Last week, Rachel and I decided to smoke up some bacon. This was actually a week long project in the making. (It shouldn’t actually take that long, but I got shipped down to Beaverton for a better part of the week).
After reading about all the people raving about how much better home-made bacon taste, we knew we had to try it. We started by sourcing a piece of belly pork from a Chinese supermarket:
At $3.69 per pound, this is pretty reasonable size for lots of fatty porcine goodness.
Here’s a closeup of the cut. This cut is called in Chinese 五花腩 – literally “Five flower belly” or “five layer belly”. Cooks, when selecting this from the meat market, will be looking for 5 (or more) stripes o meat and fat in uniform bands. In Chinese cooking, this is often made into 燒肉 (roast pork) – a unique delight in its own right with a crispy skin and succulent pork under self-basting fat caps. This particular sample was probably a bit too fatty for our taste, but it worked well for our first experiment.
Here’s Rachel stirring up the brine. (BTW, it’s AWESOME to have someone to cook with. ). We are using Alton Brown’s “Scrap Iron Chef” brine recipe, consisting of:
Since this is a pilot run, we’ve scaled everything down by a factor of 4.
Since the brining operation takes about 4 days, and there is a very high salt content, it’s important to use non-reactive cooking vessels. Stainless steel works quite well; we’re using an 18-10 stainless pot here. We brine in plastic zip-lock bags, but for larger batches we’ll need to visit the local cash and carry for a food grade HDPE plastic bucket.
THe brine needs to be between 36 deg F and 40 deg F for brining. Here, we stuck one of our thermometer probes into the brine and put the brine in the freezer to drop the temperature.
Too low a temp will stop the chemical reaction. Too high a temp is probably bad for other reasons. (and we definitely don’t want to melt out any of the fat now …)
I like the taste of peppercorn, so I decided to rub in some peppercorn. To be honest, I don’t think this does much, the brine pretty much overpowers any of the black pepper. Maybe if I rub this in *after* brining…
So, typically, the meat should brine for 3-4 days. Unfortunately, work had me in Beaverton for a few days during the window at the end of the brining process. So this brined for a whole week. The use of molasses probably didn’t help either. On the next revision, I am going to substitute in apple syrup for molasses.
The pork belly is patted dry throughly with kitchen towels, then set onto a cooling rack in front of a fan for a final blow dry for about an hour. This forms a pellicle, or a sticky gooey coating, from the dissolved proteins reflowing inside the meat.
In the instructions I’ve read, the pellicle helps with smoke adhesion. Since smoke is just a colloid suspension of ultrafine combustion byproducts, I guess it makes sense that it’ll get deposited onto the meat and stuck on by the liquified protein…
The next step is smoking the bacon. This is much harder than one would think. Bacon is meant to be cold smoked. There are two reasons for this. First of all, we don’t want to render out any of the bacon fats, but most importantly, meats are more porous raw than cooked. By keeping the temperature low, the bacon soaks up that smokey goodness.
The target temperature for cold smoking is about 80 deg F. Note that a hot summer day, even in Seattle, can exceed that. In my case, since I’m crazy enough to man a BBQ while there’s snow on the ground, the ambient temperature isn’t too much a problem. However, getting a sustained burn and keeping the temp that low *is*.
I solved the issue here by fuel-limiting the reaction. I lit half a chimney’s worth of mesquite charcoal and carefully spread out the lit coals. Then I dumped a bubba keg’s worth of apple chips on the charcoal and close all the vents – enough leaks exists in the system to keep the combustion going, but at least the fuel can’t runaway on me.
I was able to hold about 90 deg F for an hour – then I went to bed and retrieved the bacon in the morning for slicing:
And of course …
Goes well with a couple of eggs over easy.
Home made bacon, compared to the store bought variety, is completely different. Store bought stuff to me is just usually salty fatty meat. Here, I can taste the apple comiing through in the fat rendering out, and the pork has a flavor and texture that just can’t be compared to the store bought stuff.
We will be making some modifications to the smoker and running another batch. Strictly for engineering testing, of course…