Culinary School Chronicles – Bacon – Part 1
Ah bacon….if I think back to my various attempts to be a vegetarian, it was bacon that was my downfall every time. There is nothing like the salty-fattiness of a good bacon especially the morning after the night before, if you know what I mean.
In today’s class we are learning about dry curing and will be getting our bacon ready for a week in its salt cure. Once the bacon has been cured, we will apply a reduced maple syrup over it and smoke it for several hours. I can tell you now that the bacon we made is the best damned bacon I have ever eaten, and the watery, flaccid stuff you buy in packages in the grocery store pales in comparison. Incredible.
Dry curing food is a preservation technique which emerged because man needed to be able to keep certain kinds of food over long periods to prevent starvation. Dry cures work well on fish (think gravadlax) and other proteins, especially those you intend to smoke. In fact, it is recommended that you always cure your product before smoking.
Salt is the key ingredient in a dry cure and it draws moisture out of the product you are curing. The combination of reducing moisture in the product and increasing the salt content inhibits the growth of bacteria. Sugar is also important as it counter-acts the saltiness and promotes good bacteria.
Here, we are using a mixture of salt and sugar as our dry cure but you could add spices and herbs to your cure or a splash of vodka. The ratio of salt to sugar used in our cure is 3:1.5, so for 3 cups of salt you would use 1.5 cups of brown sugar.
In a commercial setting pre-made cure mixes are used, with names like pink salt, Prague powder No.2 and Insta-cure No. 2. These mixes contain sodium chloride (salt) and sodium nitrate. Nitrites are generally used for a quick cure and they break down the tissues in meat faster. Nitrates are used for longer curing times and generally when you intend to smoke something over a long period.
As an aside, pink salt is used to preserve the pink colour in meat that is cured or preserved. If you get nice pink bacon or corned beef, know pink salt has been used. If you don’t use it your product will like become a bit more brown or grey in colour, like ours, but the taste or quality won’t be affected – just the visual. Fellow blogger over at www.formerchef.com gives you a good run down of doing this using a commercial cure based on a Michael Rulhman recipe.
There is much talk in the media about nitrates and how they are bad for you. Nitrates kill bacteria – that is their job. When curing or drying meat you need nitrates to be present or your product will develop bacteria, which depending on what it is, could make you very sick or even kill you.
Reality is, as with most things, that you would have to consume an ungodly amount of them day in and day out to do any harm. Also, nitrates occur naturally in vegetables. Celery and broccoli have some of the highest levels of naturally occurring nitrates in the vegetable world.
Next time you purchase sandwich meat or hot-dogs that say they are nitrate free, check the ingredient list…bet you see celery juice in the list. So they really are not nitrate free, they just contain naturally occurring uncontrollable nitrates – meaning we can’t actually scientifically measure the amount of nitrates present. So, you decide…small amount of controllable nitrates or who knows what quantity of uncontrollable nitrates.
Maple Cured Pork Belly – Stage 1
3.5-4 lbs. pork belly
3 cups kosher salt
1 and 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 piece cheese cloth
Combine salt and sugar to make the cure. You will not need it all for this application but you will need to go back during the week and add more mixture to the curing pork.
Using a sharp knife, poke holes all over the pork on the skin side.
Wearing plastic gloves (to protect your hands from the abrasiveness of the rub) rub 1 cup of the salt-sugar cure mixture all over your pork belly. You should rub aggressively as if you are exfoliating the pork with the cure mixture.
Turn over and repeat.
Collect any cure mixture that hasn’t adhered to the surface of the pork belly and pat on gently – you are not rubbing this time.
Place pork on top of a sheet of cheese cloth and wrap well.
Lay in a container that will allow any moisture that comes out of the pork to drip off and not remain in contact with the future bacon.
We are using large commercial containers with a raised bottom to prevent any moisture that comes off the pork coming in contact with the wrapped belly.
Allow the pork belly to cure for 7-10 days, checking back once during the week to flip the belly and to add a bit more cure mixture to the package.
To be continued next week…..