Sunday 27 July 2014

Curing Bacon - The First Attempt

Aside from our shared love of the law, the Butchers of Great Thorne are also renowned for our love of bacon!   Whether it be fried up with some eggs sunny side up, on a BLT (preferably minus the L and the T), chopped through some pasta or over a Caesar salad, bacon is the holy grail of meats.  

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that we decided to cure our own bacon as our second outing.  

The curing of meat is steeped in a rich, salty history but essentially began as a means of preserving meat to help the peasantry survive the tough months of annual famine throughout winter where it was generally difficult to grow crops, and was also a way that sailors could take meat on long journeys across oceans.   Whilst in the western world it is no longer necessary to preserve meat in this manner due to accessibility of refrigeration, over time this practical and necessary process has developed into a means to add flavour and texture to ordinary pieces of pork (not that pork isn’t delicious as is!).   In some circles, curing bacon has become an artisanal pastime with a multitude of delicious and experimental cures being developed and jealously guarded by their creators as the best bacon around.

The process of curing bacon basically involves three ingredients.   Firstly, salt to draw out moisture from the meat through the process of osmosis, which slows down the ability of microorganisms that are naturally found in all meats to grow. This slows the oxidation process thereby preventing the meat from spoiling and going rancid (yum).   Secondly, sugar to alleviate the harsh flavours of the salt, and in the case of bacon, to contribute to flavour.   Finally, sodium nitrate (in very small quantities) to help kill bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum, which causes a rare but potentially fatal paralytic illness known as botulism.   Sodium nitrate also gives cured bacon its pink colour (bacon cured without sodium nitrate normally is greyish in colour).   

The use of sodium nitrate is controversial. It is known to create cancer-inducing agents in food, and most people would prefer to remove all traces of carcinogenic chemicals from their diet. However, when weighed against the possibility of poisoning our friends and family, and coupled with the fact that commercial brands are yet to discover a reasonable alternative, we have decided to use sodium nitrate this time.  Of course, other spices can be added to the cure to impart flavour, however, the above 3 ingredients will be sufficient to cure your very own bacon.

Many recipes include an ingredient called saltpetre (potassium nitrate) which performs the same role as sodium nitrate.  As saltpetre is particularly strong, we read that 'Prague Powder' is a safer way of incorporating sodium nitrate.  It is essentially sodium nitrate mixed in with normal table salt.  It is much easier to control the amount of sodium nitrate you include in your curing mixture by using Prague Powder.  We purchased some from this handy online store.  Prague Powder number 1 is the type applicable to curing bacon.  Prague Powder number 2 is used in air dried salamis and other charcuterie.

 There are 3 methods of curing bacon.   The first involves a dry cure whereby the pork is put in a container with a dry mixture of the above ingredients and any other spices or flavourings, which  drains moisture away from the meat.  The second method is a wet cure which involves dissolving the curing mixture in water to create a brine and then completely immersing the pork in the solution.   The final method is a mixture of the previous two methods and involves creating a dry curing mixture and then putting the pork and dry cure into a zip lock bag and sitting it in the fridge for 1 week turning the bag over once a day.   Initially this method acts as a dry cure but as moisture is removed from the meat, it mixes with the curing mixture, ultimately creating a brine solution so that by the end of the cure the bacon will be a semi-wet cure.   This method is far easier for those who do not have the space for a dry cure and leads to a more traditional dry bacon than a wet cure does.

Now for the meat! Traditionally in Australia, middle bacon is made up of the loin and pork belly.   This gives those long pieces of bacon that have a large head with little fat at one end (the loin) with a long streaky and fatty tail of bacon on the other end (pork belly).   Americans typically only use streaky bacon sourced from the pork belly and call the bacon made from loin “Canadian-style bacon”. We have been unable to verify with a Canadian source whether or not the Canadians are aware of this, or indeed call the pork belly bacon “American-style bacon”.   For our first outing we decided to separately cure 1.5kg of pork loin and 1.5kg pork belly to make both styles of bacon.   We bought both cuts of meat from the Meat Emporium in Alexandria, but they should be available at most butchers and in many supermarkets.   These cuts of meat are quite affordable and shouldn’t blow the budget.

For our curing mixture we wanted to create a sweet bacon with some subtle herbal back notes (yes, we really are meat snobs) so we used the following recipe.  The quantities are for each 1.5 kilos of meat (i.e. if you have 3 kilos of meat like we did, then double the recipe)

  • 500g of coarse sea salt
  • 3g of Prague Powder #1
  • 150g of brown sugar
  • 150g 100% maple syrup (not maple essence or the fake stuff)
  • 1 tablespoon of whole black pepper
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh sage
  • 1 teaspoon of juniper berries

There are heaps of recipes out there so it is a matter of finding one that suits your tastes and slowly playing with the ingredients to tweak the bacon to your personal preference.  The main recipe we used for inspiration came from Tim Hayward’s book, Food DIY, which includes many excellent curing recipes.  Hayward also did a whole radio show about British charcuterie, in which explains how to make bacon at home.  There is also a great article from the Sydney Morning Herald by Keith Austin about homemade bacon.

