How to Prep Pork Bellies for Bacon
Bacon is one of the most popular food items out there. It's salty, crunchy, and savory. When you buy bacon at the grocery store, you never really know what is in it or how it was handled. Making bacon at home is simpler than you may think. We'll walk through the process to show you two popular ways to make bacon from pork belly slabs and give you some ideas for ways to make incredible bacon with flavors your friends and family have never tried.
Making Bacon Using Pork Belly
Our YouTube channel has a fantastic video that shows our bacon-making process from half a hog to sizzling in a skillet. Check it out to learn exactly where pork belly comes from on a hog and how to correctly remove the belly from the spare ribs.
How to Pick Pork Belly for Bacon
Your local butcher probably has pork belly, even if it is something you don't see at the meat counter. Bellies are sold in strips or slabs. Slabs are better for making bacon. A whole pork belly will weigh around 10 pounds.
You'll want to look for a pork belly that is uniform thickness and squared off. Avoid pork belly that is gouged or looks old. Most of the time, the belly will have the skin (called the rind) still attached. When making homemade smoked bacon, you'll want the rind off. You can cut it off yourself, or ask the butcher.
Does Pork Belly Taste Like Bacon?
Bacon is made from pork belly, but pork belly is not bacon. It tastes more like other cuts of pork on its own. When making smoked bacon at home, you'll need to cure the bacon before smoking it. The cure, seasonings, and wood smoke are what give bacon the delicious flavor you are looking to make. Sliced pork belly is great in Asian recipes among many other cuisines.
The Process of Making Smoked Bacon at Home
Making bacon is a time-consuming process, but it isn't hard to do. There are a few products that make the process easier. We show a few of our favorite home kitchen gadgets in the video, including lugs for carrying and processing the bellies, digital scales for accurately weighing meat and spices, a fantastic meat slicer, and a vacuum sealer. These are all products made for home use by our friends at Meat! and they are affordable and high quality. You'll also need a smoker. We like to use the Traeger Ironwood 885 for making bacon and tons of other stuff.
How to Make a Cure
There are two ways to make a cure – a natural way and an artificial way. The end product isn't significantly different in taste or level of cure, so it's largely up to you how you want to do the curing process. Curing salt is often called pink salt but it isn't the same thing as pink Himalayan salt. It is frequently sold as Prague Powder.
The Difference Between Nitrate-Free and Added Nitrates
Both nitrate-free and added nitrate bacon have nitrates. The difference is that the first uses celery juice powder, a natural source of nitrates. Pink salt is a formulated chemical compound that uses sodium nitrite and table salt. Store bought bacon is most often made with artificial nitrates.
Mixing the Cure
To make a cure, you will start with 2 gallons of cold water. If you are going to use tap water, fill a bucket and let it rest for 24 hours to allow the chlorine off-gas. The key is that it needs to be cold for the cure to set.
Next, you'll mix either your curing salt or celery powder into the water. You can use your hand to stir it together with the water, making sure to break up any clumps. Once the curing agent is mixed in, add the kosher sea salt and continue to mix until the salt dissolves.
Place the pork belly in the cure, making sure the meat is completely submerged in the cure. You can use a plate, a bowl, or just about anything heavy to hold the meat down. The pork belly will need to cure for a minimum of 8 days up to a maximum of 14 days. We do ours for 12 days. Keep the pork belly in the refrigerator while the cure is setting in.
Flavoring and Seasoning Pork Belly for Bacon
The possibilities are practically limitless on how to flavor bacon. In fact, you don't have to do anything at all if you want to have a nice, smoky bacon. Or, you can use unique combinations of flavors to get something truly unique. Classic flavors like brown sugar and maple bacon and black pepper bacon are popular choices.
Remove the pork belly from the cure and pat it dry with paper towels. Some people rinse the belly in cold water, but we think this is a bad food handling practice and is unnecessary. Patting it dry will help the seasoning to stick to the meat.
