Friday, March 05, 2010

5 March 2010: Cure

Here's how to dry-cure your own bacon. This one's been requested by a number of correspondents and finally I remembered to take photos of the final stages, so here it is...

On top (not literally on top) of the clotted cream, pasties and sausages comes the requirement to be able to make back bacon over here in sunny Kokomo, because you can't buy it. (Actually you can buy it from here via overnight frozen air-shipping and you can also get that rubbish Galtee stuff from Jungle Jim's for which you pay $6 for half a pound. So, effectively, you might as well learn how to make it.)

The thing about bacon is this: it's easy, but it takes ages. I was first led to think about the possibilities of curing bacon myself back before we moved here: on a visit to London we went to one of those tiny overstocked bookshops on Charing Cross Road and found in the basement a cookbook from 1946. Generally it wasn't expected that the housewife had a refrigerator back then, so it contains a lot of now-forgotten techniques including how to make clotted cream (from the evening delivery rather than the morning one, of course) and, bizarrely, how to make toast. Also of course how to make the most of everything available, so there are plenty of recipes in there for sheep's brains and the like. Yum.

But this is my favourite page:

So taking this text as inspiration rather than a direct instruction set, I also went to a US supplier of saltpetre equivalent (you don't need much but if you have none it will all go brown and look grim). Saltpetre itself (Potassium Nitrate) is used to make explosives, apparently, and also fertilizer, so getting hold of food-grade saltpetre isn't simple. Sodium Nitrite, however, will do as a substitute, and I found out that is a US supplier who will sell you a small bag of "Cure #1" that is 6.25% sodium nitrite and the rest is salt for a reasonable price. So, a quick internet order later, and delivered to our door was the following bag of pink granules:

Once you have that, the rest is simple. You essentially mix one part brown sugar to two parts salt, and throw in a little pink stuff for good measure. As an example, the most recently-cured bacon weighed 2.4kg before starting the process, which meant 60g of salt (sea salt or kosher salt is best), 30g of soft brown sugar and 8g of Cure #1. Some recipes call for pepper too, but I found that didn't add anything. So, throw all that in the bowl...

... and mix it up. Next, go to your friendly butcher and ask for some pork loin. Or wait until there's a good one on sale at the supermarket so you can boast about the overall price per pound. Anyway, get your loin and clean it off, then dry it with kitchen roll. It needs to be as dry as possible before you start, because essentially the curing process is entirely about forcing out water. Less wet to start with = better overall result.

Then get your mix and rub it on to the pork. All over. Don't miss a spot. Some of the mix will end up on your hands, some on the board/plate/tub you're using for the process... but make sure the pork is covered. If it's not, then that little uncured bit will go off during the long curing process and then the rest of it might go off and you'll have to start again.

Once you're happy that the cure mix is into all the nooks and crannies, including the sides and the ends, then put it in a resealable bag.

Then stick it in the fridge. Check it every day - you'll find a surprising amount of water in the bag, especially the first few days. This is the salt forcing out the water, and 'curing' the meat of food poisoning possibilities. (I'm assuming that's why this process is called curing? I don't really know). In theory, once the process is complete, you should be able to eat it raw with no danger of getting ill. I haven't tried that, to be honest... but think about Parma ham, which is the same process, only with a different cure mix and done for longer.

You should turn the meat every day when you check it, so the bit that's been sitting in the water has some time on top. I've read conflicting reports on whether to drain the water out daily. My most recent attempt did NOT drain it out, just turned the meat every day, and it was the most successful attempt to date.

How long in the fridge depends on the thickness of the meat. I've typically found pork loins here to be about 2.5 inches thick. The rule is 2 days per inch plus 2 days, which works out as a week. If you're doing streaky bacon using the belly, you'll find that it's thinner - maybe just an inch, leading to a three-day stay in the fridge.

I have read that if you're curing meat with the skin (rind) on, the cure mix doesn't go through the tough skin, so you have to ensure there's enough time for the mix to get through the whole thing from the other side: in other words, double your estimate. I haven't tried this: it's not easy to get these cuts here. However, I'll also say this - the '2 days per inch plus 2 days' is not a hard and fast rule: there's nothing wrong with leaving it longer, it won't do any harm, it'll just probably get a little more salty and ham-like. The most recent one we did was left in for three or four days longer than expected (due to me being in Australia and forgetting to ask Gloria to take it out of the fridge) and it turned out really well.

OK - so once the time is up, take it out of the bag, rinse it thoroughly and then it's time to hang it. The purpose of this is so that the outside of the meat can perform some drying process to form a protein layer called 'pellicle' ... that means it's less likely to go bad, and also it helps with smoking the bacon if you want to do that - the salt does something or other and so protects the meat inside. And traditionally, you do this by hanging in a cool place (and, according to that 1946 cookbook, by using muslin to keep the flies off)... with a drip tray underneath or a dedicated section if you're going to do it in a fridge. We don't have a hook, so I use a wire rack from a roasting pan and put the bacon on it, alone in the cheese drawer of the fridge. Leave it to 'hang' for two to three days.

