Charcuterie for Beginners – Making Bacon
When I started pursuing my meat curing dreams I began by making one of the simplest things I could at home – bacon. I had no curing chamber, nor any sense of temperature and humidity controlled environments. So, I did what any able-bodied home chef with a penchant for cured meat would do – I bought the Ruhlman/Polcyn book on Charcuterie and began to learn. About 30 pages in I realized I could make this savory treat, this vegetarian converting concoction, without anything that might be interpreted as ‘special equipment’.
All I needed were the following items:
Required Equipment and Ingredients for Making Bacon
There’s not much you need to make bacon at home. Here’s the simple list to get you started:
- Ziploc Bags – 1 gal or 2.5 gallon size
- Kosher Salt
- Pink Salt/Cure #1 (see below)
- Demerara sugar
- A baking sheet
- Quality Pork Belly
- A digital scale (for weighing cure ingredients)
- An oven or a smoker
- Some wood chips (if smoking)
Yahtzee! I had these things. I was golden and on my way towards savoring some delicious bacon.
Step 1 – Buying Pork Belly
If you’re lucky enough to have a grocery store or, better yet, a butcher shop nearby that carries excellent quality meat then you are in luck. Most will have fresh pork belly available. If you aren’t, then you’ll need to place a special order and wait for its arrival. Don’t skimp on buying low quality pork belly. Get the best you can – ideally hormone-free, sustainably raised pork fed with non-GMO grain that are allowed to pasture. I can tell you that it’s worth the extra cost and your bacon will taste that much better. If this isn’t an option, go the best you can get and pay a little extra if you have to.
When I make bacon I use pieces of skinless belly generally from 2-5 pounds. I trim them and square off the corners before I apply the cure.
Step 2 – The Basic Dry Cure
I’ve included my recipe for creating a basic dry cure here. There are three basic ingredients – kosher salt, Demerara or raw sugar, and pink salt or cure #1. Keep in mind that pink salt is called such as it dyed this color to signify the content of sodium nitrite which can be harmful if too much is consumed. These are combined in the following ratios:
- Kosher Salt = 1
- Demerara = .70
- Pink Salt or Cure #1 = .10
It’s critical that you weigh these ingredients and don’t rely on volume measurement. In addition, different types of salt weigh different amounts based on the size of the flake so you really need to weigh your ingredients.
If you don’t have a source for pink salt you can get it from The Hungry Dog’s store here. I typically make a batch of basic dry cure starting with 2.5 pounds of kosher salt. Measure each ingredient out by weight, mix with a whisk and store in an airtight container.
Step 3 – Applying the Cure
Now it’s time to apply the cure to the belly and begin the journey towards eating delicious bacon.
- Use the ‘salt box’ method of curing – which is basically using enough of your basic dry cure (described above) to cover all sides of the belly evenly with a thin layer of cure, or
- I measure out the 3 dry cure ingredients above using the following percentages based on the weight of the pork belly to be cured:
- Kosher Salt – 3%
- Pink Salt – .25%
- Demerara – 1.5%
For example, if I had a 5 pound pork belly (2268 grams), I would use:
- 68 grams of kosher salt
- 6 grams of pink salt
- 34 grams of Demerara sugar
For this recipe, I used the latter method as the photos below show:
Take your pork belly and place it on a baking sheet large enough to accommodate it. Then, pour enough basic dry cure on it to cover every side – top, bottom and ends – with a thin layer. Make sure you rub the cure into any crevices and space where air may touch the meat.
Step 4 – Seasonings
Now is when you can get creative with your bacon. Take the pork belly and put it into a zip-lock bag large enough to accommodate it. If you like sweet bacon, you can add a 1/2 cup of brown sugar or maple syrup at this time. If you like a more savory bacon, you can add things like black pepper, rosemary, garlic or thyme.
The possibilities are endless here and it’s up to your personal taste. A good way to experiment is to split the belly into two equal halves and to season each slightly differently. Side-by-side tasting comparisons will help guide your future batches of bacon.
Step 5 – The Flip
Now, into the fridge goes your bacon. I note the date, record the weight, and cure for 7 days without using any weight to compress the bacon. During this phase, you’ll want to flip the bag every other day and give it a good rub to redistribute the ingredients.
Note – if you are using brown sugar or maple syrup in your cure you will likely notice a more significant amount of liquid becoming present inside the bag. This is normal as water is being extracted from the pork by the salt in the cure as well as the sugars liquefying.
Step 6 – Remove and Rinse Your Bacon
After 7 days of patient waiting, it’s time to remove your bacon from the cure. You’ll notice that the meat has become much more firm over the past week. Take the bacon out of the Ziploc bag and give it a thorough rinse to remove as much residual salt as possible. Bacon that is too salty is just not that good.
