Bacon comparison

My father-in-law dropped off some short-cut bacon that was on sale at one of the big chain supermarkets for about $8.00 per kilo. It proved an opportune moment to do a side-by-side comparison of my latest round of bacon against its commercial counterpart.

bacon comparison

I had to cut my bacon extra thick, as the hanging had caused the meat to move out of alignment with the fat and rind. Pictured above is the first slice of my bacon sitting below 2 slices of the commercial short-cut bacon.

The differences are pretty obvious. Firstly, the commercial bacon has a much nicer colour, which is achieved through the addition of sodium nitrite in the curing process. Sodium nitrite also changes the flavour, allegedly giving bacon its ‘characteristic’ taste, whatever that means.  In case you’re wondering: yes, a nicer colour is part of the rationale for adding sodium nitrite, though it also extends the life of the product.

Secondly, the commercial bacon is much more moist. My bacon was dry-cured, which (intentionally) leaches out water over a week, so that the meat can eventually be hung to air dry.  The commercial bacon has to be refrigerated or frozen, and is likely made using a brine – with some manufacturers injecting the brine into the meat to speed up the curing process.  As more traditional manufacturers point out, it’s much more cost-effective to sell by weight when your product is composed increasingly of salt water.

The water composition of the bacon changes how it cooks, as well as the texture, storage options, and value for money.  The Woolworths page states that their bacon is 90% pork, minimum. So at worst, 10% of the bacon you purchase is composed of brine.  By contrast, my first batch of bacon lost 24% of its weight during the curing process as it leached liquid.  I soak my bacon in water for at least half an hour before cooking to wash out some of the salt, and some of the water content is reclaimed at the same time.

cooked bacon comparison

Compared to the commercial bacon, when cooked, my bacon looked more like a pork steak. It even tasted more like a pork steak, with  thicker, tougher and more dense slices of meat that maintain a texture we don’t usually associate with bacon. Even the thinner slices had that ‘meaty’ feel to them.

The flavour likewise was much more like cooked pork than the commercial bacon. Aside from the mysterious influence of the nitrites, the major difference between my bacon and the commercial bacon is that the latter is smoked, whereas mine is unsmoked.

Now, I’ve had properly smoked bacon from a local butcher before, and the taste is amazing. A single rasher in a saucepan full of bolognese sauce will totally change the flavour.  By comparison the regular commercial bacon has very little flavour from its smoking. Yet alongside my unsmoked bacon, I think the smoke is enough to distinguish the commercial product.

I’ve tea-smoked a chicken on my stove before, so I know that even a short smoking can impart incredible flavour to meat.  I’m therefore confident that if I was to smoke my bacon before air-drying it, the result would easily overwhelm the commercial product.  But as it stands, there is too much difference between my unsmoked bacon and the commercial, smoked variety.  I have to admit that as bacon, my product doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Until I am able to smoke it, it would seem best to continue to refer to it as cured, air-dried pork.

The only question remaining is whether it is worth continuing to cure and dry pork, when a tastier, apparently cheaper substitute is available commercially in the form of short-cut bacon?

On its own merits, my air-dried pork is a good addition to various dishes: pasta sauces, soups, stews, and so on. At a cost of roughly $11 per kilo, it is not as cheap as the commercial bacon if bought on sale and frozen long-term. However, the pork used for 75% of Australian bacon is imported from overseas, which explains the low cost. My pork was purchased fresh from a local butcher.  It’s also difficult to put a dollar value on the satisfaction of processing the meat myself, and having three or four kilograms of dried cured pork hanging in my laundry for whenever I want to use it.

All in all, it seems reasonable to continue making it; but the fact is that I’m not doing all this stuff to be reasonable.  I’m doing it because I want to produce something that completely and without qualification defeats the mainstream commercial product.  I want it to be both cheaper and laughingly superior to the supermarket offering, such that people try my bacon and quietly weep at having ever mistaken the commercial stuff for the real thing.  I’m not there yet, but the goal is clear.

 

 

 

Let’s not call it bacon

The thought of curing my own bacon carried with it a certain savour. Unfortunately I have to admit that as bacon the end result of my 10 days of curing a pork belly didn’t seem quite right.

If we were to call it ‘cured pork belly’ I think we could agree it was in fact an excellent result, with tasty slices of this salty, sweet, fatty meat adding depth of flavour to a range of dishes (though they are as yet to make it further than fried and eaten unaccompanied).