At this point, however, I need to introduce you to Alton Brown. He's a TV chef over here who for over 10 years has presented a Food Network show called 'Good Eats'. His sensibilities for good, real food match those of Jamie, Hugh etc over in the UK, and his show is not so much about food or recipes as about the actual scientific processes involved with cooking. To cut a long story short, he did a show about bacon (in which he cleverly paid homage to Iron Chef and Scrapheap Challenge) and he actually made bacon (streaky bacon in this case). And he said - and demonstrated - that actually the best, quickest way to perform the hanging process is to stick your bacon on top of a fan and let the fan do the work for an hour or so. The relevant section of this show is YouTube'd here, and I advise you to watch it, along with every other episode of his show.

Alton Brown then goes on to talk about how to cold-smoke meats such as bacon. I don't do that because I prefer unsmoked bacon, and also I'd have to get/build a cold smoker. So once it's dried and happy, I cut it up into three or four chunks and freeze them all but one. The one that stays out will be used immediately...

It actually looks a little more like the right colour for bacon now. So then you slice it as thick as you like:

Another side note: Alton Brown says that trying to slice streaky bacon when it's at room temperature is like trying to shave a ferret: no matter how hard you try, someone is going to get hurt. Much higher fat content = much more wibbly wobbly = put it in the freezer for an hour to make it solidify a bit before trying to cut. Back bacon doesn't have this issue, as the photo above shows.

Finally, cook and eat. Yum yum. So it takes about a week and a half all told, of which the initial effort is about 20 mins, maybe 1 min a day checking and turning, a little time to do the drying/hanging/fan thing and that's it. Really easy. And thus we have proper bacon.

And a quick word on curing: there are many types of cure, as you'll know from visiting Waitrose.
  • The expensive one is 'dry cure' (that's the exact process I described above) - weirdly, because for the small-time individual bacon maker, it's pretty much the easiest way to make it. Commercially, however, it's a little more labour-intensive than the others because you can't make a machine do it all.
  • Then there's Wiltshire Cure, which is a wet cure where you mix up your salt mixture as a water-based solution (don't use sea water - you don't know where it's been) and soak the pork in there for a while. Same idea, slightly different medium.
  • Finally there's wet cure, which is generally the commercially-standard method for making bacon: they get the saltwater solution as described in Wiltshire Cure, add a bunch more nitrates to it and other preservatives, put it in a syringe and inject it into the middle of the pork, from where it spreads out through the meat and cures from the inside very quickly. This is quick, easy, can be mass-produced but requires a bunch of additives along, of course, with all that additional water that is going in there. If you get white stuff and water coming out when you cook your bacon, now you know what it is. Makes it heavier too having all that added water (don't forget, dry curing forces water out, making it lighter) so you can charge $6 per pound and have 20% of that weight being water. As Alton Brown would say "good business, but not good eats".
  • Beyond that, the variations generally come down to the smoking options, although you can add flavour by adding items to the cure mix: herbs, spices, pepper etc. I did it with pepper and found the flavour almost identical.

So there you are - dry cure bacon, very easy if a little time-consuming. Make it yourself. I challenge you.


Nick Gibbins said...

I am in awe - good work!

Rob said...

I love the "mix as much salt as you think you'll need" bit from the book...

gareth said...

Fantastic! Amongst all your many talents you're now becoming a guru of the important culinary arts!

DuncMcRae said...

Well Gareth, I believe the deal was that if I put the method up then you would (one day) have a go at making bacon too. I've kept my half of the bargain...

Actually a lot of the stuff I'm doing is easy but in the UK you don't HAVE to do it, so you don't. But that 1946 cookbook is a real inspiration when it comes to realising how easy some of this stuff is, and how disgusting some of the other stuff is (literally PAGES of recipes for animal brains). I should probably do a blog on it with photos of the best recipes. I doubt it's still in copyright.

andymoore said...

so, isn't the next step training to be a Master Butcher?

Doug said...

Doug said...


I'm in the wrong business!

DuncMcRae said...

Correct - that's the 'special offer' price of $89.95. That's for 4lb of back bacon and 8lbs of sausages. Assuming sausages all cost the same (and the price of sage in this kind of volume isn't really significant), I reckon it costs me about $2.50 per pound to make the sausages ($1 of which is the skins) and maybe $4 per pound for the bacon, depending on the deal you can get on the meat (it can be as good as $2 or even $1.50). So at a conservative estimate we're talking $16 for 4lbs of bacon and $20 for 8lbs of sausages, making $36, meaning a profit of $54 per pack if I were to make and sell at the same level.

And that is with me buying all the meat at individual retail prices at the supermarket. Wholesale prices will be substantially lower, even for real good quality organic meat which is what I'd prefer to use.

Allie said...

I like the fact you can use kosher salt to cure a pig.