Bacon. It has a wonderful place in human history. Humans have eaten it for thousands of years, traded it as a staple of economies, and most recently, turned it into an internet meme. It’s no mystery why we have a love affair with Bacon. It’s the Christina Hendricks of meat products. The smell of bacon soothes a crying infant. Vegetarians make exceptions for bacon. Bacon is the closest we can get to empirically proving the existence of God. Bacon, for lack of a better word, is The Shit.
All the aforementioned could be said about store-bought bacon. The thing is, I had heard whispers that bacon from scratch—cured, smoked, and cut at home—puts store-bought bacon to profound shame. I didn’t think it was possible to improve on perfection, but I had to find out. And so I bravely set out to into the unknown to discover the lost art of homemade bacon, by which I mean I turned off Extreme Home Makeover, got off my ass and looked it up online.
Let me say straight away that my culinary skills are average at best. But like my ping-pong game, they inexplicably improve with drinking. And so, after reading up, I decided to crack a beer and make some homemade bacon. I discovered that not only is it remarkably easy and cheap, it results in bacon so insanely good you’ll wonder if Jesus came down and pissed on your tongue.
Here’s how you do it.
Step 1: Purchase
Head on down to your local butcher shop. If you don’t know a local butcher, I suggest using a service such as The Internet to locate one. If you don’t have The Internet, then you have bigger things to worry about than making bacon from scratch. Also, you couldn’t even be reading this right now. Moving on.
Ask the butcher for pork belly: it arrives in slabs about 20-30 inches long and about 8 inches across: you’ll recognize them from their familiar bacon-esque cross section. They cost around $3.50 a pound, and you’ll probably want a quarter slab—a piece weighing about 4 to 5 pounds. Make sure the pork belly has the rind (the skin) ON. If you want to be a perfectionist, call your butcher and ask when they get the pork bellies in. Should be once a week. Go on that day to ensure you get the freshest meat.
Once you’ve picked out your pork belly, pay for it and take it home. This part is obvious.
Step 2: Cure
This is also easy. Curing, back in the day, was the way people preserved meats without refrigeration. You see, cured cells exert osmotic pressure that prevents undesirable micro… you know what? Nevermind. Point is that nowadays, since we have crazy inventions like electricity, curing is no longer used to preserve. Instead, it’s used as a way of enhancing flavor, as curing extracts much of the water content from the meat’s cells thereby intensifying the flavors. To cure your pork belly, rub that bitch down with something akin to the following.
4 cups Kosher salt
2 cups brown sugar (for flavor, cuts the salt)
You can add a variety of things to this rub: black pepper, garlic, ground bay leaves, mermaid tears, angel farts, whatever. Use your imagination. What flavors you add will come through in the meat. Now use ALL the rub to cover the pork belly, then stick it in a zip lock bag, and put it in the fridge. Then kick back, relax, check your email, watch the game, make a Bed, Bath and Beyond run, and just generally live your life for the next 7 days. Check on it periodically, maybe turning it over and draining any accumulated liquid.
After that week, pull it out, rinse it off, pat it dry. You’ll notice it looks a lot like, well, cured meat.
Now you’re going to leave it in the fridge, uncovered, for a day. Why? The pork belly needs to form a pellicle. “Forming the pellicle” sounds like a military assault tactic, but it’s actually way worse: the pellicle is a tacky, gooey layer that forms on the outside of the meat after curing. Kind of gnarly, but it is essential for the next step.
Step 3: Smoke
Smoking is the final step, and the trickiest one. It imparts that necessary smoky bacon flavor, and helps give the meat that perfect bacon texture. Good news is, if you have a BBQ, it’s fairly easy to accomplish. If you don’t, well, use your friend’s BBQ. If you don’t have any friends with a BBQ, use the internet to find a DIY smoker plan. If you don’t have any friends period, well, I’m sorry, that sucks. Maybe you should get out more.
The key here is that you are only smoking your bacon, not cooking it. You don’t want your pork belly exposed to direct heat, so use about half the coals you normally would, move them all the way to the side, and toss a few pieces of wood (hickory, maple) soaked in water for half an hour on top to produce good smoke. You don’t want the temperature inside the smoker to get above about 200 degrees (use a meat thermometer). Place the pork belly inside, rind side up. That sticky pellicle will help the smokey flavor adhere to the meat. Close the lid up, and keep the smoke coming out the vent nice and ample for the next two hours, by adding the necessary briquettes and wood chunks. It’ll take about 2 hours for a proper smoke, so hang out by the grill for a while and do something enjoyable, like drinking beer or watching bunnies mate.
After about 2 hours, pull it out, and cut the skin away while it’s still warm, taking care to leave as much fat underneath as possible.
Now, if you have done things correctly, you will be holding in your hand the something that’s damn near divine. Cut slices off the pork belly to the thickness you prefer, cook over low heat to your desired floppy/crispy level. It’ll keep for a week in the fridge, or months if frozen.
Final point: when you cook your homemade bacon in the pan, you’ll have a healthy, er, substantial amount of melted fat left in the pan. DO NOT THROW THIS AWAY. Bacon fat is amazingly tasty, and you’d be throwing away the equivalent of white, creamy gold. Instead, pour it into a heat-resistant container and store it in the fridge. You can use it for a bunch of stuff. You like fried eggs? Instead of greasing the pan with butter, try bacon fat. Next time you make popcorn, drizzle a little melted bacon fat on instead. Anything that calls for oil or butter, try bacon fat. Pastas, salad dressings, even toast. The uses are endless, as are the rewards. You may never go back.