But bacon? Not really, no. Not unless you’re an American.

As a friend sojourning in the States noted recently:

You wouldn’t believe it because of all the hype you hear on TV but American bacon is shit. Absolute shit. It’s thin like double thickness prosciutto and full of water. Then when you cook it it shrivels up into tiny dry strips. Like hard dry beef jerky. I can’t believe how bad it is compared to the “bacon is awesome” hype. It has absolutely nothing on Aussie bacon.

It turns out that what Americans call bacon is indeed primarily cured porked belly. Since I dry-cured a pork belly, what I have is closer to American bacon than Australian or British bacon, which use the loin of the pig and is therefore a leaner cut.

Today I tried slicing it thicker, at about the thickness of Australian bacon:
slices

It’s heavily salted, so needs to be soaked in water for up to an hour before cooking, changing the water a few times. I haven’t made an exact science of it, so this batch of thick slices was still a bit salty when fried up:

cooked bacon

Not pictured: leaves of oil-soaked paper.

Slicing it thick helped a lot, bringing it within the domain of more familiar Aussie middle bacon rashers. Still not ‘bacon’ as we’re used to it, but extremely tasty, the star anise in the cure making the taste reminiscent of Chinese crispy roast pork belly.

I’m encouraged to now try the same procedure, sans star anise, with a slab of pork loin. Hopefully with something more akin to the familiar Aussie bacon rasher, I’ll be better able to judge the end result in terms of flavour, quality, and of course cost.

60 sqm homestead

I’ve never been a very productive person, so I’m relishing my current spate of home-made produce, which I hope will only increase in future.

In the past I would have found any number of obstacles to every item I’ve thus far produced; even something as simple as not being able to find strong flour for bread-making at my local supermarket. You could say I was a little too easily defeated.

I’ve been reflecting on my progress thus far, and have to give credit to two elements that have inspired all the subsequent productivity. Firstly, my brother and his wife got me started on roasting coffee, which in many ways remains the easiest, quickest, and most rewarding activity. It meets the ideal of providing a high-quality product at or below commercial prices. Half an hour of roasting literally doubles the value of the coffee beans. Other adventures in home produce have followed this same goal – creating something that tastes as good as or better than anything I could afford, but at a much lower cost.

The second major element is all thanks to my friend J, over at Gray’s Brewing. J did everything to get me brewing, short of threatening physical violence: before heading overseas he showed us the process from start to finish, and left us with a cube of wort, a bunch of fermenters, a freezer, a sachet of yeast, and assorted bits and pieces in what is effectively the brewing equivalent of pre-chewing your child’s food so he doesn’t choke on it.

Brewing all-grain beer likewise produces a high quality product at much lower costs, but unlike my coffee roasting, it also introduced a number of basic technical skills and equipment that have lowered the cost of entry to other products.

For example, if it were not for brewing beer, I would never have tried brewing rice wine. If it were not for the rice wine, I would never have started brewing soy sauce (don’t worry J, I’m using my own fermenter for that). All three require fermenters, familiarity with yeast fermentation, and for the latter two a familiarity with Aspergillus oryzae.

Beer also required the use of a thermometer, which, as simple as it sounds, was otherwise an obstacle to producing yoghurt. Producing yoghurt led to simple mozzarella cheese (more complex cheese to follow). Cheese and yoghurt are both closely related to butter, with yoghurt providing cultures for both, and butter producing buttermilk as a by-product, which is (in name at least) in turn useful for the cultivation of a different variety of cheeses.

Making the soy sauce required a huge amount of brine, for which I used my brewing hydrometer to establish the specific gravity and hence salt-content of the brine. Having made so much brine for the soy sauce, making another brine to wash the butter was no obstacle.

Salt has been the common ingredient in both the soy sauce and the bacon, and with lemons coming into season we’ll likely be using it to preserve lemons as well. Preserving lemons will be easy now that we have the mason jars purchased for the sake of the pasta sauce; mason jars that turned out to be very handy for making and storing yoghurt, as well as for whipping cream into butter.

I even used a mason jar the other day to store cold-pressed coffee, an experiment which proved dangerously good for making impromptu iced-coffees.

