Another bacon update

Yesterday we spent an afternoon replenishing our beer and bacon supplies. This time around I learned my lessons from previous attempts and used pork belly with a wet cure, much less salt and a whole lot more brown sugar.  Here it is sitting in our makeshift smoker:

recently smoked2

And here they are after three hours or so of smoking:

recently smoked

I cut them up and freeze them for later use. Thinly sliced, each ingot(?) is enough to impart a delicious smoky flavour to a range of dishes, but mostly pasta sauces…

recently smoked3

It still doesn’t look like commercial bacon, since it has been hot smoked rather than cold smoked, and we don’t add nitrites to colour it. Still, even as smoked cured pork I’d use it over the commercial stuff any day.

Associate Editor looks askance at frozen berries

Greetings, O friends and readers.

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve recently been offered some part-time work as associate editor at MercatorNet.com.

MercatorNet has long afforded me a means of expression for my often idiosyncratic take on various issues pertaining to ethics, philosophy, and social commentary more generally.  I’m quietly excited to be working more closely with the editorial team, so much so that I’m putting aside my otherwise powerful resistance to employment.

While I will continue to write feature-length pieces from time to time, I’ll also be writing more blog-like/editorial content such as my newest reflection on the frozen berry Hepatitis A outbreak here in Australia.

It’s not a bad outbreak, but nothing good can come of the words “frozen berries” and “fecal contamination” in the same sentence:

Aside from the revelation that the frozen berries may be contaminated with faeces, it emerged that the two brands being recalled are owned by the same company, sourced from the same suppliers, and processed in the same factories. While “Nanna’s” invokes images of my grandmother’s home-made pies and traditional cooking, “Creative Gourmet” is supposed to appeal to the quality-conscious, the budding foodie, or anyone with aspirations to ‘cuisine’.  Yet take away the packaging and they are the same product.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/frozen_berry_health_scare_puts_heat_on_big_food

Dedicated readers of this blog will notice that this links in quite nicely to the earlier post on bacon – another product that is typically sourced overseas, and subject to certain mysterious processes that are not necessarily in the best interest of the consumer.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

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.