One of the mosts ‘asked after’ bits of information relates to a simple ‘measured cure’ (often referred to as EQ) Bacon Method
Bacon is the gateway meat. I mean, who doesn’t love it? so making your own doesn’t ever sound like a bad idea – ‘as much bacon as you want, whenever you want it’ it’s not exactly a hard sell, right?
As luck would have it its a particularly easy one to cure to. Its not like some bone in ham or Culatello, no magic winds need to sweep down the right mountain to get it made, anyone with a fridge is basically ready to go.
Most of the trouble and confusion actually seems, to me, to start precisely because people love bacon so much. People become so passionate that we end up hearing bacon MUST be done this way, or made that way, must be hot smoked, must be cold smoked, must be sweet, must be salty, must be dry cured, must be brined, etc., etc. until anyone new to the scene has a head that’s spinning.
I have come to fully accept that there is a trinity of bacon. There is unsmoked (sometimes known as green) bacon, there is cold smoked bacon, and there is hot smoked bacon. We might all have individual preferences but they are all welcome here as part of the family and to a greater or lesser extent you can’t have one without the other.
I also appreciate there are also different cuts that have similarly loyal followings. Here in England I would say that back bacon (loin) is the most common, although streaky (belly) is also universally available. We have a tradition of curing whole middles so are used to back, belly and rolled bacons that include both. In other places I fully understand belly is king and, given that it’s the most universally used cut I will generally refer here to making what we would call ‘Streaky bacon’ for the sake of simplicity.
Sorry if this preamble is all a bit long winded but, in fact, this relates to my point. Curing your own bacon can easily become far more complicated and confusing than it ever needs to be, ignore that and let’s start at the beginning.
I am going to try here, in very simple terms over the course of some related posts, to break down some ‘Bacon Basics’ in order to hopefully explain to beginners a good grounding and simple technique which will lead, first and foremost to tasty reliable bacon. Once you have this cracked then the tweaking along the road to your personal perfection can be done confidently, knowing that the underlying product is both safe and a solid foundation to work off.
In later posts I will look at other methods, flavours, suitable variations of cure agent, different sugars and liquid additions to the bacon making process as well as look at smoking methods and approaches, but first we will look at the foundation on which all these other things are based.
Fundamentally, for me, all bacon is just pork cured with salt and nitrite. Before everyone kicks off I said “for me”. Some folks don’t like curing with nitrite personally I think its part of the taste that actually makes bacon, bacon. Don’t get me wrong, other ‘bacon like’ products are fantastic be they Ventreche, Pancetta or Schinken but they are fantastic in their own right. I also agree that the taste of the meat itself can be more pronounced, more delicate etc without nitrite cure, and that’s great – but for me Bacon has to have that ‘tang’, else it’s just salted pork, so I am not getting into them here.
If we agree with (or even just entertain) my premise, that basic bacon is pork so cured, then what’s the easiest, simplest, cleanest and most consistent way to achieve the desired result? For me, for here, that’s easy – and it’s what I will call, ‘measured dry cure‘.
Here, I’m going to set out an actual dry cure method using a measured cure approach which is the simplest and most efficient way to make bacon with a known salt content and which, as long as it has been given at least the minimum time given to cure, does not rely on precise timing and will not get anymore salty if left longer and nor will it require any soaking or other nonsense to make it edible.
For those interested in brine cures, which have a lot of benefits, in terms of the subtle introduction of liquid born flavours, you can simply follow the ham cure 101 tutorial (also in this section of the forum) as this will work just as well for bacon or any other cut you choose for that matter.
Anyway here we go with basic bacon 101, which will provide with top quality, dry cured bacon inside a week and no excuse to ever pay through the nose for supermarket crap of unknown origin ever again.
Brines are great, I love them as a way of introducing flavours and I love the way you can chuck a whole heap of pig in a bucket and simply pull various bits out at different times (hocks first, then belly, then back, then hams). However, its a lot more space and time consuming to get right and, in my view isn’t where the beginner looking for convenience and confidence building should start.
‘Salt box’ is another oft used term for basically burying your pork in salt rather than brine. A solid, rather than liquid, immersion if you will. Again it’s a great method in some circumstances but, again, is not where I think we should start. It uses a ton of salt you don’t need and requires perfect timing or otherwise unnecessary soaking before your product is at the right salinity to enjoy.
Then there is the ‘EQ dry cure in a bag’ routine. Its simple, clean, easy and on the right lines but can also often lead to the meat being in contact with the brine created if you are not careful and this is not good. It’s a great method when introducing flavours which may be liquid or sticky but again fails the test as the best place to start for me. Its also absolutely not ‘dry cure’ but more a carefully measured, limited brine method.
‘Measured Dry Cure’
So, here we are at last, my suggested starting point for all beginners bacon is the simplest of all. Measured dry cure.
First, get your (highest quality you can find) meat, trim it up and weigh it.
Next, decide what final salt content suits your tastes, there may be some trial and error here to find this definitively, for your own tastes, but nothing suggested here will be inedible or even unpleasant as a starting point from which to find your happy medium. I would recommend starting somewhere between 2.5 to 3 % (so to keep it simple either shoot for 2.5, 2.75 or 3%). you may eventually decide you like less, or more, that’s up to you.
I typically use a sea salt/sodium nitrite mix (99% salt and 1% SN) but a homemade mix of your chosen salt and Cure#1 will work just as well, and it is the total weight of this ‘curing salt mixture’ (salt plus cure) that you want to add to your meat.
So You have weighed your 5kg of lovely pork belly and you have weighed out 125g or 150g of curing salt mixture.