If you’ve read this far, what I’m getting at is that there’s a basic knowledge and familiarity with these various ingredients, techniques, and skills that lowers the threshold to an array of wonderful products. They are interconnected in surprising ways, such that I could, in the near future, have a bread dough, yoghurt, cheese, beer, soy sauce, and rice wine in the one fridge, all undergoing varying permutations on the fermentation of yeast or culture of bacteria.

I’m struck by how limited my knowledge and skills were before, and how enriching by contrast this new-found productivity has already become.

Bacon day nine

bacon day nine

Today there was so little liquid leached from the curing pork, I decided to begin the air-drying process at last.

Rinsing off the cure and patting the meat dry, it’s clear how much the curing process has changed the meat.

bacon clean

I bent some old metal roast duck skewers into hooks, and hung the two pieces of bacon in our laundry.

hanging bacon

I’m not entirely sure how long I need to leave them hanging before cutting some off to try, but I guess in theory I could start cooking with them right away. I might wait at least until tonight before frying a bit of it up though…

From what I’ve been reading online, it’s possible these will turn out stupendously salty. If that’s the case, it is possible to soak the rashers in water for about an hour before use to remove some of the salt.

Home-made butter

butter

Not pictured: exhaustion.

Yesterday we made fresh butter to go with the fresh bread we took to a dinner. Following the instructions for uncultured butter from this SBS program: http://www.sbs.com.au/food/recipes/cultured-unsalted-butter

I made it from cheap supermarket cream (pure cream without thickeners is hard to find) by shaking it in a jar – hence the exhaustion.

butter in jar

It’s a strange experience to shake the cream until it becomes so thick it hardly seems to move, only for it to suddenly separate into solid milk fat and liquid buttermilk.

We washed it a couple of times with brine, and then kneaded in ground parsley and garlic.

butter final

After a few hours in the fridge it was rock-hard. Probably worth making just before serving, or leave it out for a while to soften before use. Also, let me know if you find a better way to present it than as a lump; a delicious, garlic imbued lump of butter…

I’m keen to try the cultured butter next time. Will keep you posted.

Home-made bacon

bacon

Pictured above is day 2 of the magical process that turns pork belly into delicious air-dried bacon.

If all goes well, after ten days of curing the bacon will be ready to hang at room temperature and use at our leisure (and we have a lot of leisure, I tell you.)

Every recipe I have read emphasises two points about making bacon: first, it is very very easy; second, it is amazing. We’re doing a non-smoked air-dried bacon, based on a recipe from the River Cottage ‘Pig in a Day’ program, with added-confidence from this family homestead site in the States.

Each day we rub the pork belly with a cure of salt, brown sugar and various spices (we added pepper, bay leaves, star anise and onion powder). After 24 hours in a cool place (a broccoli box with a frozen water bottle inside) the cure has leached a cup or so of liquid out of the meat. We tip out the liquid, and rub the pork again with fresh cure, making sure to coat every gap or flap of the meat.

In theory, after about 10 days the meat will have leached its last, and can then be rinsed thoroughly, dried, and hung in a cool dry place.

Read a few recipes before you try it for yourselves. I’ll keep you posted on our progress, but hopefully we’ll be enjoying some incredibly tasty bacon in about 7 days time!

If you don’t hear back from me, I’m either dead from food poisoning or too full of bacon to type.

Home-made soy sauce

soy 1

You can officially add soy sauce to the list of things you probably would like less if you saw how it was made.

What you are looking at is a batch of soy and wheat cakes floating in a fermenter full of brine.

The white stuff is Aspergillus oryzae mold, the same mold used in the fermentation of rice-wine.

The procedure from here on in is apparently to leave the fermenter in the sun for the next three months or more, stirring it twice daily. Traditionally the pots are left uncovered, but I’m a bit wary of local wildlife, curious passers-by and air pollution from nearby traffic, so we’ll be keeping it mostly closed.

As strange as it sounds, I’ve been really yearning to make soy sauce since it occurred to me a couple of months ago. From what I’ve read, traditionally brewed soy sauce has pretty amazing flavours. It’s one of those ideal situations where the home-made product can outstrip the commercial varieties without much difficulty.

I’m hoping to get somewhere in the vicinity of 20 litres, with the cost of ingredients at about $10. But the flavour is much more of an incentive; and while my beer and rice wine tend to disappear quite quickly, I like the idea of ‘cellaring’ a few bottles of soy sauce for years to come.

