Perhaps one of the most liberating and eye opening discoveries I ever made was how to make bacon. Until then I thought it was a food that always was made in a factory and sold to the rest of us in shops. The difference between good and bad bacon was, to me at least, measured in how cheaply the company made it.
Then I discovered bacon, and it changed my life.
Actually, bacon has been the British staple meat for 1500 years from a time when large monasteries in the north, and ennobled farms in the south fed the poor with quality bacon to the days when every home had a pig and every family knew how to preserve the meat with salt.
What meat is best for bacon?
Streaky bacon comes from belly pork, which can be bought in whole sheets from your butcher, or if you are having your own animal slaughtered, can simply be trimmed square ready for curing.
Back bacon comes from loin , the muscles that run the length of the back of the animal, and is much less fatty.
There are other cuts, middle being a combination of streaky and back, and is quite difficult to get hold of because its butchering can be quite wasteful. You can also use shoulder or leg for producing bacon, and offcuts for creating lardons and small cuts.
Essentially, curing is the preserving process, and involves salt. This works in two ways, firstly it draws water from the meat, and as bacteria in the meat have a reduced water availability, they cannot grow so rapidly. It also chemically poisons bacteria and other spoiling organisms.
Then the cure also adds flavour, and many curing recipes have spices and sugars as a fundamental part of the curing recipe.
As an added precaution, curing mixtures use curing salt, which has a small percentage of saltpeter added to act as a special ingredient that deals with the highly dangerous botulinum bacterium. Any bacon destined for consumption by a third party, either sold or otherwise, must be made with curing salt.
It is not possible to make your own curing salt: in order to adequately mix the saltpeter completely evenly, a machine is needed. Thankfully, it is quite inexpensive.
How to cure
There are essentially two methods of curing, wet and dry.
A wet cure is made by boiling curing salt and other substances in a large pan. Removing the scum and allowing to cool before pouring over the cut of meat you wish to cure.
The meat is turned over daily for about three to seven days, and then removed, washed and allowed to dry. Clearly, the penetration of salt to the centre of the meat is an issue on some cuts, when a brine pump is used to inject cure directly into the centre of the muscle.
Typically, a two kilo piece of meat is cured for three to seven days an an appropriate spice / cure mix, and thence another day per extra kilo after that. The meat is soaked in a large, food grade, lidded polythene container, strong enough to take the size and weight of the materials.
Sometimes, when you are curing a lot of meat, it is advisable to pour off the cure half way the process and replenish with fresh.
Wet cure recipe
My favourite cure is as follows:
20 litres of water
2.5 kilo’s curing salt
300 g dark sugar
1 bottle of stout (optional)
1 tablespoon of mustard (English)
2 tablespoons of crushed black peppercorns
You can buy ready made wet cures such as the Weschenfelder ‘Quick Cure’, for curing hams, tongue and other cuts as well as making bacon.
This is the mainstay of home curing and always produces consistent results. This way a measured amount of cure is rubbed into all the meat surfaces, everywhere, not missing any nook and cranny. This is then placed into a food grade, lidded container and after 24 hours the meat is removed, and the liquor drained away. Fresh cure is then applied in the same way and the meat returned to the box for another 24 hours.
Each day the amount of liquor is reduced and the bacon is ready for cutting in around five to seven days.
Dry cure recipe
2 kilos curing salt
250 g sugar (of any type you prefer)
2 tablespoons of crushed black peppercorns
50 g finely chopped correander
20 g chopped mint
The herbs are optional, but if it is Christmas I add a couple of crushed cloves too - just for a nice Christmassy flavour. You can buy ready made Weschenfelder cures, such as the ‘Supracure’ or the ‘Laycock’s Dry’ with everything you need to make great bacon every time.
The bacon is washed and dried and stored in the refrigerator.
All bacon cured either wet or dry should last around a fortnight in the fridge. If you need it to last longer, add another 24 hours for every additional week.
Wash and cut
When the bacon is cured, wash it and dry. I find it more convenient to slice the bacon and vacuum pack, storing in the freezer when the quantity warrants it. I always test a slice before cooking a batch, and if too salty, I soak in water for 30 minutes before retesting.
You can use a good sharp knife for slicing, but eventually you will want a bacon slicer to make a real professional job of it. After all, you have gone to all that trouble!