To create the dry cure we ground up the various dry ingredients in a spice grinder and weighed them on an electric cooking scale.   Having an electric scale is very important particularly for the Prague Powder which should carefully be measured (too much could be harmful).  

Once we mixed the cure, the next step was to prepare the pork.   Both cuts of meat still had the skin or rind attached.   If you buy the meat from a butcher, you can simply ask your butcher to cut off the skin (which you can keep to make pork crackling), however, it is also quite simple to cut the skin of yourself, which is what we did.   Using a very sharp knife (we bought a Victorinox butchers knife for $25 which was incredibly/dangerously sharp) cut into the fat at the corner of the meat in an upwards direction towards the skin, but don’t cut the skin off.   Once you reach the skin grab hold of the little corner of skin, and in soft slicing motions gently cut into the fat right beneath where it connects to the skin whilst pulling at the skin to create tension (see photo above).   Once we got the hang of it, removing the skin was a quick and easy task.   Have a look at the plethora of YouTube videos for some convenient visual demonstrations.   Be careful not to cut off too much fat during the skinning process as you want to keep as much of it on the meat for flavouring when you ultimately fry up that bacon.

With the pork and cure prepared, all that was left to do was to combine the two.   We massaged the pork with the cure for a couple of minutes to really coat all of its nooks and crannies. Then we put the pieces of meat with all of the curing mixture in separate store bought ziplock bags, being careful to expel as much air as possible from the bag and ensuring it was air tight.   We then put the bacon in our respective fridges for a week, turning it over once a day to ensure that both sides of the meat were equally exposed to the cure.   You also need to regularly massage the meat in its bag throughout the week to make sure the cure dissolves and really coats all parts the meat. 

After the first couple of days we could see the moisture being drawn out of the pork and mixing with the dry cure, gradually turning the dry cure into a brine.   The colour of the pork slowly changed from a greyish pink to a deep red, and the meat began to condense and become quite compact (as a result of the moisture being drawn out).   On the 7th day we pulled the pork out of the ziplock bag, washed off the excess cure in fresh water and soaked the pork for an hour in fresh water to further expel any excess salt.

We then rested the pork for a further 2 days before trying it.   The pork loin we rested in a fresh ziplock bag in the fridge, whereas the pork belly was dried out on a wire rack in Vinnie’s parent’s fridge (they were overseas at the time and actually had a spare empty fridge… as you do)   We did this to compare how the drying methods differed and found that whilst the pork belly was a little more dry as a result, this did not ultimately result in a significant improvement to the flavour of the belly over the loin.   The take away message is that if you don’t have a spare empty fridge or a dark dry garage to hang the bacon for a couple of days then drying it in the fridge in a ziplock bag is a simple option to achieve a very similar result.

Many bacon curing recipes also want you to  smoke the bacon.   But contrary to popular belief, this is not strictly part of curing the bacon and isn’t an essential step in the process.   Smoking simply cooks and flavours the bacon.   For our first couple of outings we want to really nail the curing process and when we are confident that we have the perfect curing mixture, and have manage to find the apparatus and space required for smoking, we will begin to tinker with smoking.  

Once the bacon had dried, we trimmed the edges (these offcuts could be used to flavour stock, or in some homemade baked beans!) to create a uniform shape and began slicing.   You need a really sharp knife to cut through the bacon and to ensure you have even slices.  Alternatively if you have the money and space in your kitchen, a deli slicer would make quick work of it (ALDI was selling a deli slicer for around $60 recently…).   We ended up having just over a dozen slices of pork belly and loin each. 

And finally the important part, the taste testing!   The first thing we noticed when cooking the bacon is that when we put it on a hot frying pan there was no white liquid oozing from the meat, which is not uncommon when cooking store-bought bacon.   This is because store-bought bacon is usually produced en masse using a brining process where brine is injected directly into the pork to speed up the curing process.   In our opinion, our homemade bacon crisped up much better than store bought bacon.  The second thing we noticed is the caramelisation of the bacon and the fat.   Visually this made the bacon look even more delicious and is likely a result of the brown sugar and maple syrup in the cure.

 When it came to taste testing, the flavour and texture of the bacon was really something else compared to store bought bacon.   It was quite dense (as a result of the lack of moisture) and had a really meaty flavour.   The bacon was initially quite salty in flavour which we have subsequently learned is not an uncommon reaction for people having only ever eaten store bought bacon.   After the initial shock, we both felt that the salty flavour was really quite delicious, and the sugar and maple flavours cut through the saltiness.   If you are concerned about the salt levels, it is possible to soak the bacon in fresh water for longer after you have rinsed off the cure (as mentioned above we only did this for an hour), as this will draw out more of the salt from the meat.   Some recipes suggest soaking it for up to a day.   Alternatively, you can tinker with the salt levels on your next bacon venture, which we plan to do.

Overall, curing the bacon was a surprisingly simple process, with very satisfactory results.   We strongly recommend that people give it a go and let us know how it works out for you.

Stay tuned for our next bacon venture where we plan on experimenting with a spicy cure with lots of punchy cayenne and chilli!   But first, we will tackle our next batch of sausages where we will attempt to make the perfect boerewors.