On a clean cutting board, coat the surface of the pork belly liberally with seasonings. Get all sides well-covered and pat to help the seasoning to adhere. That's all there is to it.
In our video, we tried something out that was different-using the Bearded Butchers Black Seasoning to flavor bacon. It turned out amazing with layers of sweet and smoky flavor set off by the molasses and brown sugar.
Smoking the Pork Belly
We are smoking the pork belly on the Traeger 885 Ironwood pellet grill. We preheat to 185 degrees and use Super Smoke mode to enhance the flavors. Our favorite pellets to use are hickory, but we also use apple wood or pecan wood to add a little different flavor. Plan on having enough pellets for a six to eight hour smoke.
Smoke the pork bellies for about 6 hours until the internal temperature reaches 152 degrees. If your belly temperature isn't approaching the 152 mark at five and a half hours, move the temperature of the smoker up to 200 or 225 degrees, but not higher.
Setting the Flavor
Now that the pork belly is finished smoking, place it on a rack over a container, like the lug boxes we use when processing meat. A baking sheet will also work to catch any liquid that leaks out. Place the belly in the fridge uncovered overnight. This will let the belly cool and will help the flavors set.
Slicing the Bacon
An electric meat slicer is the best tool for this job. It allows you to make consistent, perfect slices in no time. You can also slice pork belly using a sharp knife. It's best if the belly is cold to slice it easiest. You now have cured and smoked bacon you made at home. Thick slices of bacon are meatier and chewier, while thin slices are easy to get crispy.
Cooking Your Smoked Bacon
Cooking bacon is almost as awesome as eating bacon. It is a great smell and a quick process. While you certainly can cook bacon in a skillet on the stove top, we like to use our Burch Barrel. This outdoor suspended barbecue is one of our favorite new toys, and it's the best way to cook bacon over Rockwood lump charcoal in a cast iron skillet. You'll cook the bacon until it just starts to turn golden, then flip.
Storing Cured Bacon
Cured bacon will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator and about two months in the freezer. The best way to store bacon is using a vacuum sealer. The sealer prevents air from allowing the bacon to spoil. Vacuum sealers are inexpensive and are a great way to store lots of things from jerky to vegetables for freezing.
If you are storing bacon short term, you can use a zip lock bag. They are convenient, just try to push as much air out of the bag as possible before putting it in the fridge.
Ingredients for 10lb Pork Belly with Natural Cure:
- 2 gallons cold water (not chlorinated) – water weighs 8lb per gallon
- 2 pounds of sea salt
- 1.3oz celery juice powder
Ingredients for 10lb Pork Belly with Nitrites the Old Fashioned Way:
- 2 gallons cold water (not chlorinated) - water weighs 8lb per gallon
- 2 pounds of sea salt
- 1oz pink salt/sodium nitrite
Recipe for Homemade Bacon
- Mix cold water and curing agent. Add in sea salt.
- Submerge pork belly in salt mixture, making sure the meat is submerged.
- Refrigerate for 8-14 days. 12 days seems to be the magic number for us.
- Drain and pat dry. Season liberally on all sides.
- Preheat pellet smoker to 180 degrees using your choice of hardwood or fruit wood pellets.
- Smoke the pork belly to an internal temp of 152 degrees, about 6 hours.
- Place on rack to drain in the refrigerator overnight.
- Slice into thin pieces across the long side of the belly.
- Store in the refrigerator for up to one week, in the freezer for up to two months.
Making bacon at home takes about two weeks, but is an incredibly easy process. The end result is the best tasting bacon you've ever had that is made with the ingredients you choose. You'll know exactly how the bacon was made and that it was prepared in a safe and clean way. It is a lot of fun to find interesting flavors to make truly unique bacon. Even though there is some cost in buying a smoker, a meat slicer, and a vacuum sealer, these tools will also serve you well for making all sorts of other meals. At the end of the day, you'll almost certainly save money making your own bacon from pork belly at home.
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