*Let us preface this post by stating that you should try these recipes at your own risk. Yes, there are risk factors in making bacon without pink salt, albeit minimal, that you should consider. Proper sanitation, time and temperature control was in place for this test. This post is just a test because, well it’s fun and we are lovers of food and food science (and BACON!). We were looking for an alternative way to making bacon without nitrites. Now, read on 🙂
Since this blog is all about preserving the seasons, one of the first things that come to mind when it comes to preservation is bacon! Ahh, yes, the almighty bacon. It’s good on (almost) everything. Of course, it is argued that bacon is bad for you while others argue that bacon is GOOD for you. There are some arguments that say TCM (tinted curing mix), or the curing salt that cures pork belly into bacon causes migraines or is just bad for you all-together. Others state that its naturally occurring and NOT bad for us. We could go back and forth about the issue. Let’s not forget that everything is good in moderation. You’ll hear the same arguments about MSG (Monosodium glutamate), but that’s a topic for another discussion. All I know is that I love bacon. It’s delicious and versatile.
I went to my favorite butcher today to get some pork belly to cure for this blog. Any excuse to eat bacon and use my smoker is good enough reason to buy pork belly. I figured I’d just pick up some curing mix from the butcher while I was out but, alas, they did not carry it. As a matter of fact, looking around in my area NO ONE carried it. Yes, I know, I could easily get online and order some for just a few bucks with free shipping but, I have this awesome fresh pork belly in my cart and I don’t want it to just sit there while we wait for the TCM to arrive….and…I’m impatient, truth be told. So, I opened up my trusty smart phone and researched some “non-TCM” ways to cure bacon. There are some that caution against it and others that say it’s the best bacon they ever had. Hmm…who’s right then!? There’s only one way to find out. Besides, it would be good to have great bacon without something that most people say is bad for me. Of course, you can follow along, give it a try, and add your feedback below and we can all have fun trying it out.
I decided to test two recipes that I found online; one that uses maple sugar and sea salt and the other that uses kosher salt and white sugar. I put my own spin on flavorings; both have been seasoned with bay leaves, fresh rosemary (picked from my garden), crushed red pepper flakes and cracked black pepper. Same amounts of cure for each belly, both weighed about 4 pounds.
Both recipes claimed that they did this because of the health concerns for using pink salt. Having scoured the internet for recipes, we were only able to find these two, which was odd. Both of the recipe posters claimed it was a great finished product so we had to try both. In the past, I’ve always used a recipe that included TCM/ Pink Salt with awesome results. The results of this test should be interesting.
The bellies cured for three days in the fridge, flipping them over every day. We chose three days because the bellies felt firm when pressed, which proves that the salt did it’s trick. Both types of salt resulted in the same firmness. As you can see, there was a lot of liquid left behind.
Interestingly, both blogs recipes that we tested suggested a 3-7 day cure on average. I guess that would depend on how thick your pork belly is and/ or how much moisture is in it. We used the “poke” test and found that when the belly gets about as firm as a clenched fist, then that’s a great start.
After a 24 hour drying period, the belly has a nice “pellicle” which helps the smoke adhere better to the bacon resulting in better flavor and color. We then fired up the smoker. After a few experiments, the best results came from hard-wood charcoal burned down to ash with hunks of apple wood on top. No need to soak them in water like you would for chips, just closing up your smoker should keep the flames snuffed out enough to create a nice billow of smoke.
Now, this is the part where you have to pay attention to time and temperature. One of the recipes we tested stated “a low temperature”, a little too vague for me honestly. The other blog stated 200F which would seem a bit low when dealing with just salt. We decided to go with the temperature I used to do my old bacon recipe at which has given great results. We set the smoker to about 225F and smoked it until we got an internal temperature of around 150F. This took about 3 hours. Again, this will depend on your belly and other small factors. Make sure you have a good digital thermometer handy.
After hanging out with a nice smokey bath, it’s time to cool it off. Place it on a cooling rack and let it cool on the counter for a few minutes to let off some of the steam, lay a towel on top of it and place it in the fridge over night. This will make it a lot easier to remove the skin and slice for frying.
Ok, so now we’ve cured, rinsed, dried, smoked, cooled, peeled and sliced the bacon. I bet you’re dying to find out the results!? Well, they were interesting on a couple of instances. First of all, when frying up a few pieces from both batches, they were very salty. To say that this was a disappointment would be an understatement. Not all is lost, one of the bloggers that we used a recipe from had few commenters say they also had very salty results. Someone suggested “blanching” the bacon before frying it. Which, basically, you simmer it for a couple of minutes in water, dry it off on paper towels and fry it up as usual. Well, we tried that and it worked out great. Yes, delicious bacon. But, how to avoid this altogether? Maybe a 2 day cure? Less salt? Thicker pork belly? It’s hard to say. I mean, who wants to blanch their bacon before frying it?
We shingled up whatever we didn’t eat and placed it in freezer bags. I set it up into 6 ounce portions so it would be easy to take out of the freezer in the morning.
The end result sure looked beautiful. It was a learning experience for sure. We followed both recipes to a tee, along with some common sense adjustments. Sadly, we won’t be doing this type of bacon again any time soon. Not only was the saltiness a disappointment, but the amount of time it took to get to this point followed by the huge expense at the end of it all was hardly worth the trouble. Total time invested; 5 days. Total weight of beginning product; Almost 8 pounds. Total cost of raw belly; $45.43. Total amount of final product after shrinkage and trim; 3.5 pounds. That’s almost $13.00 per pound for really salty bacon. Even the most amazing artisan bacon I have ever eaten didn’t cost that much. After we pulled it out of the freezer the color wasn’t that nice pink hue we have come to love about real bacon. It was actually a little gray. The bacon that I used to make with commodity belly and TCM cost considerably less money at the end of the day. So, unless you have an endless income and absolutely have to smoke bacon without nitrates, my suggestion would be to head to your local box store and buy some nitrate-free bacon and spend the money you’ll save on really, really good cage-free eggs.
After all was said and done, we learned something. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I suggest you use your smoker to make pulled pork instead. Check back with this blog for more awesome ways to preserve the seasons, even if it’s just fun to watch us do it!