How to create homemade, smoked bacon from start to finish

How to create homemade, smoked bacon from start to finish

Difficulty Rating: 6/10
Time Taken: 1-2 weeks (mostly hands-off)
Serves: This recipe makes between 75-100 slices of bacon


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Bacon. Who doesn’t love it? It’s sweet, salty, crispy and crunchy, and it goes down just as well on a Sunday morning as it does on a Wednesday night. I’m not sure what kind of life I’d have had without being introduced to warm, crispy bacon, slathered in ketchup and cushioned either by soft white bread.

It all changed for me about two years ago though, when I realised there was more to it than the watery, oily stuff you can pick up from your local corner shop or petrol station at 9pm. After spending some time down at River Cottage HQ, with their highly acclaimed captain of charcuterie Steve Lamb, I learned just how easy and delicious it is to make your own. He promised me on that day that I’d never again buy bacon from the store, and boy was he right. The irony of it is that I eat bacon far less now, because I’ll only eat it if we have any homemade stuff in the fridge or freezer; store-bought is just not the same.

Not only is making it yourself an incredibly simple process, but it’s also better tasting. You know where the pig has come from, and you control what goes into it. That means no saline solution, no artificial ingredients, and no nitrates and nitrites. Just good quality salt, spices, and smoke. What’s not to love?

This recipe is for standard-style bacon, with traditional herbs and spices. However, cured pork belly is truly a blank canvas, and as long as you keep the salt you can go in whichever direction you want. I’ve experimented in the past with a smoky Spanish style heavy on paprika, and also a sweeter variation that featured maple syrup, a glug of bourbon whiskey, and lots of black pepper, as you can see. Let’s get started!

Starting Notes

When it comes to food and drink, I’m typically a “little bit of this, little bit of that” kind of cook. I like to experiment with flavours, adding in herbs and spices until I find the right balance. With this bacon recipe, however, a bit more care is required as we’ll be curing the meat, turning something raw into something safe and edible without necessarily cooking it. 

To do this we’ll be using salt, the king of the preservatives, and a very precise amount of it. That amount is exactly 2.5% of the weight of the meat, which for this recipe will be 50 grams. So, if you wanted to double this recipe, or make it with a cut of pork that’s a different weight, just calculate 2.5% of that weight and that’s what you’ll need for salt. As for the other seasonings, they don’t have to be measured at all.

This type of curing is known as an equilibrium cure, where we apply a precise amount of salt based on the total weight of the meat. That means that it’s impossible to over-salt your meat, and you could in theory leave it to cure as long as you want without negative consequence. There’s also a fast and loose way to cure bacon by simply applying a handful of cure each day, which Steve has written a fantastic guide about here. I prefer the equilibrium cure as it locks in the salinity, but try both just as I did to see which you prefer.

Ingredients

  • 2kg single piece of pork belly, with bones and skin removed
  • 2.5% / 50g Salt (see starting notes for information)
  • 1 tablespoon cracked Black Pepper
  • Sugar (roughly the same amount as your salt)
  • 10 Juniper Berries
  • 4 Bay Leaves
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, crushed but not chopped
  • Handful of Rosemary, roughly chopped
  • Handful of Thyme, roughly chopped
  • Muslin cloth (for drying)
  • Butcher’s hooks (for drying)
  • Smoker for cold-smoking (optional)

A note on the method

With a quick look around the net you’ll find no end of bacon recipes from pork lovers the world over. No two recipes you see will be the same, and whether it’s how you apply the cure, what the cure is composed of, the cut of pig used, whether the bacon is smoked, or indeed to what temperature it’s smoked; there are plenty of variables. This is the way I’ve found works best for me, and steals a little bit from different techniques, but the clear thing to note is that there’s no one single path to great bacon. Find what works for you and go with it!

The Cure

The first step is to weigh your meat and calculate 2.5% of that weight. It’s important that you weigh the meat WITHOUT the skin and bones, as this isn’t part of your edible bacon, and both the skin and bones will make it hard for salt to penetrate and fully cure the meat. However, I believe you should keep the skin and bones for another use, mainly ribs, soups, stocks, and crackling, so if it’s an option then definitely buy belly that has skin and bones on and just ask your butcher to remove them for you first and pack them separately.

Weigh out your 2.5% of salt, and a roughly equal amount of sugar, and place it in a bowl. Next, roughly break up the bay leaves and bruise the juniper berries with your hands, and add it to your sugar/salt mixture along with the black pepper, rosemary, thyme, and garlic. Give it all a good mix up and make sure all the ingredients become evenly combined.

Next, take your pork belly and place it in a large ziploc bag, or if you have it, a vacuum sealer bag. Be sure to fold the top of the bag over before you put the bacon in, to prevent raw meat from getting on the top edges and causing contamination. Take half of your cure, lay the bacon flat, and pour it over one side of the bacon. Give it a good massage into all parts of the belly, being sure to hit the sides as well. Take the other half of cure, flip it over, and do the same again. Give the whole thing a really good massage, making sure the cure covers all of the raw pork belly evenly.

