Last August I watched Alton Brown's episode of Good Eats entitled "Scrap Iron Chef," in which he made bacon in a junk yard. As with so many episodes of Good Eats, it was funny, silly, sometimes stupid, and ultimately informative. It was extra funny if you are familiar with the TV series Iron Chef, and are aware that Alton Brown is the host of Iron Chef America, so, he was really making fun of himself. In any case, that is what inspired me to try making bacon. I basically followed his recipe, brining my pork bellies in a vinegar/water/salt/sugar/spice mix and then smoking them. I had fun building my own "MacGyver style" smoker, then smoked the bacon for six hours using a combination of store-bought mesquite chips, rosemary wood from a huge dead rosemary bush, and a few handfuls of old star anise. The result had a very nice smoky flavor; however, the vinegar came through quite strongly. It wasn't awful, but I just don't want my bacon to taste like vinegar. [If you are now thinking, "Vinegar, huh? What?" Please be sure to read the Epilogue at the end.]
[Smoker V1 - The box holds a hot plate which is heating a metal dish of wood chips. The air is blown via a case fan from a computer through a piece of dryer ducting into my BBQ (which is cold.) The bacon is sitting on the racks of the BBQ getting smoked. All the cracks in the BBQ are taped with duct tape.]
Some time later I was talking with Ken Albala. Ken is a Professor of History at the University of the Pacific. He teaches courses on the Renaissance and Reformation, Food History and the History of Medicine, and has written several books on these subjects. His most recent book is entitled, The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time. It is really all about foods that we don't "need" but make anyway. In fact, I think it's fair to say that it is a celebration of such foods and a celebration of taking the time and effort to make these foods as slowly and painstakingly as our forebears once did.
[Ken Albala and I at a CHoNC party. I'm the one with my tongue discretely hidden away.]
So I told him about my experience making Alton Brown's version of bacon, and how I wasn't pleased with the vinegary flavor. I don't recall his exact answer, but it was something like "why on earth did you use a wet brine to make bacon?" He told me in no uncertain terms that bacon should be cured with a dry salt rub. Needless to say, the next time I tried my hand at bacon I first consulted Ken's book. To my surprise, while he had a fair bit to say about curing meats, he barely touched on the subject of bacon. So I consulted the repository of all human knowledge, the Internet.
The recipes I found online for dry curing bacon largely followed the same general proportions for salt, sugar, and spices, but were all over the map for the amount of time that the pork bellies should be cured. They ranged from a few days to many weeks. In the end I chose to cure the pork for three weeks using a fairly simple salt and sugar rub, rotating and turning the pieces daily, and pouring off any liquid extracted from the meat. I was impressed with the amount of moisture that was drawn out of the meat in just the first 12 hours. Another noticeable quantity was extracted in the following 24 hours, a teaspoon or two in the 24 hours after that, and virtually nothing thereafter.
I took out the bits and pieces of my homemade smoking get-up and used them to produce the new and improved version 2 home smoker. This time I smoked the bacon using a variety of hardwood scrap that I got from my cabinetmaker - a much cheaper approach (gotta love free!) Six hours later I had three slabs of really beautiful looking bacon. Firm, brown, and very, very smoky. My mouth watered - so much so that I made bacon and eggs for dinner – I simply couldn't wait for breakfast the next morning.
[The V2 smoker eliminated the BBQ, which was a pain in the "A" to duct tape. The bacon is now hanging in a tall "dish-pack" box.]
To my horror, as I cooked my thick slices of bacon they turned white in the pan. I kid you not. There was so much salt in the bacon that as the fat cooked out salt was driven to the surface of the meat turning it completely white. It was, in a word, "inedible." I tried to eat some as it was. I tried washing the white powder off. No go. Now you might be thinking, “Hmmmmm, maybe Andrew just doesn’t like salt.” Oh contraire. I love salt. I’ve been known to eat the salt at the bottom of a bag of pretzels after the pretzels themselves are all gone. This was some kind of mondo-bacon-salt-from hell.
I dumped the pieces I had made for dinner in the trash and threw the remainder of that first slab in the fridge. The other two I wrapped in aluminum foil, vacuum sealed, and put in the freezer. While doing so I was thinking that was a fairly silly thing to do, since this bacon contained so much salt, so much smoke, and so little water that it probably would have lasted 100 years sitting out on the kitchen counter. Still, inedible as it was, I had put so much effort into making it that I felt it deserved the finest long-term storage that the 21st-century could provide.
