When you’ve committed yourself to only eating meat that is ethical, sustainable and preferably local, some specialty items can be difficult to find…like bacon. It was this sad world without bacon that compelled me to make my own, which began on the day that I recieved a pork side from my CSA full of joy from Nature’s Harmony Farm. When Liz handed me that package and told me I was the lucky winner of a pork side, I was thinking um…what? Then she told me it could be used for making bacon. She could have told me it was made of gold and I would have been just as excited. Bacon…it was within my grasp.
Bacon is made using a raw pork side/belly that is brined and cold smoked. I had the first part covered with my prize pork side. Next, the brine. Since Alton Brown is my hero (one of them, anyway) and his scrap iron chef episode is my favorite Good Eats, I immediately went in search of AB’s recipe. Food Network lists it as “Difficult” something that used to make me run screaming, but now I say bring it, baby.
Follwing the Scrap Iron Chef bacon recipe, I fixed up the apple cider/molasses/sugar/salt brine, chilled it and placed my precious cargo within. It wanted to float so I had to fill and empty jar with water to hold it under the liquid. There it stayed for three whole days, doing its thing.
Once the brine was complete, the meat had to be dried. Apparently they don’t sell old fashioned box fans anymore but I did find a suitable round model. I set up the fan and the meat as per AB’s instructions and let it dry for an hour. The directions say it will form a pellicle. I don’t know what a pellicle is and I still don’t, but I trust him so under the fan it went.
Once the drying was over, the real fun began: cold smoking. I am not the owner of a cold smoker and after seeing some scary prices online I found a wonderful el cheapola getup here. You really CAN learn anything on the internet! I used an empty chickpea can, some hickory smoking pellets I got from Barbecuewood.com, and a $3 soldering iron I picked up at Fry’s Electronics. My old hand-me-down PitMaster charcoal grill (thanks Rose and Lane!) got a new lease on life as a make-shift smoker. The smoking contraption went in the small compartment where it could get hot and smoke, then the smoke would be funneled through a hole into the larger area and surround the hanging meat.
Test subject Bill lent a serious hand on this project. He cleaned up the grill and rigged four wire clothes hangers to act as a meat hook. He wound them around the large chamber so that the hook part was available to hold the bacon-to-be and the other end was fastened securely around the other side. Ingenious! The hooks weren’t sharp enough to pierce the tough fat part of the belly so we made some holes using a BBQ fork and it worked like a charm – hooks slid right in and held it true.
Now…bacon smoking is a cold smoke. Cold. It happened to turn scorching hot in Georgia over the past couple of days. It was about 95 degrees yesterday when I was preparing to cold smoke. Errrr…ok. But the meat was brined and primed, there was no turning back. So I put frozen ice packs and ziplock bags of ice into the bottom of the large chamber to keep the temperature down and we moved the smoker from time to time to keep it out of direct sunlight. It seemed to do the trick. Every time I felt the meat it was no warmer than room temperature.
With the whole set up going, we stuck the soldering iron into the can of pellets and waited. (Bill had turned on the iron and let it heat for a while to burn off any oil that may have been on the metal parts.) We stared at the unit, waiting for it to smoke. I got impatient and ran off to Quick Trip for a big bag of ice. By the time I got back…we had smoke!
About every hour from noon until 5:30 in the afternoon I swapped out ice packs and refreshed hickory pellets. I smelled like smoke from head to foot. (Seriously Mom…it was just bacon, I swear!) The instructions said to smoke for 4 to 6 hours. How do you know when it’s done? It looked pretty much the same the whole time. I was paranoid about under smoking because of the breaks between smoking while I changed out pellets so I left it for 5 1/2 hours.
The bacon (yes! It was bacon then!) went directly into the freezer for an hour to firm up before I attempted slicing. Once I had it out and took my knife to it I found that while it wasn’t terribly hard to cut, there was a really hard rind that had formed on the fat side, so I had to cut it fat side up. Because the piece was long, it was difficult to keep a uniform slice. So I cut up what I needed and put the rest back in the freezer. Must obtain a meat slicer for future use.
Today was the big day…cooking time. Since AB is my idol, I always bake my bacon. So I fired up the oven to 400 degrees, laid out my bacon on a sheet pan and got it going. Also on the menu: scrambled eggs from Nature’s Harmony chickens, hashbrowns made from a random potato I still had hanging around from the pot pie filling, toast made from my homemade bread and fair-trade organic coffee that was roasted locally that I got from my other CSA.
With excitement and trepidation, I pulled my bacon from the oven and took my first bite. Dude. It was freaking awesome and I almost passed out. I was so petrified that I was going to screw it up, but it turned out great! The one kung faux pas I made was that I did leave it in the oven a bit too long. I think it cooked faster than the old store-bought bacon I used to make. It still tasted fantastic and now I know to watch it closer next time.
In the aftermath of Project Bacon, I have about 2/3 of a cup of bacon drippings that I don’t know what to do with. I hate to let all that goodness go to waste…any great ideas of what to do with it? And how long it will last and if I need to refrigerate it?
The only real complaint Bill and I have (and thanks to test subject Bill for telling me it was better than store bought bacon) is that on the fat side of the belly it formed almost like a rind, a really tough outer coating that tasted good but you can’t chew it. Any home bacon makers out there encounter this? I’m wondering if I should try to cut it off or if there is some way to avoid that in the future. However, this rind did not prevent us from plowing through the whole portion that I cut off last night. And the best part…there is enough in the freezer for several more meals!