My Other Hobby: Smoking Meat… Especially Bacon
As someone who grew up in Tennessee and now lives in Boston, I feel a fond affection for smoked meats. I had the fortune of being married into a family that owns Rowland Farm that just happens to produce Berkshire Pork. Already having the needed connections, one spring my wife and I decided to go ahead and purchase a whole pig from the family farm. Considering that purchase, my childhood upbringing and my love for cooking, producing my own BBQ and smoked bacon was inevitable.
The first thing I needed was a smoker. For that, I went right back to Rowland Farm. My wife’s grandfather helped me find all of the necessary parts for an ‘ugly drum smoker’ from things we found in some of the storage sheds. This included a 55 gallon drum, some odd bits of plumbing, and an old metal milk crate to use as a fire box. With the right materials I was getting into the craft of smoking meats and my wife and I ate a lot of smoked pork that summer and fall. We tried pork shoulder, smoked ham, spare ribs and smoked pork chops. It took some trial and error, controlling temperature, airflow, smoke production, but eventually it all turned out well. However, I found that I have a real gift and passion for making smoked bacon.
For those of you interested in the art of smoking bacon it takes about a week to make properly and the necessary steps include butchering, curing and then smoking. Let’s start with butchering. In my case, my pork belly came in two 20 lb slabs that were about 2.5” thick. To make smoking easier, I cut the bacon with the grain into wide strips that are about 2.5” wide and about 8” long. The next step is to cure the bacon, this removes a lot of the water from the meat and helps preserve it. I use a dry rub of coarse sea salt and un-refined sugar with a few BBQ oriented spices like paprika and mustard. If you have a particular affection for pink meat, or you just want more nitrates in your diet you can use curing salt (sodium nitrate). I coat all sides, cover it and leave it in my fridge for 5-6 days. Keep in mind we are talking ~20 lbs of bacon, so when I say leave it in the fridge, it usually will take up about half of it. About 4 days in I check it by cutting a piece off and cooking it. From that small tasting I can tell if the seasoning needs to be adjusted. After 5 days in the curing salts and spices it is ready to be smoked.
I smoke over charcoal, some purists may scoff at that, but if charcoal is good enough for the Rendezvous in Memphis, then it’s good enough for me. I supplement the charcoal with chunks of cherry wood, which give the bacon a distinct flavor. Once my smoker has been lit and allowed to settle down to about 250F, it’s ready to smoke. I add the bacon, skin side down to protect the meat, and smoke it until the internal temperature reaches 170F, which takes a little under two hours. At that point it’s fully smoked and also fully cooked. You can eat it right off the smoker which, let’s be honest, is heaven. Once it cools I seal it in vacuum bags, give some of it away, and freeze the rest for future enjoyment.
To serve it I cut it across the grain and give it a quick fry in the pan. However I have the advantage that my bacon is naturally smoked, cured, and fully cooked. One of the major highlights of doing this process all yourself is you know exactly where your meat has come from, where it’s been, and where it’s going. So my favorite way to serve it is to simply thaw it, slice it across the grain and eat it like prosciutto. It’s perfect that way. For those that haven’t been married into a farm, you can’t get this experience from store bought bacon. (For those that will be using store bought bacon I do not recommend eating the bacon like prosciutto, this particular way is only intended for farm raised, fully smoked, very fresh bacon.)
-Article by Industrial Design Manager Darwin Keith-Lucas at Goddard Technologies