Bacon. Food of the Gods.

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Earlier this year I signed up for one of the classes at Urban Food Market in Marrickville, run by Tim. He warned me that I’d be eating a lot of bacon. Really, a lot of bacon! I assured him I could never tire of good bacon.

For some time, I have been on the trail of the perfect smoky porky cut; that didn’t leak milky nastiness into the frying pan, and shrink by 50%, that wasn’t too salty, and which I could guarantee the provenance of – humane choice bacon – difficult to do under a supermarket monoculture, unless you have access to an excellent butcher. So the lure of easy, homemade bacon was strong. Seems I wasn’t alone – a Scottish couple in the class were also bemoaning the difficulty of locating a decent rasher.

Reading the excellent Cured, by Lindy Wildsmith, and researching slightly obsessively online, had suitably scared the beejezus outta me, with warnings about the dangers of improperly cured meats potentially causing a slow and painful death by paralysis (botulism). I wasn’t about to go off experimenting on my own. I rather like being alive. All the requirements for nitrates and nitrites in exactly the correct proportions seemed terribly off putting as well. Even with books (and the always accurate internet) I wanted hand holding. Lots of hand holding! There’s nothing quite like being able to ask 100s of inane questions to make me feel better.  

So seeing a tweet about bacon making classes had me running for the sign up form.

After all my misgivings, my feelings were initially divided when Tim advised he was only going to use salt, sugar and spices to cure his bacon. No nitrates, no nitrites. (Actually, nitrites tend to be used in curing products which are intended to be eaten raw, such as salami). On the other hand people have been preserving food with salt for a very very long time, so why not?? My discovery that the botulinum toxin is destroyed by heat further buoyed my confidence. So long as I didn’t trough kilos of the stuff raw, I was going to be fine.

After plying us with beers (very civilised) we started with looking at two types of cure that he’d made previously: a dry rub and brining.

here’s two I made earlier…

The dry rub bacon tended to be darker and drier, whilst the brined was pinker.

Proto-streaky dry rub bacon

Loin and bellyCUTS

Tasting everything, quickly fried up before we got started, gave us a picture of what we were going to achieve – motivation indeed – but to my surprise, it wasn’t a hands on class. Other than to regularly scoff pork products that is! Thinking it through, the curing takes time, so it makes sense to demonstrate first, and then let us go out into the world with all the ingredients we needed to make our own: a kilo or so of excellent free range pork belly, bags of cure and spice mix, meat thermometer and jar of organic barley malt.

The hints and tips are what make all the difference when doing stuff yourself, so I took notes and photos galore to add to the notes we were given to take away. Tim emphasised the need to label everything with dates and details, because if you’re anything like me, you’re going to forget what day you did what on. Wrapping the maturing dry rubbed meat in j-cloths and using a magic marker for dates makes it easy.

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Prepping the meat involved cutting off every scrap of flap or pocket in the meat to give an even surface that was as flat as possible:IMG-20120630-00367

This was dried thoroughly with a j cloth and cut to a rectangle. Next up – chose your rub!

Dry rub – this is so simple it’s crazy. The key is to get the proportion of salt right – it should be 7% of the weight of the meat. We used ordinary salt with a mix of herbs – Tim encouraged us to experiment with our favourites, but he used mixes of dried thyme, peppercorns, juiper berries, cloves and bay.  To that he added 2 tablespoons of barley malt per kilo of meat.

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This was then rubbed well into the meat, making sure every surface was covered and massaged in. As this mix cures as well as flavours, it’s important to cover all the met thoroughly.

Then it was off to sit in the fridge in a clean, covered plastic tub, and be turned once per day.

The brine came next; if anything that’s even simpler. This time the salt has to be 15% of the total weight of the meat AND the weight of the water combined. Bearing in mind that water is 1kg per litre, you have to make sure you know how much water you’ll be using, so measure it into your container first! Add your prepped meat to the brine, weight with a plate and cover. Pop in the fridge and leave for 4 days! Once brined, it can be flavoured in a similar way to the dry rub; but I’ll come to that next time!

We also looked at smoking the cured meat (let’s call it bacon, shall we?). You don’t need fancy equipment for this; Tim has a little domed Weber set up in the corner, with a foil parcel of wood chips sitting next to the bacon on the grill:

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After only a short time – pow! Smoked bacon. God, it looked & smelled yum:

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After checking with a thermometer that it’d reached the most excellent temperature, we got to eat. Boy oh boy, that was some fine bacon.

And so there it was; makin’ bacon. As promised, we had bacon coming outta our ears. There was bacon to try before we started (and beers, to wash it down with), bacon during the class – even raw bacon, if we so wished - and bacon and pasta and wine after the class around a trestle table. Terrific! I couldn’t wait to have a go at home.

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