Smoked Pork Belly (Nitrate-Free Bacon)
Traveling down the aisles of Costco last weekend, I spotted, among the baby backs and St. Louis style ribs and pork loin roasts, some huge, flat, trimmed pork bellies. One look and I knew what my next smoker project was. I picked out a nice belly, almost 10 pounds. Then I had to figure out how to prepare it. I knew that I wanted it as free of nitrates and nitrites as possible so I did some research and found this great, well-written page on curing and smoking bacon without using the "pink salt" that adds the nitrates as a preservative. The following is my process following the directions laid out in that site. This is my first time through, so definitely a learning process. I'll continue to update this as I go and learn more about what I'm doing.
Here's the belly I selected. I think in the future I would try to find a thicker one. During the curing process, the meat loses a lot of moisture, and so shrinks in size. Mine dried to a thin half-inch in some parts, which decreased the smoking time to get to the 150º - 160º inside temperature goal. (I added a pan-full of ice water at the 50-minute point in an attempt to slow things down; not sure how much was gained. Definitely looking for the thickest cut I can find next time.)
The first thing I did when I got the meat home was cut it in half. The whole thing wouldn't fit in my refrigerator, nor would it in my 1971-72 vintage Weber 21-inch kettle, and I wanted to have a couple of rounds of learning experiences. As I type this, one half is in the smoker, the other half has been in the freezer for a week. Since you're not cooking and serving it as fresh meat, It doesn't hurt the meat at all to store it in the freezer. In fact, since there are no preservatives used in the cure in this recipe, it was recommended on the webpage above to freeze the bacon after smoking. I think I'll cut mine in half again after smoking and put two pounds in the freezer and work on cooking and testing with the other half.
The Cure (Just Like Heaven)
After making more manageable chunks out of the big belly, (wish I could do that with mine...), I blended up the curing mix. Super easy: 2.5 cups Kosher salt, 1 cup sugar, and a handful of coarse-ground black pepper. You can add herbs and other spices, but I wanted my first attempt to KISS, (Keep It Simple Stupid.) On a baking sheet, I put a rack that would fit the meat, placed the cut fat side up, and poured half the mix on top. I massaged the mix into every nook and cranny on the first side, and then repeated the process on the second side. I made sure there was a good, thick layer of salt on the top and tried to ensure the edges all had coverage too. The edges are really problematical to make the cure adhere to, but I think my first try came out fine - there was no discoloration or other more serious rot-related problems after the week in the fridge.
I put the curing belly in the fridge for a week and flipped it every day. I had to make two more batches of cure to recoat after flipping, so used a total of 7.5 cups of Kosher salt, 3 cups of sugar, and probably 1/2 cup of black pepper for the roughly 4.5 Lb. cut. There was another half-batch left over for the next experiment. Most of the cure got washed down the sink because it fell off the bottom after flipping, caused by the draining liquid. Speaking of which, during the curing process, the meat lost a large amount of water, especially over the first 48 hours. Keep an eye on your project so the draining liquid doesn't overflow the pan and spill into your fridge. I was lucky, but I think next time I'll get a deeper pan and taller rack.
After the Cure
After six days in the fridge I pulled the belly and rinsed off the cure. The cut was SO much more dense than when I'd first applied the cure mix. Instead of flopping around like a fresh cut of meat, it was rigid and didn't even bend when I held it out, holding only on to the edge of the cut. That's due to the liquid loss during the curing process, and that's what makes awesome bacon that doesn't spit or spatter when you cook it! After rinsing off the cure, I dried the meat using a couple of dish towels - I wanted to get the meat as dry as possible - then I put it back on the clean rack on the tray, and put it back in the fridge for another 24 hours. Well, another 24 hours or so - it went about 36 hours because of a family emergency, but no worries. It looked great when I was finally able to pull it and initiate the smoking process, and another large amount of liquid drained, probably due to relaxation from the lack of tension from the sodium coating - if that makes sense. I'll no doubt have to edit that sentence.
I used the "snake method" for smoking the cured belly. Around the bottom of the kettle, I arranged a row of briquettes two deep and three wide, then laid chunks of apple wood around the top of the whole charcoal snake. I poured about a dozen lit coals at the left end of the snake, covered the kettle, and let the heat build to about 200ºF. Then I laid the belly fat side down. Despite the thin nature of the cut I selected, (get the thickest belly with the highest meat:fat ratio you can find), I got almost exactly a two-hour smoke at just over 200º. I had to intervene at the first-hour mark, as things were getting too hot, too quickly, due to the thinness of the cut. I added a baking panful of ice water to the bottom of the kettle. It seemed to work.
I've just taken the new bacon off the smoker - OMG it smells heavenly. I'm going to let it rest for a while, then wrap it in foil and let it sit in the refrigerator over night. Then I'll take it to the butcher shop tomorrow and have them slice it into thin strips - stay tuned for a report!