A few weeks ago I was perusing Michael Ruhlman’s excellent cooking blog (Ruhlman.com) and came across a quote that piqued my interest:
“No excuses, if you like to cook, for not curing your own Pancetta”
Actually, I can think of many excuses for not curing my own Pancetta: Other cooking priorities, a 24-hour day, a good local supplier, fear of poisoning family, etc.
But one thing I am learning, as I try to expand my cooking skills, is not to dismiss passionate statements like the one above. I will write more on passion and food, but I am finding that if an experienced, and thoughtful, chef like Ruhlman says something this definitive, he means it. Now at times, foodies can make passionate statements about everything (this may be why many people find foodies annoying). Random, and sometimes misinformed, passion can lead to a lot of blind alleys and poor, wasteful cooking. But I took Ruhlman at his word, and I am glad I did.
I did make one change and start with Bacon, rather than Pancetta. It turns our both are cured pork belly, but Pancetta is air-dried while bacon is cooked and/or smoked. Other differences between bacon and pancetta include accents to the cure (sugars, herbs, garlic, spices, etc) but these accents are really under the control of the cook. The one step that may be a barrier to home-curing is the need to buy “pink” curing salts. Ruhlman gives you an internet source and I ordered it for $2 and it took a few days to arrive. I now have enough for dozens of cures.
You want this, you really, really do...
In all honesty, I chose to start with home-cured Bacon because it takes less time and we could not figure out where to hang Pancetta without our cat taking early samples. But the first attempt with Bacon was such a success that we will be making more of our own Bacon with different cures and smoke. Carolyn already wants a maple-syrup cured Bacon and it is easy to do! We will also make Pancetta, we just need to rig a drying setup that defeats the cat.
Once our Bacon was made, it turned out to be the basis of a surprising off-season meal- BLTs! We had a decent hothouse tomato, (yes, yes I know it is winter but it is a local product from the farmers market, jeez), Ecopia Farms lettuce (the best in the world, seriously, more on this later) and Carolyn made a loaf of wheat bread that morning. What a gal, sigh. The sandwiches were a great treat and it all came together because we made the bacon. Thanks Ruhlman.
Home Cured Bacon:
(Adapted from Michael Ruhlman)
Notes before you start:
- Find somewhere you can buy pork belly. A few calls to your local butcher shops should work, but it is not as easy to find as one might think. Internet mail order is also an option.
- You can use pork belly with skin on or off (you may not have a choice) but if you do not want to use the skin, it will be useless added weight.
What you get: Very tasty bacon that has sweeter, cleaner flavor with very little shrinkage. Great for all traditional bacon uses. The bacon can be thickly sliced and served by itself as an appetizer. If you have been to the famous Peter Luger steakhouse in New York and had their bacon appetizer you will get the same experience at home- friends and family will rave.
What you need: The only special equipment required is curing salt (sodium nitrites)- which is safe in the small amounts used, it should be kept away from children. Otherwise you need a few sturdy 2- gallon ziptop plastic bags or a big plastic container(s). Space in the fridge for 7 days for curing. An accurate meat thermometer and a scale are very helpful.
How long?: 10 minutes of prep. 7 days of curing. About 3-4 hours of cooking or smoking time. If you start on a Saturday morning you can have bacon the next Saturday evening and you will be ready for a truly awesome Sunday brunch.
- 5 lbs. fresh pork belly. Skin-on or skin-off. It is OK to slice the belly into pieces to fit in your bags / containers.
- 2 oz. Kosher salt (1/4 cup), Kosher salts vary in size of crystal- using weight is better.
- 2 teaspoons pink curing salt #1 (see here for source)
- 4 bay leaves, crumbled
- 4 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper, freshly ground if possible
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- ¼ cup dark brown sugar
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed with a knife. The garlic shows in the final product, if you do not like garlic or the cloves are large- adjust to taste.
- 5 sprigs fresh thyme (optional- we love thyme and use it, it adds a very savory note)
- Thoroughly mix salt, curing salt garlic and all the herbs/spices in a medium sized bowl.
- Add pork belly to bags or plastic container.
- Add curing mix to containers- rub onto belly. Take you time and get an even coating.
- Seal container / bags. If using bags, seal and place on a sheet pan. Add to fridge. (It is wise to add a post-it note with date and time).
- It takes 7 days to cure, halfway through cure open containers and spread out the cure again on the meat. You will see some liquid has been drawn from the belly- this is fine. Keep the liquid or drain.
- After 7 days, take out the belly and rinse with cold water.
- To finish bacon, preheat oven to 200 degrees (you can also smoke the bacon- but that is another recipe). Place belly on a sheet pan or rack on sheet pan (better). Cook until internal temp is 150 degrees. This may take up to 4 hours depending on the size of your piece of belly.
- Slice it up and cook it! Eat, repeat.