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Making bacon: How to cure and smoke, nitrate-free

Mar 4th, 2016 | Category: Cooking

by Corina Sahlin

If you like bacon, you can save a lot of money and get a tastier, healthier product by smoking your own bacon without nitrates.  It’s so much easier than you might think! You don’t need to raise your own pigs or own an expensive smoker. All you need is pork belly, which you can order from a butcher, farmer or grocery store, salt, spices, a refrigerator, wood chips and a way to smoke the bacon (more on that later).

Bacon sizzling in the skillet! PHOTO BY CORINA SAHLIN

Bacon sizzling in the skillet! PHOTO BY CORINA SAHLIN

My neighbors, my husband and I raise four pigs a year, and they grow big and fat (not the neighbors and husband, but the pigs) eating pasture grass, organic non-GMO grain, and whey that’s left over from my cheesemaking. I have never eaten better pork, and if you don’t raise your own, I recommend you buy organic meat from a good source because it’s so much better (and better-tasting) for you.

Another reason our home made bacon is more flavorful than store bought bacon is the mix of salt, sugar, spices and smoke we use as preservatives. We dry cure, so the meat loses water, which concentrates the bacon flavor and also makes it splatter and pop less during cooking than conventional bacon.

We don’t use nitrates when curing bacon. Nitrates are commonly used in cured meats to preserve the meat, kill bacteria, and prevent botulism and food poisoning. Although many people think nitrates are safe, I don’t trust them, because several published studies indicate that N-nitrosamines are carcinogenic in animals. I would rather not put nitrates into the bodies of people I love. We store our cured, smoked and vacuum packed bacon in the freezer instead of hanging it from rafters like the olden days, so botulism and food poisoning are not an issue.

Let me explain how we have safely and successfully cured and smoked bacon without nitrates for years.

You need five pounds of pork belly, skin or rind taken off. Previously frozen pork belly can be used to make bacon, but your end product won’t be quite as moist.

For every five pounds of pork belly, mix the following in a bowl: 1⁄2 cup of sea salt, 1⁄2 cup maple syrup (you can use sugar if you want),1 Tbsp black pepper, any spices you want (we use 2 Tbsp organic salt-free spice mix from Costco, but you can use thyme, toasted fennel seed, coriander, rosemary, or any other flavors you like).

Rub the meat vigorously with this spice mix. Make sure every surface of the pig belly gets thoroughly coated, otherwise the salt may not draw enough moisture from the bacon.

Put it on a rack on top of a big enough cookie sheet or casserole dish to catch all the liquid that will be released.

Leave it in the fridge for 24 to 48 hours. The temperature in the fridge needs to be under 38 degrees for safety. Opinions on the length of time to leave it in vary widely. If your bacon slabs are small, err on the short side, if they are large leave them in longer. We once kept ours in the fridge for three days, and it turned out way too salty.

Check it every day, to make sure it’s happy and comfortable in there all alone, and empty the liquid that will be released underneath the rack.

When it comes out of the fridge, it should have firmed up and leaked a bunch of liquid.

Wash off all the salt and spice mixture with water, and do a good job of it. Pat it dry with paper towels and let it sit in the fridge for another whole day to help it dry and form a “pellicle”, which is a coating of protein that comes to the surface and dries out a bit.  This pellicle helps smoke adhere better and improves shelf life by keeping oxygen away from the fat.

When it’s dried, it’s time to smoke your bacon.

Apple and hickory wood work great, but we don’t have any hickory where we live, so my husband Steve makes alder chips from dry firewood he has sitting around. He also runs some through his planer to make smaller saw-dust type chips. You can easily buy wood chips in many grocery stores or online.

Our smoker looks terrible and rusty, but it works great.  It’s actually an old metal refrigerator a friend gave us and converted into a smoker. If you don’t own an electric smoker, you could borrow one or even convert a BBQ or grill into a smoker. You can find great tutorials on how to do this if you google “How to turn your kettle grill into a smoker.”

It’s important to smoke the meat at very low temperature until the inside of the meat reaches 150 degrees. When we first started smoking our own bacon, we spent hours on the internet looking through recipes and reading through meat curing forums, and there are lots of different opinions. What has worked for us over the years is keeping the inside temperature of the smoker around 170 degrees. When the meat reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees, we take it out. How long this process takes depends on the smoker you use and how much meat you are smoking. It usually takes us four to six hours with our setup.

Now taste test it and rejoice! If the bacon tastes too salty, you can soak it in water for a few hours before frying.

Store it in the fridge for three weeks (good luck making it last that long) or in the freezer for three months (ditto!).

Corina Sahlin homesteads on five acres in the upper Skagit Valley, where you can find her with her hands either in the dirt, in a pot full of whey stirring curds, or mixing cabbage in a crock of sauerkraut.  She teaches homesteading skills like artisan cheesemaking and fermentation, both at her homestead and also online. More information and inspiration at www.marblemounthomestead.com

 

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