Having bacon and eggs for breakfast today? I’m sure a few of you will be after seeing the new year in last night. Tired of watery, tasteless store bought bacon? Me too. I’m also tired of the nitrate preservatives used in commercial bacon. But I’m not that keen on botulism either so is there a way to make a nice dry bacon without nitrates? Yes, there is but first, a bit of history.
For hundreds of years potassium nitrate (Salt Petre) crystals were mined and manufactured. These crystals were then mixed with other traditional curing agents and rubbed into bacon, ham and sausages to prevent botulism developing while they cured in the cool larder for months on end.
These days, sodium nitrate does the same job in bacon and ham but is also used increasingly as a food additive to give that appealing pink colour and tangy flavour we’ve come to expect in a whole range of meats including saveloys, luncheon sausage, smoked chicken and many others. Nitrates are highly toxic and their use as a food preservative is heavily regulated but no-one can regulate how much you consume across multiple food products.
So a few years ago I set out to make nitrate free bacon. I had some spectacular failures following old recipes that required long curing periods in salty brines accompanied by much rubbing, soaking in wine and hanging in chimneys (the bacon not me). But then I realised the whole point of these recipes was to produce something that would keep for months if not years at room temperature.
Because I don’t store my bacon in a cool larder (who does these days?) keeping qualities were not high on my bacon check list. I also found that my freezer would stop botulism in its tracks. From then on my experiments became much more successful and now I make a pretty good bacon with no nitrates in 3 days flat.
Ingredients & Equipment:
- Pork Belly
- Brown Sugar
- Salt (non-iodised)
- Wood chips for smoking (I use manuka but any aromatic wood is good)
- Hot Smoker
- Large plastic bin with a lid
- Sharp knife or bacon slicer
- Take a piece of pork belly, I usually ask the butcher for a whole side and do a big batch to freeze but you can start smaller until you get the hang of it. Trim off any cartilage or ribs left on the pork and any hangy, flappy bits so you’ve got a nice smooth piece of meat to start with. I use pork belly because it’s thin enough to cure quickly and it’s got a nice mix of fat to meat to make a streaky bacon.
- Sterilise the plastic bin with boiling water and then place the meat in it. Cut the meat into two or three pieces if you are doing a whole side.
- Mix together salt and brown sugar in a bowl and rub it all over the meat. I like quite a sweet cure so I do 50/50 salt to brown sugar and I mix enough to generously rub into the meat on both sides, (see the photo at the top). Many recipes call for a higher salt ratio but because you’re freezing the finished product you’re not relying on the salt to preserve the meat, it is merely drawing the moisture and adding flavour. Too much salt and you’ll get something inedible, not enough and you’ll get wet bacon with no flavour. You’ll get the hang of it – I don’t even measure it now.
- Put the lid on the bin and leave it in a cool place overnight or for 12 hours and that’s your first day done. If the weather is really hot do this in the fridge.
- Next morning, turn the meat and rub the gooey sugary brine all over it again. Put the lid on and leave it for another 12 hours
- Do the same again and leave overnight and that’s day 2.
- On the third day you should have a lot of liquid and the meat will have reduced in size and feel tighter. Remove the meat from the bin and pat it dry, then leave it to dry on a rack in a cool airy place for an hour or so while you get the smoker ready. The fridge is fine in warm weather.
- Put the chunks of meat into a hot smoker and smoke with manuka chips (or a wood of your choice) for 2 – 4 hours depending on whether you like a strong smokey flavour or a light smoke. When it comes out of the smoker, cool it on a rack and then put it in the fridge overnight to set and that is day 3. (I’m not sure I’d use this recipe with a cold smoker as you don’t want to have the meat hanging around for hours on end given the lack of preservatives, it may spoil during the smoking process – someone with more experience using cold smokers may like to comment on this)
- The next day it will be firm enough to slice. You can use a sharp knife to make thick rashers. I’m lucky enough to own a vintage meat slicer that my sister found at a garage sale, still in it’s original box and it makes short work of the job.
Remember it is raw meat and must be kept in the fridge or freezer once it has been sliced and you must cook it well before eating. It will keep in the freezer for several months and can be cooked from frozen. Cook it more gently than shop bacon because there is no water to get rid of. You won’t need any extra fat, just lay the rashers in a pan on a low heat and you’ll get something that looks like this:
The “recipe” is very adaptable you can add herbs and spices if you like, a few crushed juniper berries and peppercorns are nice, but be really sparing with seasonings as a little goes a long way. I’ve also tried a batch with a little bit of maple syrup and one with a bit of honey in it and that was nice.
And yes before you say it, I know salt, sugar, fat and smoke are not super foods but man can’t live on Goji berries alone. Happy New Year.