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Archive for the ‘Smoking’ Category

Bacon Fu

Of all the kung fu activities that have taken place in my kitchen, nothing garners more attention than bacon. In fact, it seems to trump every other accomplishment in my entire life. I have a black belt in kung fu. I have a 3.97 GPA. I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane. I went on a mission trip to Bolivia. No one could possibly care less. But the minute I say, “I make my own bacon” people come flocking over like a bunch of geese at the park and I have a loaf of bread.

Since there’s been so much interest I thought I’d put together another post with some more details about the bacon process and what I’ve learned so far. I’ve done it three times and it really does get easier each time. Generally less stressful except for when your heat source dies on you one hour into smoking (more on that later).

Pork side coming out of the three-day brine

So I use Alton Brown’s bacon recipe .  I may be ready to branch out soon. But for first timers (or third-timers) I recommend it because it is tried and true. And you don’t want to risk wasting your whole beautiful pork side on a brine that ends up being less than you expected.

The pork belly is in the brine for three whole days. I usually have trouble keeping the meat submerged so I fill an empty jar (like an olive jar) with water and rest it on top to keep it down. When you pull the belly out, it kind of looks like it’s already been cooked a bit – all nice and preserved with the salt in the brine.

Bacon getting blown.

For the next step, drying, I set up a fan in the guest bathroom (the room in the house with the least amount of cat hair floating around), point it right over my side (skin side down, on top of a rack sitting on a sheet pan to catch drips). I’ll leave it for a minimum of an hour to form a pellicle (kind of a dry film over the meat).

After the drying, the meat needs to be hung in the smoker. I use my hand-me-down Pit Master because it conveniently has two sections, one lower to hold the heat source and wood, an upper chamber to catch the smoke. I open the vent in the main section just a hair to keep the smoke being pulled through the unit. For hanging, I poke four holes completely

Blown bacon with the pellicle.

through the meat from the skin side and use the wire clothes hanger rig that test subject Bill invented last year. I noticed that there is some type of coating on the hangers, though, so I won’t use the same ones more than twice now. If it was a hot smoke I’d be worried, but since no heat is applied during the process I’m sort of ok with it. Alright not really. It bugs me and I’m thinking up a better hanging solution.

I use the tin can and soldering iron method to produce smoke with very little heat exposure to the pork side. The can holds the wood pellets (I’ve been using hickory), a hole in the lid holds the soldering iron in the wood. It heats up and the smoke

Bacon getting poked.

miraculously pours out and gets sucked through the Pit Master.

Now, about soldering irons. The one I used originally was a 30 watt super cheapie. One hour into my second bacon making experience, the piece of junk died. I had to drop everything and run out for a new one. Of course, they didn’t have the same one I bought before. I ended up paying twice the price for a less powerful model, but it may have been serendipity. My $15 25-watt iron has successfully smoked two batches of bacon and still gets hot enough to brand “Bacon Freak” into your skin. Don’t ask me how I know that. Also, the lower wattage iron seems to cook the wood pellets more

Can smoker to cooler set up

evenly, giving me more efficiency out of my pellets. With the 30-watt when I pulled it out of the can, half the pellets would be burnt to a crisp and half of them would be untouched. I get more even results with the 25-watt, lessening the possibility of my precious bacon being smoked with burnt-smelling smoke. It does seem to produce less smoke, though, so I made up for the difference by letting it go in the smoker an extra hour (about six hours total).

Even on cooler days, I put the blue ice packs into the main compartment with the hanging meat to keep it cool and the help cool down the smoke as it heads through. How often they get changed out though depends on the heat of the day.

Soldering irons for the can smoker.

Making your own bacon sounds like a lot of work, and it is although largely unattended and does get easier the more you do it. But when you munch down on a bacon cheeseburger that sports the bacon you made, it’s truly tasting the fruits of your labor.

Wire hanger hooks for bacon hanging.

Hanging bacon, pre-smoke. Post-smoke it looks pretty much the same.

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Usually the 4th of July holiday finds Bill and I at home, chilling out, having some wine and watching random fireworks from our back deck. This year, however, we ventured out to a friend’s house to celebrate our nation’s birthday together.

4th wine1When you’re wine snobs like us but don’t have the budget for Caymus as a daily drinker, you have to carefully choose your wine to balance cost and quality. Here’s the two we brought to share, Ergot tempranillo (Spain) and Gascon Malbec (Argentina). These two run about $10.99 a bottle at our local wine store, making them a budget-friendly vino, and are very impressive for the price.

We had an appetizer of a chevre goat cheese from Cole’s Lake Dairy (local Georgia dairy) I got in my CSA box. I don’t have a picture of it because it was gone in a matter of moments. Um, it was super yum…trust me.

4th salad1Our salad was a tasty mixture of lettuce leaves, cucumber and red bell pepper (provided by our gracious host) and green peppers and cherry tomatoes from my CSA box. I made a dressing of equal parts honey (local), balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Our host used his croutons to soak up the rest of the dressing in his salad bowl so I think he liked it 🙂 Nothing better than easy and tasty.

The main event centered around a 3.2 lb. pastured chicken from Nature’s Harmony Farm. Using a combination of a few recipes from this website I brined the bird for about four hours, then dried it off and headed to our host’s house. Using the rub recipe they recommend for chicken, we drizzled the bird with olive oil and saturated it with the rub. I felt kind of like I was molesting the bird by rubbing my fingers all over its naked skin, but Bill didn’t seem upset so I guess it’s ok. The rubbed bird went onto the smoker/grill for about two hours with applewood smoker chips smoldering over the coals.

4th chicken done1We were suprised that it finished that quickly, but the thermometer in the breast read 167 degrees so we pulled it. However, even though it looked fantastic we discovered that parts of the thigh were not done and had to go back on the grill for a few minutes. We think the temperature probe maybe wasn’t properly placed. None of us had smoked a whole chicken before so it was a learning experience! Outside of the thigh under-doneness the bird was fantastic. Super moist and delicious (I’ve never had a chicken breast that moist EVER), but I have to say the rub was the big winner of the day. All three of us raved about it and can’t wait to use it on something else. Rub recipe is here. 

4th veg kabobs1We also made veggie kabobs for the grill with baby bella mushrooms, sweet onion, some funky greenish-yellow pepper (CSA box), cherry tomatoes (CSA box), and patty pan squash (CSA store). Everything was good, but that squash was the bomb diggity. Raw or grilled it was fantastic.

We also steamed my CSA green beans in a foil packet on the grill. Just a little butter, salt and pepper and they were heavenly. Real food doesn’t need to be messed with too much. Simple is good!

4th plate done1We enjoyed our meal with a glass of wine, some of my bread that I made yesterday and some good laughs. I’m so thankful for the abundance of food we have at our disposal, the ability to make food choices (local and imported) and the right to fight to keep our choices. God bless America!

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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.

Ground zero for bacon smokin'

Ground zero for bacon smokin'

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.

Make-shift smoke generator

Make-shift smoke generator

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.

 

Wire clothes hangers do have a useful purpose...

Wire clothes hangers do have a useful purpose...

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.

No B.S. Just bacon. (Ok, there's lots of B.S. But it's serious.)

No B.S. Just bacon. (Ok, there's lots of B.S. But it's serious.)

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.

Looks like bacon...

Looks like bacon...

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.

 

Smells like bacon...

Smells like bacon...

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!

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