Friday, 13 February 2015

Proper English Bacon

We find American bacon too sweet as a great deal more sugar is used in the curing process. This recipe is for old fashioned, no bells or whistles English dry cured bacon. It's lightly salty, meat-sweet rather than sugary, porky and, in my mind, the way bacon should taste.

Buy the best quality pork belly that you can afford, ideally from the back of the pig's belly where it will be thicker. The meat towards the front lies over the ribs so will give you thinner slices of bacon. I use Hampshire pork, a breed originally from England that is raised in the wild, fed on clover, grass and herbs and then slaughtered as humanely as possible. Stress at the time of death has a deleterious impact on meat quality, particularly in pigs where it can lead to blood spots that ruin the meat's texture and flavour. It's simple really - happy pigs equals good meat!

Ask your butcher to take off the skin leaving as much fat on the meat as possible. You can save the skin to make pork scratchings.

I choose not to use sodium nitrite (pink salt) in the curing process. Nitrites are used commercially to impede the growth of harmful bacteria like botulism in particular and result in the meat retaining a pink colour that is considered appealing by some. I find the colour looks unnatural and prefer not to use chemicals for home production.  The likelihood of botulism is very low and sea salt has a certain amount of naturally occurring nitrates but this is a decision each person should make for themselves.

There's no need to use the more expensive flaky sea salt as fine grained crystals will penetrate the meat more evenly.


a skinless pork belly - how much is up to you!
Fine grained sea salt
Granulated sugar
Coarse ground black peppercorns

What to do

First give your pork belly a quick rinse, dry it off and trim off any scraps of meat or fat that hang off the main piece. Measure the height of the thickest part of the belly and make a note. Then weigh the belly and use the following proportions to work out how much salt, sugar and pepper you will need. 

30g salt per kg of meat
10g sugar per kg
4g peppercorns per kg

You'll see it's really not very much at all but don't worry - it's all you need. Mix the seasonings together and rub them evenly over the exposed meat and fat. Make sure you rub everything in well, get into any crevices and go around all the edges. Lay a sheet of cling film on a table and add an overlapping sheet if necessary so that you will be able to fold the edges over the belly on every side. Lay the belly on the cling film, fold up the edges and then put another sheet over the top. Wrap the belly tightly in several more layers of cling film so it's completely sealed and place it in a waterproof tray in case any liquid works its way out over the coming days.

Leave the wrapped belly to cure for one day per half inch of thickness plus two additional days. Turn it over once a day to help the cure distribute. You should keep the belly in a cool place, ideally at 1.5°C (35°F), so it doesn't spoil. Smell the wrapped belly when you turn it each day - it should not smell sour or funky in any way.

Try to keep humidity at around 80% for the best results during curing and drying. In the winter I cure and dry my pork in an unheated room with a humidifier next to it set to 80%.

Once the belly has cured it's time to dry the meat and prepare it for smoking. Unwrap the belly and then either hang it on metal hooks or I find it easier to lay the belly on a metal rack over a baking tray. Let it dry for two days, turning each day. The surface should be dry to touch and not slimy. At this stage you have made bacon. You can use it now as greenback bacon and store it for three months or more providing it is kept tightly wrapped and in a fridge.

Or you can cold smoke it to add more flavour! I like to smoke mine with oak wood for four hours to give it a light smokey kiss that doesn't overwhelm the porky of the bacon. The cold smoking process couldn't be easier. I use a Pro-Q cold smoker with oak dust and put the bacon, metal rack, tray and all in a large cardboard box with the lit smoker and punch a couple of small holes on either side of the box. I seal the top with wide tape and that's it. Just make sure the outside temperature is not above 26°C and preferably lower.

After smoking wrap your bacon in cling film again and let it rest for a week to allow the flavours develop and distribute. You don't have to do this if you can't wait but I do think it improves the final result.