Bacon goes well with almost anything. It’s used in everything from sandwiches to chocolate—we haven’t found anything this versatile meat can’t do!
The art of curing meat dates from well before the dawn of refrigeration, all the way back to ancient civilizations as a way to preserve meat for long periods of time. Since those first ancient attempts, it has been perfected and made into nothing short of an art form.
Bacon is a staple in many cuisines and can be prepared in various ways, from cold-smoked German Speck to unsmoked Italian Guanciale to good old American apple smoked bacon. There are variations in how bacon is seasoned, as well, from salty and savory to sweet—a whole world of bacon possibilities just waiting for you to explore. But if you’ve never made your own smoked bacon from a slab of pork belly, that simple, satisfying preparation is definitely where you should start.
Here we present a basic cure for the bacon, but you can enhance it with any spices or herbs that you choose. A nice touch, for instance, is a teaspoon of juniper berries and a couple bay leaves ground in with the pepper, or maybe a little cayenne to give it some kick. No matter how you season your bacon, or whether or not you smoke it, knowing the key temps makes this a simple project and using a leave-in probe thermometer like the DOT® makes tracking those temps easy.
Key Principles of Making Bacon
Making your own bacon is as simple as getting the right cut of pork, curing it, rinsing it, and cooking it before slicing. If you have room in your refrigerator for a cookie sheet for a week, you can make bacon. Let’s look at the steps individually.
Find the right pork belly
Purchase a pork belly with the skin removed. It can be difficult to tell if the skin is on or removed, but an easy way to check is to make an indent on the fat side with your fingernail. If the skin is still on, your fingernail will only make a small indent. If the skin is removed properly, you will see a deep nail imprint in the fat of your pork belly.
Make the cure and cure the meat
Curing meat is a process of removing water and changing the proteins. We remove water by coating the pork belly in salt and sugar, which creates an osmotic pressure and draws the water out. By removing excess water from the meat, we lower its “water activity,” making it less hospitable to bacteria and other spoiling organisms.
For hundreds of years, people have used nitrates and nitrites to cure meats like bacon. The addition of these chemicals to the pork actually changes the nature of the proteins. The altered proteins retain their pink color when cooked and also acquire a different taste: think of the difference in flavor between a pork roast and a ham. Back in the day, cured sausages needed the nitrates to prevent botulism spores from forming. If people didn’t use it, they would get sick and die from bad salami or ham. In fact, botulism gets its name from the latin word for sausage! Now, you’re probably not hanging your bacon in the shed all winter, so the botulism-prevention aspect isn’t as important, but I do recommend using the curing salts for the full flavor and aesthetic effects.
If you’re not comfortable using the curing salts, however, you can omit them. The flavor won’t be quite the same, and the color of your final product will be more brownish, but it will still be very tasty.
Basic bacon cure recipe
As a guide for making your own cure, you can use this basic ration:
- 1 lb kosher salt
- 8 oz sugar
- 2 oz pink curing salt (Prague Powder #1)
Mix a big batch together, if you like, and keep it indefinitely in your cupboard. The cure-to-meat ratio is 2 oz of cure for every 5 lb of meat. You can build it out with additional seasonings from there!
Cure the bacon
Rub the cure all over your pork belly and let it sit in a cookie sheet on a shelf in your refrigerator. Be sure that your refrigerator is keeping the meat below 40°F (4°C) for 5-7 days. (Put the probe of your leave-in probe thermometer like the DOT next to the meat for an hour or so to verify your fridge temp. You can turn your fridge setting up or down as needed.), Flip the pork belly every day or two to be sure that it bastes evenly in the liquid that exudes from it. There will be quite a lot of liquid. Some people like to cure bacon in a large plastic bag for this reason. If you want to do this, you’ll need to cut the belly into chunks first and rub each chunk with cure individually before curing, then place them in large locking plastic bags. I personally don’t know of a zip-top bag large enough to hold a 10 lb slab of pork belly, so we cured our pork belly on a cookie sheet.
Rinse, dry, and smoke the bacon
After curing for a full week, remove the pork belly from the refrigerator. Thoroughly rinse the curing liquid off the pork belly. Then pat the meat dry and refrigerate it again, uncovered like this, for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
The pork belly must be gently cooked to finish your preprataion. This means either smoking for a traditional flavor or, if no smoker is available, you can slow cook it in a traditional oven. Either way, the cured belly should be cooked at 200°F (93°C) until it reaches an internal temperature of 150°F (66°C).
Use a leave-in probe thermometer like the DOT to keep track of the pork’s internal temperature. This cooking will not render the fat, nor will it crisp the belly into cooked bacon. Instead, it will firm up the flesh and help to make the resulting bacon last longer in the refrigerator.
Cool, cut, and use
When the pork belly reaches 150°F (66°C), remove it from the smoker or oven and let it cool. Place it in the refrigerator to chill and re-solidify the fat. Slice it as thinly or thickly as you like and cook it up! Make notes on what you like or dislike about the flavor so you can improve it next time.
Recipe from Steven Raichlen
- 1 pork belly, 10-12 lbs.
- 2/3 C kosher salt
- 6 Tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2/3 C brown sugar, granulated sugar, or maple sugar (we used brown sugar)
- 4 tsp pink curing salt, such as prague powder #1 (optional)
- Mix the ingredients for the cure.
- Place the uncured belly on a pan or in a large bag. If your belly is too large for your pan, cut it into smaller pieces.
- Rub the belly all over with the cure mixture, adding whatever doesn’t adhere into the pan or bag.
- Close the bags or cover the pork and let it rest in the refrigerator for 5-7 days, turning and flipping it every day to redistribute the liquid that seeps from it.
- Check the belly to see if it’s done curing. Press on it in several spots to see if it is firm. If it is not firm all over, let it cure for another day or two.
- Cook the cured belly. In a smoker or oven preheated to 200°F (93°C), insert the probe from your thermometer into the thickest part of the cured belly and set the high alarm on your DOT to 150°F (66°C) and cook the belly until it reaches the pull temperature, about 3-4 hours.
- When the alarm on your DOT sounds, remove the pork from the oven/smoker. Let it cool on the countertop, then wrap it tightly in plastic wrap place it in the refrigerator to chill overnight.
- Slice the bacon and cook it up in the frying pan or the oven (see below). Of course, this is a LOT of bacon, so feel free to wrap chunks of it and freeze them for up to 3 months. Enjoy! The week-long prep will be worth the wait!
➤ Thermal Tip: The Best Way to Cook Bacon for Eating
The Food Lab, by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Achieving perfectly crisp, evenly cooked bacon is all about patience. You see, bacon is made up of two distinct elements—the fat (which is actually a mixture of fat and connective tissue) and the lean—and each cooks differently[…]By cooking bacon over low heat, the shrinkage differential [between the fat and the lean] can be minimized, keeping your bacon flatter and allowing it to cook more evenly. A large heavy skillet with even heat distribution is essential.
Want to cook bacon for a crowd? Do it in the oven. An oven heats more evenly than a skillet does, delivering perfectly crisp bacon by the trayful.
A bit of planning and patience is needed to tackle the 5-7 day curing, but it may just be the best bacon you’ve ever had. Knowing the key temps for your smoker and the meat and tracking those temps with a leave-in probe thermometer like the DOT makes the process nearly foolproof.
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