57:40

    Very nice, great images evoked by your writing.

    Like

    Reply

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