Charcuterie is alchemy; the power to transform one substance into another using simple ingredients and patience. I’m not saying that salt has the power of Midas. That’s something you have to decide for yourself.
I started February’s apprentice Charcutepalooza challenge with three pounds of pork belly, lots of salt, some pink curing salt, brown sugar, coriander seeds, black pepper and less than a ¼ cup of really good local cider. As much as I wanted to use all nine pounds of my pork belly and plunge into the more advanced charcutrie challenge (making pancetta), along with the bacon, I decided to pace myself – though only in terms of pork.
Right now, I’ve got preserved lemons aging in the pantry, a filet of salmons curing in the garage and a crock of sauerkraut fermenting in the closet under our stairs. I suspect my husband might be planning some kind of an intervention.
I chose to use curing salt, or pink salt, because I was determined to smoke my bacon, rather than roasting it in the oven, as recommended by the recipe in Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting Smoking and Curing– the official bible of Charcutepalooza. I wanted my homemade bacon to have the power to wow, and to evoke whatever taste memories were out there waiting for me.
Making bacon turns out be incredibly simple and since it cures in the refrigerator throughout the process, it’s less anxiety provoking for a neophyte charcuterie maker (like myself), than was January’s duck prosciutto challenge.
The pork belly cures in a bag, in the fridge and gets a daily massage until it feels firm. On the seventh day of curing, I decided it was as firm as it was likely to get. I washed, dried and refrigerated it. The next day, I smoked it in my grill over smoldering hickory wood. As I said in my relish post, I’ve smoke meat before, and I was pretty confident that I could keep the temperature low enough. My method involves lots of fiddling with the fire, and keeping a water-filled spray bottle constantly at the ready. After three hours over my cool fire, I checked the meat’s internal temperature, and at 150° F it was good to go.
And as soon as it was cool, I cut a few pieces off and fried them. The taste was astonishing – smokey, slightly sweet, oh so rich and familiar. My pork belly was on the lean side. It probably wouldn’t be considered ideal for making bacon by an expert, but for me, it was perfect. The luscious mouth feel of the bacon fat – there’s something no one can ever forget – hooked me at the first bite.
Forcing myself to be completely objective, I’ll say that my bacon turned out a little too salty – next time I’ll leave it in the cure for a little less time. But it wasn’t so salty that I need to blanch ( the remedy for excessive salt) the meat.
So what did I do with my first batch of homemade bacon? Nothing revolutionary; my new adventures in bacon – starting with the bacon jam that my fellow Charcutepaloozers are raving about, are still ahead. For today, I’d just like to quote Molly O’Neill and say “Taste summons memory, but context imbues it.”
Stay tuned tomorrow, for part 2.