Then rub it all on to the meat concentrating around three quarters of it on the meat side. Make sure you apply it to every side, edge, nook and cranny until all of the salt mixture has adhered. You may be surprised by how little there actually is, but it will just cover it all nicely so don’t be tempted to add more and ruin the purpose of ‘measured’ dry curing.
Now lay it in the fridge over a plate, tray, dish etc ideally on a rack and turn every day or so. Fridge temps are fine as we are using nitrite so there is no waiting for nitrate to convert or reliance on the bacteria that do that being at a comfortable (for them) temperature. It will just get straight on with curing the meat.
The average belly will have completed its initial cure in just three or four days (I know! Great isn’t it!) but the beauty of this method is that if you leave it longer, forget or are otherwise delayed for any reason it just doesn’t matter as there will never be any more salt in the meat than the correct amount you added to begin with, so it will never ‘go over’ or need soaking to make it palatable.
What it will need, and this is vital, is a (very) quick rinse and pat down and then to sit back in the fridge to equalise for at least two days before use, a bit longer if you can bear to wait.
Made this way it will keep well, will only improve if hung or left for a bit longer to mature and can be seen as a ‘base bacon’ providing you with the basic cure from which any experiments with flavours, sugars, aromatics, smoking methods etc you may choose to add are only limited by your imagination, safe in the knowledge that the underlying product will be safely cured, not too salty and ready to eat within a week (which is comforting).
So, having said all that here are the basic steps.
STEP 1: THE MEAT
Any cut will do, we are working on the basis here that for starters, we are going to be using pork, but for those reading who don’t dabble in hog, you can do this with lamb or beef quite happily.
Always get the very best meat you can, either direct from your farmer who’s livestock and methods you know and trust, or from a butcher who can vouch for the same things in terms of where it came from. Like all good food, the results are inextricably linked to the quality of the ingoing ingredients. If you want the best bacon, you need the best pork.
Having sourced your meat supply, decide on your cut. I’m a huge fan of well made shoulder bacon, but there’s no getting away from the fact that loin (back) and belly (streaky) are the favourite cuts. Personally, I much prefer streaky as it its fat content produces a much more flavourful result and I find it tends to take cure flavourings much better, but each to their own.
Once you have your meat, you can skin it or not, depending on your preference and trim to the size you want your bacon, then, most importantly, weigh the meat and make a note of this.
STEP 2: SALT AND CURE MIX
There are various ways of doing this with ready made proprietary ‘all purpose’ curing salt, which will be a mix of salt and sodium nitrite (the fast acting antioxidant and curing agent), or you can mix your own by using salt and cure #1 (often known as prague powder 1). This is a very carefully measured and perfectly consistent mix of salt and sodium nitrite, which can then be mixed with the rest of the salt to provide a cure mix of a known strength.
There are now also celery juice alternatives for use in curing, which give a consistent and known strength if for any reason you prefer to use vegetable based nitrate rather than the fast acting nitrite commonly used. I would note here that many people have made a lot of effort to promote nitrite free curing methods. I would say however, that most of the reasons given for this in terms of perceived health risks are fundamentally misinformed and ignore many of the reasons we use nitrite when making bacons for taste, colour and flavour as well as safety.
For me, bacon without nitrite is salt pork. A perfectly respectable product in its own right, but hey, if you like grey bacon, and insist on thinking there is something wrong with nitrite use, knock yourself out.
Having sourced this ingredient, you can decide upon the percentage rate that you prefer. Generally, a good guide, is between 20 and 25 grams per kilo and the increments between these two levels will have a surprisingly large effect on taste. I tend to go with 2.25 to 2.5 myself, but this is a personal thing. When talking in terms of grams per kilo, this is total salt/cure mix, so we’re talking 20 grams of all purpose cure or 20 grams being the combined weight of salt and cure #1.
Carefully weigh out the right amount of salt/cure mix for the weight of meat (see step1), so for every kilo of meat you weigh out for example, 20 grams of salt/cure mix.
STEP 3: APPLICATION
At this point, all that is to be done to create great, simple, classic tasting bacon is to rub your salt/cure mix all over the meat until all of the weighed out mixture has been applied evenly in a rough, 75% meat side and 25% fat/skin side, ensuring that every bit of the mix adheres well, especially in any pockets.
What I am concentrating on here is the ingredients actually needed to cure safely and to provide a simple and delicious bacon. Sweeteners, spices and aromatic herbs can be added on top of this basic mix to you hearts content, and experiment away knowing that underneath these additions is an effective and reliable cured product.
STEP 4: CURING PHASE
For dry cure, the meat simply then needs to be rested on a slightly tilted tray or plate (alternatively on a wire rack above a suitable tray or plate), in a fridge with the occasional turning. For a period long enough for the salt/cure mix to be drawn right through the muscle. As all meats vary to some extent, in terms of density as well as fat content and dispersal, definite curing times can vary slightly, but a reliable rule of thumb is that one day for every half inch of thickness to the centre of the meat, i.e. a two inch thick belly would need two days, a four inch thick loin would take 4 days. Then add a day to this total. Meaning that your belly would be 3 days and your loin 5.
STEP 5: EQUALISATION & FLAVOUR DEVELOPMENT
Once the initial curing has had enough time, give the bacon a quick rinse and set back into the fridge to equalise.
This stage is very important for achieving a consistent flavour, as once the curing agents have got to the middle, and met one another as they headed in from each side, they will then tend to spend the next period balancing themselves out through the meat, ensuring a consistent level throughout, regardless of the impact that fat caps or differences in density may have had in the process of the cures.
After letting the bacon equalise for minimum of two days, ideally a week (and more is just fine) you will have firm, dry, perfectly cured product with a consistent and well developed flavour throughout.