I pretty much decided that the moral of that story was that if you ask a Renaissance professor for a bacon recipe, you end up with Renaissance bacon. From time to time if I was cooking something like beans or greens, to which I wanted to add a salty, smoky, bacon-ey flavor, I would toss in a piece of the slab that was resting in my refrigerator. Since it seemed like it would pretty much never go bad, I imagined that I would slowly use up each of the three slabs in that way over the course of years. But once again, Alton Brown came to my "rescue." In his episode "Ham I Am," Brown notes that if you buy a country ham, you must soak it in water for two days (with one change of water) prior to cooking.
So, I took the remainder of that first piece and put it in a non-reactive Pyrex glass dish of water for two days, changing the water on the second day (in the refrigerator of course.) When I then sliced it and cooked it up it was delicious. Clearly, the Renaissance bacon makers were producing a product whose primary purpose was long-term storage; having to soak it before use was not an issue. My friendly Renaissance professor had left that step as an exercise for the student. Furthermore, the cooks of that time would probably have found it very useful to have a super salty, super smoky, meat product that could be added to tired old stews and pease-porridge. Once I discovered that it was possible to make this bacon become delicious, I gave one of the packages from the freezer to my cabinetmaker as a "thank you" for the wood scraps.
Not long ago I took a third shot at making bacon. This time I dry rubbed the pork bellies with salt, leaving it to pull out the moisture for only 12 hours. I then put them in a wet brine consisting of water, salt, curing salt, pepper, sugar, and Maple syrup (absolutely no vinegar.) I let it brine for three days, then smoked it for six hours in my new and improved V3 home-hacked smoker, again using wood scraps from my cabinetmaker. The result was good, but not great. It was still saltier than I would have liked. Not bad, but not worth the expense or effort involved.
[The V3 smoker brings back the BBQ, but this time the wood is burning inside the BBQ, since unlike the earlier cardboard, it is a fireproof box. The fan is on the outside of the smoker box, pulling smoke from the BBQ into the box. Oh, yes, I did cut a hole in the top of my BBQ, but it is old and tired and the non-stainless parts are all rusting away. Note the fire-extinguisher - it was always there, just not visible in the photos of the earlier versions.]
I have by no means given up. Next time I am going to skip the dry rub altogether, decrease the salt in the wet brine, and significantly increase the sugar. Also, though the MacGyver-esque quality of the homemade smoker has its charms, I think I'm tired of running the risk of burning my house down. I found a really bitchin’ BBQ grill at my local Orchard Supply Hardware that does both propane grilling and charcoal grilling, and with an optional side smoker box will do cold smoking too. Besides, it makes it look like I have a locomotive parked on my patio! Woo hoo!
PS: after you cure your bacon, but before you smoke it, it needs to be dried so that it will form a "pellicle.” My local CVS was blowing out an inventory of Hamilton Beach multi-layer, fan blown, quick-dry sweater drying racks for $3.99. I have no idea why they were selling them so cheaply, since they work quite well for drying sweaters (and besides, the cord is worth $3.99.) However, what they really excel at is drying pork bellies. So if you're thinking of making your own bacon and you can lay your hands on one of these babies for under four bucks, go for it.
PPS: I had one unexpected additional piece of learning in this process: I had never realized how tough cured, smoked pig skin is. As it happens, footballs, though often called “pigskins” are not made from the skin of a pig. But I can say without reservation that they could be. Frankly, I think bullet-proof vests could be made from the stuff! I have some spectacularly sharp knives in my kitchen, but even with my beautiful Japanese-made Glestain chef’s knife it takes real effort to cut through the skin on this bacon. It absolutely must be removed before cooking, unless you enjoy chewing on bacon-flavored rubber bands.
Epilogue:[Added one night after posting this blog entry]
There's nothing like waking up in the middle of the night, one year later, and realizing your mistake - especially after you've told the whole world about it!
Brown's Good Eat's recipe called for apple cider. After viewing the episode I trundled off and started hacking away in the kitchen while my synapses, thinking about brining, pickling, preserving, etc, cheerfully turned "apple cider" into "apple cider vinegar." Doh!
Sometimes an error like that will produce some fabulous new concoction. Not so in this case. That is why my bacon tasted unpleasantly vinegary. Brown's bacon brine is probably delicious - as long as you use cider and not cider vinegar.
At first I thought, oh my god, I've got to pull that blog post right away. But then I thought of my favorite Brian Eno Oblique Strategy: "Honor thy error as a hidden intention." So, with that in mind, I considered the fact that had I followed Brown's directions correctly the first time I might well have produced delicious bacon and stopped right there. Instead I was forced to stumble head-first down this path. Therefore, in the honor of Oblique Strategy "Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify," I leave this blog in all its glory for you to enjoy, ridicule, or ignore.