At this point, if you plan on smoking your bacon you may choose to let it form a pellicle which acts as a protective barrier and allows smoke to adhere to the bacon. This can be achieved by simply leaving the bacon out, uncovered in the fridge for 12-24 hours or at room temp in front of a fan for 2-4 hours.
Step 7 – To Smoke or Not to Smoke?
Now, you’ll need to cook your bacon to complete the process. You have two basic options here:
- Smoke it – if you have a smoker, you can go this route using any hardwood chips or pellets specially made for it. I like using various fruit woods. It’s fun to experiment and taste the different flavors imparted by each type of wood.
- You can cook slow and low in your oven.
Whether using a smoker or an oven, I set temperatures at ~200 degrees Fahrenheit to finish off the bacon. You’ll need to measure internal temperature of the meat here as we’re looking for ~155 degrees Fahrenheit.
I’m fortunate enough to have a smoker I bought for about $150 from Home Depot which is great for home use. That said, your bacon will come out perfectly well if you just cook it in the oven.
Step 8 – Eating Your Bacon
Now you’re done. One of the best parts of this process is taking a bite or two of the bacon freshly out of the oven or smoker. It’s moist, delicious, fatty and beautiful. Don’t miss it.
I let my bacon cool on a rack to room temperature before vacuum sealing it. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, plastic wrap is fine. It will keep in this state refrigerated for 2-3 weeks. Bacon freezes well too so if you plan on saving it for a bit, then wrap in plastic and store in a Ziploc in your freezer for up to 6 months.
There are so many uses for this versatile charcuterie. You can make lardons, cube it and put it into Quiche Lorraine, slice and pan fry it or, my favorite – thickly sliced and grilled. No matter how you choose to use your bacon, you are sure to never buy bacon from the store again and to impress your friends!
As I work my way through learning basic to complex charcuterie and salumi and I’ll be sharing these experiences with you here! Next up will be my how to guide on making pancetta tesa (flat) and arrotolata (rolled) . I’m also working on several types of sausage which I’ll share on here in the near future. Stay tuned for more and be sure to check out my other posts on charcuterie and salumi here!
What is the purpose of smoking/cooking it? I just made some bacon at home and I used smoked salt. It tastes just like the regular thing (except better, because I used molasses :-D).
Smoking it imparts flavor from the wood which can vary based on tree type. Smoked salt is definitely an option though I haven’t tried it. I’d be worried about the variability in the intensity of the smoke flavor based on the salt processors methods.
So it’s just for flavor? Good to know! I can experiment with percent smoked salt (I did 20% of my salt as smoked, and it turned out great, but I’m going to try 35% next time), and try to get the same kind each time. I don’t own a smoker, and since our pastured bacon belly is $12/lb, it doesn’t save much money if I’m going to also smoke it :).
Great article! But in my part of the world, ” Pink Salt” is not available. For generations my family has used salt petre for curing hams, salt beef, etc. would you know how I could replace the Pink Salt with Salt petre in your recipe? Thank you!
Hi Anne-Marie –
I would love some of your recipes! As far as substituting cure #1 with salt petre you are basically looking at two different types of nitrites. Cure #1 is 6.25% sodium nitrite 93.75% sodium chloride. Salt petre is potassium nitrate. Both have different properties and purposes. Nitrates do not provide any protection, and certain types of bacteria must be present on the meat to help break the nitrates down to nitrites; nitrites do the actual curing and protecting. Because nitrates need to be broken down, they are considered a slow cure and take much longer to cure the meat. Slowly breaking down, and releasing nitrites: like a time release capsule.
There’s a nice thread on the subject here: http://forum.sausagemaking.org/viewtopic.php?t=10154 which you can read through. I have no experience in swapping them though so I can’t give you any advice. Sorry 🙁
I have a question about the cooking. Is all bacon cooked? It seems raw when we get it at the store.
Not at all. Much of what we buy in the store has been smoked but some has just been dry cured without cooking. I prefer the former. Similar to pancetta – you do not need to cook or smoke the product. It’s just the recipe I used here.
Thanks for all your time and help, invaluablr to someone.such. as myself
Thank you Calvin!
Are your temps in C or in F? I just made bacon and roasted to 130C but after refrigerating and slicing thinly (1.5 – 2.5 thickness), I can’t seem to make the bacon crispy unlike store-bought bellies.
Hi Vanessa –
The temps listed are in Fahrenheit. That said, when you cure and smoke bacon you will never achieve a crispy texture. That only occurs once you slice the cured, smoked bacon and pan fry it.