Learn to crush your dreams

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For any melancholic a vital skill consists in learning to crush your own dreams, and see through your ideals.

This might sound a little depressing and counter-intuitive, but for melancholics there is a real danger that the ideal will drive us to extremes of attitude and action, leaving us obsessed or even possessed by a single all-encompassing dream.

I’ve had it happen to me on numerous occasions: recently when I decided that I should put everything into my writing, and subsequently felt as though every moment was either a writing moment or a wasted one. I became productive, yes, but more importantly I became acutely conscious of the disparity between reality and ideal. As time progressed and my creativity inevitably slowed, the ideal became an indictment of my stupidity, laziness, ineptitude and ultimately my humanity.

There’s nothing wrong with having a dream or an ideal, and for melancholics it is essential. But we slip up when we allow ourselves to believe that if we attain the ideal everything else will change. The fact is that when or if we ever could attain our ideals, we would very quickly find ourselves bored, dissatisfied, and ready to move on to something bigger and better.

Crushing one’s dreams is really about reminding yourself -often painfully- that the idealised outcome is really not that wonderful. Good? Yes. Desirable? Certainly. Life-changing? To a degree. But only a degree.

I’m currently in the midst of another ideal: this time the ideal of creating ever more wonderful and satisfying products. I’ve made bread, beer, yoghurt, rice wine, coffee, limoncello, pasta and pasta sauce; but all I can think is that I can’t move fast enough onto the next round of magnificent consumables: bacon, soy sauce, tofu, sake, sea salt, mozzarella, fetta, and about half a dozen other ideas that elude me at present.

All of these take time, preparation, equipment; and all I can see is that I’m falling short on all three.

The problem is that I’m letting the dream take over. I’m implicitly accepting that the more I get these delicious products in play, the more my life will change for the better. The problem is that this is entirely true, just not as significant as it seems. This manic phase of urgent productivity is not at all healthy. It strips the enjoyment from the process, turning these enriching and satisfying products into a mere list of achievements.

Seeing through an ideal, crushing a dream, neither of these means repudiating the goal. It just means we need to remind ourselves that true happiness is distinct from these enticing activities, goals, or accomplishments. They are well worth having, but not at a cost to one’s genuine happiness.

When I feel the pressure of the ideal mounting, I try to remind myself that happiness, peace, and a relaxed state of quiet are achievable at any moment. There are no prerequisites, so long as I am not driving myself to distraction in the first place.

There’s no denying that my ideals are pointing me toward a better, more enriched and satisfying life. But it won’t be any of those things if I lose all perspective along the way.

Home-made pasta sauce

sauce

Making pasta sauce was not my idea, but it has turned out to be a productive activity that lends itself to a nice day-long communal activity with a shared meal at the end.

A friend was inspired by the same principles noted in other projects on this blog: we could make the same or better than the commercial product at a fraction of the cost and with the added enrichment of actually producing something rather than being mere consumers.

My friend has a handy appliance with a number of attachments that enable him to make pasta sauce – stripping the tomatoes of their seeds and skin, make dough for pasta, knead the dough, roll the dough in progressively thinner sheets, and finally cut it into spaghetti or fettucine.

Fresh pasta with fresh pasta sauce tastes quite different from the typical store-bought stuff. I’ve never had it before, and what was perhaps most noticeable was the absence of cruder flavour associated with cheap dried pasta and overly sugared, salted, and acidified pasta sauces.

Homemade pasta sauce is a little more intimidating than my other projects, as it carries the unspecified risk of botulism poisoning. However, no one has died yet, and I’m pretty confident that this batch will be okay!

Home-made bread

slice

I just baked my first proper loaf of bread, three days in the making.
Everyone who’s ever made their own bread has told me there’s nothing like it fresh out of the oven. But like the sleep-deprivation of early parenthood, you can’t really appreciate it until you experience it for yourself.

I followed a very simple recipe for homemade sandwich bread, and I’m pretty sure something went wrong along the way. Maybe my scales are out or Australian water is dryer, but I ended up with what seemed like quite a dry dough, and hence (I think) a relatively flat loaf.

Regardless, it tastes amazing, and I can really appreciate the flavour imparted by the days spent quietly resting in the fridge.

crust

Look at that crust!
I wish you could taste it, but there’s unlikely to be any left by the time you get here.

I’ll most likely try again with the same recipe to see if I can get it to rise more.