It’s gray and chilly in Trenton today; foreshadowing the dark and dreary days to come.

Fortunately, I had off from work and I had some “chores” to attend to that included turning the gas grill into a smoker and finishing the job of making bacon out of a thick piece of pork belly.  It is a perfect day to spend a few hours tending a fire and inhaling the aroma of selected wood chunks as they gave up their essence to flavor the pig.

This was just the latest in my home study of the art of curing meat (and fish and fowl).  The adventure was launched several months ago after buying a piece of pancetta in the supermarket that was just too damn salty for my taste (not that it kept us from using it all up mind you).  I got to wondering if it was possible to make pancetta at home and started searching the internet for advice and information.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with pancetta it is simply cured and seasoned pork belly that is usually rolled tightly and allowed to air dry.  It is, essentially, un-smoked bacon and is used similarly to season beans, greens, sauces and all manor of savory dishes.  Good pancetta is essential for proper pasta carbonara (although we have made it with everyday, common American bacon).

Apparently, I wasn’t the first and only person to want to make pancetta at home.  I found a number of blogs and forums that contained information about making pancetta at home.  One thing that I noticed right away was that many entries referred to the book “Charcuterie,” by Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman

I continued my research to the point where I convinced myself that I needed to add a copy of this book to our already overgrown cooking library.

So I did.

In reading through the book, and continuing to read the blogs and forums, it appeared as though there really was nothing more to this meat curing business than having the right ingredients on hand, minding some simple sanitation procedures and using a dose of common sense.  Before I knew it, I was at the local market procuring a half a pork belly (about 6 pounds).  I had already mail-ordered in the more exotic ingredients…some curing salt (sodium chloride with a trace of sodium nitrite added) and some juniper berries.  Everything else, black pepper, bay leaves, nutmeg, brown sugar, etc. I had on hand.

The process, as outlined in the book, is straightforward enough.  Mix up your cure and a2009 08 18_0545pply it to the meat.  Let it rest, refrigerated, for a week; turning it every day and massage it to ensure even distribution of the curing/flavoring mixture.  After seven days, rinse, and dry well.  You can then roll it tightly and tie it or leave it flat and wrap it in cheesecloth.  I opted for the latter because I wasn’t confident enough in the process and my skill to challenge the botulism bug that can show up in too loosely rolled pancett2009 08 18_0547a.  And somewhere along the way I picked up the tidbit that the traditional Florentine method of making pancetta was to hang the “flat.”  That was good enough for me.

I won’t go into the whole song and dance here, but I sort of screwed up that attempt at pancetta.  First of all, I picked the hottest, most humid week of the summer to hang the dang thing in the cellar.  This gave me cause to worry.  When the suggested amount of hanging time was up, I unwrapped the meat only to find several spots of mold on it.

Into the trash it went.  And I was a little disappointed. (Several weeks later I was reading the FAQ on Ruhlman’s website and discovered that mold is not uncommon.  The procedure is to cut/scrape it off and wipe the meat down with vinegar or wine.  And then proceed.   Oh well. Live; Learn!)

Fortunately, at the same time I started the pancetta, I also brined a bepastramief brisket according to the recipe in Charcuterie.  Once the brisket was cured, I smoked it and then steamed it for a very successful pastrami dinner with friends.  This, despite being a little heavy handed with the peppercorn and coriander seed for the crust, kept my confidence intact.

Chalking the failed pancetta experiment up to bad timing, I went on to try the gravlax (cured, but not smoked salmon) recipe from the book and bided my time for the onset of autumn and cooler weather.

October came and I could bear it no longer.  I ran off to the Food Bazaar and dashed to the meat service counter.  Scanning the case, I was a little worried because there were no hunks of pork belly in the customary spot.  This market, part of a small regional chain, caters to the various ethnic groups found in urban areas and actually sells fresh pork belly on a regular basis (take that Whole F***s and W*****’s!).  It took a little finagling to get them to sell me 1/2 of a whole pork belly back in August so I was prepared to persevere!

When the counterman asked what he could do for me I stated I wanted some pork belly.  He looked puzzled at first, glanced at the case and then back at me.

How much?” he asked.

A whole one,” I answered.

There was another pause and a confused glance before he dutifully trotted off to the walk in. 

Returning a moment later he “thunked” a large slab of skin on pork belly onto the scale.  17.78 pounds of pig heaven were mine to play with!

The next day I made up two batches of cure.  One, the basic dry cure that can be used for any number of preparations and the second a specific blend of salt, sugar and spices for the pancetta.  Then I set about assembling my mise en place: knives, cutting boards, extra large freezer bags, scale, etc.  I took the cryovac packaged pork belly out of the fridge and over to the sink.  I slit open the plastic, removed the doubled over pork belly and unfolded it. 

Surprise!  There was still a rack of spareribs attached to the belly!  BONUS!

I successfully, if not deftly, removed the rack from the rest of the belly (Hey! I am not schooled in meat cutting!).  I trimmed and cut the belly until I had two nice slabs of meat, one for pancetta and one for bacon.  The trimmings I later cut into large cubes and cured for salt pork.

I removed the skin from a section of belly, applied the cure for the pancetta, slipped the pork into a plastic bag and popped it into the fridge.  Next came the bacon-to-be.

The basic dry cure was applied and it too was slipped into a bag and placed in the refrigerator.

This morning, seven and a half days after starting “the cure,” I rinsed both slabs of meat and dried them off.  The piece destined for the smoker was placed on a rack in the fridge for a few hours to form a pellicle (a sort of tacky skin that helps hold the smoke flavor).  The piece designated for the pancetta was given a dusting of crushed black pepper on the meat side, swaddled in cheesecloth and hung in the cellar to dry for another week or so.

By noon, I had fired up the smoking burner of the grill and applied some chunks of apple, maple and oak that I’d soaked for the purpose.  The slab of soon-to-be-bacon was set on the grate next to the wood box and the smoking commenced.  Keeping the temp at right around 200 degrees F, I fed more chunks of wood into the smoker as needed.  Just a tad over three hours later the pork had achieved the target temp of 150 degrees F.  I brought it in from the grill and, while the fat was still warm and soft, removed the rind (skin).

I trimmed off the edges of the slab and tentatively tasted one of the pieces.  I’d followed the directions carefully; the meat looked like a slab of bacon; it smelled like bacon.baconslice

SCORE! It tasted like bacon!  I quickly put the rest of the trimmings into a small frying pan and browned them off.  Yup. Bacon!

Let’s hope pancetta version two works out as well!


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One Response to “BACON!”

  1. Working on the cure « Dj'eat? Says:

    […] pancetta, version 2 was just a little less ok. (see my entry on Bacon! for more […]

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