The power of smoke

Yesterday after four hours of brewing, we had a couple of beers while some of the salted pork from previous bacon attempts sat gently smoking in a make-shift smoker.

After about an hour and a half, the handful of wood chips were consumed, leaving us with this exciting slab of hot-smoked, dry-cured pork:

smoked1

A friend’s new meat-slicer made short work of it:

smoked2

It looked like bacon, but would it taste like bacon?

smoked3

Yes, yes it would.

The verdict:

In future, I think there is not much point in air-drying the bacon as it requires such large quantities of salt that we are forced to soak the bacon for up to an hour with successive batches of water before it is edible.

But we can at least confirm that smoke is indeed the missing ingredient – the delightful, subtle, all-transforming flavour that was missing from the original cured pork.

We have refrigeration; there’s no point in air-drying the meat unless you’re short on space or you enjoy the look of it.  In future it will be far more practical to cure and marinade smaller cuts of meat, hot-smoking them to last refrigerated for a couple of weeks.

The future is starting to look pretty tasty!

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.

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 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.