One of my favorite things, and there are many, about my dear friend Carolina Gypsy are the Intimidating Food Parties she throws. The rules are deceivingly simple; stick to the theme, and make a dish that is intimidating to you. This could be making toast, mastering a family recipe, or deboning a duck, depending on your experience level and degree to which you want to stress yourself out. This past party’s theme was “Bacon and/or Beer,” and seeing as how we won the last party’s Most Intimidating award (with mole, for the “Latin” Foods theme), we were not to be outdone.
We took this challenge very seriously. Bacon or beer? We chose bacon. Just bacon. From scratch.
It should also be pointed out that I’m a *cough* “vegetarian.” Most of the time. I don’t eat it as an everyday rule, but I don’t deprive myself of wonderful food experiences.
SO! Here’s how we made bacon in 8 days and without a smoker or a grill.
In the beginning, there was pork belly. (Anecdote: Overheard at our favorite Raleigh restaurant, “Excuse me, ma’am? There’s something wrong with my grandson’s meal. This meat is all fat.”) Anyway, pork belly can be found fresh at any respectable butcher, or, in our case, frozen from a chain called THE MEAT HOUSE.
Most disconcerting moment of the bacon process? Realizing that pork belly is, in fact, the pig’s belly, and therefore is likely to have nipples. What you do with this discovery is up to you, but I suggest chasing your boyfriend around while touching the nipples.
The cure. Ours consisted of salt (kosher, for a hilarious dose of irony), brown sugar, and five kinds of pepper because we are fancy.
Cure should be thick and really packed into the belly. Don’t skimp. The salt draws the moisture out, and the pepper and sugar go in, because, science. Osmosis? Just kidding, I know that’s not a real thing. Just like evolution.
Here it is, just before going into the fridge. We put it on a rack made of bamboo skewers, to keep it from sitting in its own juices, though we’re not sure how necessary that is.
After three days, we flipped it over. Not really sure why, as most of the cure mixture caked and fell off into the bottom. We didn’t add any more, just stuck it back in the fridge for another four days.
After curing, we washed as well as we could with tap water.
Because our apartment building doesn’t allow grills, let alone smokers, we had to improvise with the smoking part. We debated whether this was necessary at all, especially since we’d be cooking the bacon the very next day, and weren’t worried about bacteria, and from everything we read, we figured smoking was really as much for taste as anything. Ultimately, we decided to go for it, using a couple tutorials (with a wok, French stovetop style, and in the oven) as starting points, because the worst case scenario was the house filling with smoke, the fire department being called, and then being issued an eviction notice.
This pretty bag of “gourmet” applewood chips is also from THE MEAT HOUSE, though you can probably find them anywhere with charcoal.
While the chips were soaking (10 mins or so) we readied the smoking tent. This is just a roasting pan, lined with heavy-duty aluminum foil, with the roasting rack turned upside down.
Chips in the bottom, belly on the top, skin-side-up.
Then the foil was all closed up. We left this hole so we would know if the smoke was actually working, but when we verified that it was, we pinched the hole closed.
At 200 degrees for about 6 hours. Best part, and I admit I totally did not believe that this would be the case, there was no smoke in the house. None. Seriously. None. The tin foil really keeps all the smoke inside.
150 was our magic number. The belly came out, and…
Helloooo, pink belly! For the sake of our families reading, I won’t go into detail, but please know that the nipples are now rubbery and completely horrifying to touch. That is all.
Next step was trimming the skin off the top. If I really wanted to scare Jeff away with my Southern wiles, I would have insisted upon making cracklin’s or pork rinds. He was already a foot out the door after the nipple incident, so I disappointedly fed the skin to the trashcan, much to the dismay of Maggie the cat.
With the skin trimmed off, holy crap, it’s finally starting to really look like bacon!
The belly is now quite a bit smaller than what we started with, due to trimming and shrinkage from the cure. If we’d had a meat slicer, it would have stretched a lot more, but apparently THE MEAT HOUSE won’t slice your home-cured meat for you, which totally makes sense, because people are gross. So we used what we had, and made really thick bacon.
We baked it on cookie racks, for … I have no idea how long. 10 minutes? Until it smelled done. There was also a little sprinkled brown sugar, not shown, that sweetened it up a little. Not necessary, but delicious.
Verdict on taste: It is definitely, decidedly NOT the bacon that you buy in a store. Did you know they inject “real” bacon with tons of water, and that’s why it’s so fragile and stringy? It’s also why it’s so wonderfully crispy, which is something our bacon was not. But! We loved that our bacon had real, wonderful flavor to it, and didn’t disintegrate as soon as you started to chew. I’d say the taste was like 65% cured ham, 30% bacon, 5% sweetness. It was a huge hit at the party, though!
Will we make it again? Probably not for a while. It was easier than we thought, but the thought of starting it all again is a bit daunting.
–Post-publishing conversation edit–
Me: I’m afraid I talked about the nipples too much.
Jeff: I think you talked about the nipples just enough.