Then, it’s as simple as sealing up the bag and letting the salt work its magic. Try to get as much air out of the bag as possible, either by using a vacuum sealer or by pressing it out of your ziploc bag using the water displacement method. Your bacon has now begun the curing process, and in order to fully cure will need to sit in the bag in the fridge for 3 days per 500g of meat. For a 2kg piece of meat, that means 12 days of curing.

As the meat cures, moisture will be drawn from the pork belly and will pool in the bag. For this reason, it’s important to flip your bacon every couple of days, so that both sides of the belly get a chance to sit in that brine and absorb flavour. Keep doing this until you reach day 12, at which point your bacon is officially cured.

Run it under a cold tap to rinse off any excess salt and spices, and then thoroughly pat it dry with paper towels or a tea towel.  

Drying your bacon

In order for bacon to firm up, you’ll need to dry it out for a few days. You can do this in the fridge, simply placing it back on a rack uncovered for a few days, but the optimal way to do this is to hang your bacon in a cool, dry place away from other strong odours.

If the time of year is correct (the cooler the better), there’s no better place to hang your bacon than outside, and I opt for my garage. With low temperatures and plenty of airflow thanks to the slightly leaky garage door, I’ve found it’s the perfect place to leave my bacon for a week or so. 

You will want to loosely cover the bacon in muslin cloth to keep the flies off it, and to hang it I use butcher’s hooks and one of those clothing rails you can pick up cheaply from Amazon. Hook your bacon onto it, drape the muslin around it (you can tie the muslin together with safety pins), and then leave to hang for a week or so. At this point you’ll have what’s known as green bacon, which is cured and ready to slice off and fry.

Smoking your bacon

My favourite part. Smoked flavours aren’t for everyone, and after drying your bacon it’s perfectly fine to call it a day, slice it up and package it for storage in the fridge or freezer. However, I think smoke is essential to great bacon, and just compliments the sweetness and saltiness so beautifully.

Many American recipes call for hot smoking the bacon at this point, taking it to a “cooked” internal temperature of 150-165F. For me this is not necessary nor recommended, because you’re going to cook it to temperature in the pan and the meat has already been safely cured anyway. As such, I cold smoke my bacon, applying smoke to the meat for several hours without cooking the bacon in the smoker.

There are numerous ways to cold smoke foods, but the easiest and most affordable way I’ve found is to buy a dedicated cold smoking device and simply stick it in your barbecue or smoker (if you have one). I own both of these products and they come highly recommended, and both cost less than 50 GBP/USD. Both of these devices are cheap, easy to use, and incredibly effective at pumping out luscious smoke for hours on end without any interference:

If you’re in the UK: ProQ Cold Smoke Generator
If you’re in the USA: A-MAZE-N Products 5x8 Pellet Smoker

To smoke, simply take your bacon and hang it or place it on the grates of your barbecue or smoker. Light your cold smoking device per its instructions, which typically involves setting one end on fire and blowing it out, and smoke your bacon for 4 to 12 hours. How long you leave it is up to you, and the smokiness will intensify with time. It’s probably better to undersmoke than oversmoke it you haven’t tried it before, as it can get quite overpowering if you’re not used to it. Commercial bacon is often simply injected with liquid smoke, so the smoke flavour here is decidedly different.

Slicing and storing

After curing, drying, and smoking, your bacon is finally ready to eat! But before you dig in, be sure to think about how you’re going to store your bacon and how long you want it to last. Having been fully cured and smoked, you could in theory leave it hanging, and it will continue to dry over time to the point where you’ll only be able to shave pieces off like you might with prosciutto. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer now is the time to get one, and it will let you enjoy your bacon for months on end without any degradation of quality.

Take a sharp carving or slicing knife, and make thin or thick slices from the cured bacon. I often cut off a chunk from one end and dice it to make pancetta for cooking, too. Portion your bacon into groups of 6-8 slices, and vacuum seal them in packs.

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They will keep in the fridge for several weeks, but almost indefinitely in the freezer, which is where I store all of mine. By vacuum sealing you’ll avoid freezer burn too, so you’ll always have high quality bacon on-hand. It will defrost pretty quickly due to its lack of thickness, and you can even get it in the pan from frozen if you package it correctly.

Cooking

This part might be arbitrary, but making my own bacon has also taught me a little bit about the optimal way to cook it. I’ve cooked bacon on the grill, under a broiler, in a hot pan, and even in the oven. However, the best way I’ve found is to put your cold bacon in a cold pan, no oil, and set it over a low heat. This takes a little longer, but it gives the fat time to render, which makes for crispier, crunchier bacon, where the fat cooks out into the pan, rather than being chewy, gristly, and in your mouth.

The bacon also won’t curl up as much, if at all, due to the lack of water in your home-cured bacon and the slow and steady cooking that doesn’t shock the meat. Lastly, you can also drain and store that rendered  fat in the fridge for the most luxurious of cooking oils, and it goes particularly well with oven-roasted potatoes.

What are you waiting for? Get curing!

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