Simple Charcuterie: How to make Bacon. Beginner’s method 1
Bacon is a hugely versatile ingredient and a long established favourite among meat eaters (as well as the crippling blow to many ex-vegetarians). A good dry cured bacon is both delicious and essential in a full English Breakfast. However, many of us opt for the cheaper stuff and often find ourselves a little disappointed with what could have been. What if we could make bacon for less money than the standard stuff? What if we could make free-range, high welfare, dry-cured and dry aged bacon for less than the standard stuff? And what if that bacon is downright delicious? Well, this is one reason to make your own. Another reason is that it is very easy.
The main reason is, well, BACON!
In this example I’ll be making green (unsmoked) streaky bacon.
I’ve used a few bacon-making methods in the past but wanted to present the easiest one possible for you to replicate at home. The following method is heavily influenced by both River Cottage Handbook 13: Curing and Smoking, where Steven Lamb avoids using nitrites and nitrates as much as possible, and Simon and Debbie Dawson from Hidden Valley Pigs who avoid using them at all. (Simon and Debbie are a great resource for training, as well as sourcing whole pigs if you live close enough). I’ll try to give options as I go and list a few more at the end.
There really isn’t very much needed here. The most important part is that it’s helpful to have an area that is out of direct sunlight, is neither warm nor too cold, and has some air flow. A garden shed would work well. We use a large unheated cupboard and leave the door ajar; this is where we will hang the bacon. Other than that you will need:
- A bowl to mix and keep the cure. Preferably a round one as it makes mixing easier.
- Something to store the bacon in. This needs to hold the bacon flat. A large plastic food tub would work. We use giant food grade plastic bags.
- A fridge with space to hold the bacon flat and level.
- Means to hang the bacon. Ideally a bacon comb or hook. You could also use a meat hook or just some food safe string.
- A small very sharp knife to remove bones (if they are present) and to remove the skin. A boning knife is perfect and pretty cheap. If you have a good butcher, they could order one for you.
- Means to slice the finished product. This could be a large sharp knife (I’ll use a butchers steak knife. Again, pretty cheap and from my butcher) or a dedicated meat slicer.
- Cut / slice resistant glove. Optional, but highly recommended by me. Nothing puts you off bacon more than bleeding over it.
- 2 kg (4 1/2 lb) piece of free range belly pork, without bones but skin on.*
- 500 g (1 lb 1 oz) Fine Sea salt
- 300 g (10 1/2 oz) Brown sugar (Demerara is ideal)
- Choice of herbs and spices. I love crushed juniper berries but you can go to town with whatever you want here. Don’t overdo the quantities though. A few teaspoons is plenty.
*Steve Lamb recommends the pork belly retains the ribs. This keeps that side of the belly flatter which prevents the cure from being uneven. I’d rather use the ribs in something else and also keep the slicing easier. Being careful applying the cure overcomes the potential drawback. I find keeping the skin on helps the bacon to retain a good shape while hanging; it’s pretty easy to remove later. Obviously the ‘free range’ bit is optional. However, the additional firmness of the meat and the finer flavour makes it well worth investing a bit; it’s still going to be far cheaper than shop bought bacon. If you have access, it’s very worth seeking out different rare breads to give yourself a culinary journey. Ours is free range and local belly, for local people.
Still with me? OK, this really is easy so let’s get going…
First, trim any excess fat from the belly and try to even it out. You want it pretty even with no loose flaps or crevices.
Mix the cure. Put the salt, sugar and any herbs and spices you are using into a bowl and thoroughly mix.
Place your pork belly, flat, into the container or bag.
Take a handful of the cure and rub into the bacon. Once completely covered, flip and rub into the other side. There’s no need to be too aggressive here, but do make sure the belly is evenly covered, including the sides / edges. Once completely covered, put on the lid or wrap the bag around and place flat into the refrigerator.
If your meat is in a tub, turn it after 12 hours. As mine is bagged, I turn it every 8 hours or so. After 24 hours, remove the meat from the fridge. You will find that a pool of liquid has magically appeared.
Pour of all the liquid and reapply another quarter of the cure all over the bacon. Re-wrap or seal and place back in the fridge. Turn as before and repeat every 24 hours until the cure has all gone. This should take you 4 – 5 days. The meat will get darker and stiffer every time. After the four days, the bacon will be pretty stiff and the skin will be pretty hard. Rinse off all the cure and dry the bacon on a clean towel.
You now technically have bacon. You could roast this now for a bacon joint or hot smoke it on the barbeque.
We want to age ours. Some methods (such as Ruhlman and Polcyn) advise doing this in a low oven, around 95°C / 200°F until the internal temperature is 65°C / 150°F. We’ve tried this. It does work but isn’t as satisfying as dry ageing. That said, if having meat hanging around for long periods of time isn’t your thing, this could be the method for you.
To dry age we simply need to hang the bacon somewhere not too hot, not too cold, and with a bit of a draft. If you have a bacon comb / hooks, perfect; push the tines through one end and hang. Alternatively, use a regular meat hook or skewer a hole in a corner and thread with string. If you are using string, I find it best to put two holes in, one in each corner, and use two sets of string to try to maintain the shape of the belly.
Leave to dry for around 7 – 10 days, take the bacon down and using a very sharp knife remove the skin. This is where having a cut resistant glove is very useful! You can use the skin to add flavour to soup. Just lay it over the top as you cook.
We now square off the bacon to help get even slices. We tend to be quite liberal with the amount we square by as all off-cuts are turned into lardons. For the slices themselves, use long even strokes with a very big and sharp knife. I’m using a 12″ butcher’s steak knife (or scimitar) but a large cook’s knife will do. If you have a meat slicer, all the better.
That’s it. Make yourself a bacon butty!
Options and tips
- Back bacon: use boned loin of pork, cure for 7 days, dry for 14 days.
- If you only want lardons, go for a more savoury cure and cut down on the sugar.
- Try soaking the bacon in maple syrup for two days before beginning the process.
- To cold smoke, allow to dry for 24 hours, cold smoke for 12 hours then continue to dry another 5 days.
- If you must have a smokey flavour but don’t have a smoker, use a wetter cure by combing the ingredients with a shot of bourbon and some liquid smoke. Apply all the cure at once and flip every 12 hours for 4 days.
- Place the bacon in the freezer for 20 minutes before slicing. This will make it firmer and easier to get thin, even slices.
Go one further; Make Pancetta!
Cut down on the sugar and add minced garlic / garlic powder, bay leaves, thyme, nutmeg , black pepper and crushed juniper berries to the cure. Follow the method above but hang the meat for around 20 days for a much firmer texture. Traditional pancetta is rolled, but that would bring us into the nitrite / nitrate debate as we would be providing an anaerobic environment for botulism.
Let us know how you get on. If you have any tips or questions, let us know in the comments.