When you’re making brunch for 25 starving artists, you better have a lot of bacon. In a kitchen like the one at the Headlands Center for the Arts, where I’m currently living and working as a kitchen intern, everything counts in large amounts, and nothing’s more beloved by the artists we’re feeding than the house-made meat products we grind, cure or smoke.
Bacon, pancetta, breakfast sausage, spicy link sausage, salmon gravlax, and more: most of them require only salt, sugar, spices, and time to transform fatty, tough cuts of meat into savory staples that can richly flavor any dish. (The exception is the salmon, of course, caught for us in Alaska by a friend of the chef’s and sent to us in pristine vacuum-packed sides. Still, even this great stuff emerges silkier and more aromatic after a few days’ curing with salt and dill.) It helps, too, that Damon Little, my fellow kitchen intern, spent some months last year working as an apprentice in the stainless-steel surrounds of esteemed salumi-makers Boccalone in Oakland.
Making bacon takes time, it’s true—eight days to cure, a few hours in the smoker, another hour or so in the oven to finish—but very little of it requires our hands or even our presence. It doesn’t take much time to weigh out a handful of salt and spices, rub it into a slab of pork belly, slap the belly onto a baking pan and pop it in the fridge. A turn and rub every other day takes maybe two minutes, tops.
Then there’s the smoking, a couple of hours, but during almost all of that time, the bacon-to-be is quietly, smokily minding its own business while we go about ours. At the end, well-smoked, the slab goes into the oven to finish cooking. (This last step may not be necessary, depending on how hot your smoker gets; the main thing is getting the pork's internal temperature up to 150 degrees.)
The result, eschewing all modesty, is fantastic. Right out of the oven, the slabs are deep red-brown, lacquered like a Peking duck, with an outrageously appetizing aroma. Because our bacon doesn’t have to last for weeks in a butcher’s case or grocer’s fridge (we freeze it immediately and defrost it chunk by chunk as needed), we can make our cure lighter on both the salt and “pink salt” than most commercial versions. Enough to cure it safely, of course, but light enough that you can taste the flavor of the pork and aromatics as well, without your tongue being clubbed by salt. (What is pink salt, you ask? Also known as curing salt, DC cure, or DQ cure, it is a mixture of 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% sodium chloride, or table salt. The nitrites in the salt mixture help prevent bacterial contamination and also preserve the meat's color during the curing process. It is dyed pink to prevent it from being confused with regular salt.)
This last time we made bacon, we added maple syrup to a simple salt-and-pepper cure, to make something straightforward and breakfast-y out of half the meat. The other half became pancetta, cured without syrup but with more spices and aromatics, including plenty of rosemary. After curing, the meat was rolled and tied but not smoked, to make a savory bacon in the European style, useful as a base for sauces, stews, and ragus.
Any pieces of the bacon or pancetta not immediately fried up for brunch quickly find a home: turned into lardons for salad, sautéed with onions, carrots, and celery to give a backbone to lentils or duck-and-bean soup, or simply cooked up for a kitchen-crew snack on yesterday’s sourdough bread, piled with sliced tomatoes and a smear of leftover garlic mayonnaise or Caesar dressing.
Given that we generally cure and smoke four big slabs of organic Berkshire pork from Idaho’s Snake River Farms at a time, the savings in the kitchen budget are significant. High-quality, organic bacon like this would probably cost us four times what the plain pork belly does. When you’re a non-profit cooking daily for 25 to 30 people, sometimes for twice that, making your own value-added products in house is just good sense.
Good organic jam, free of high-fructose corn syrup and made with more fruit than sugar? Expensive, especially when one brunch can empty 3 or 4 fancy jars. A flat of organic, locally grown plums, a pound or two of organic sugar, a handful of lemons and a couple hours of my time? A much cheaper, and much more delicious, way to fill a pantry shelf. The apples from a staff member’s backyard tree are tasty but misshapen and pocked with holes, useless for out-of-hand eating. But a little time with a paring knife, an afternoon’s slow baking in the oven, and we have three quarts of autumn apple butter ready to be slathered on this Sunday’s waffles.
Waffles served with bacon, naturally. Having come to bacon late in life (my parents’ one nod to traditional Jewish dietary laws was no pork in the house), I’ve never felt confident cooking it, especially since every bacon-lover seems to have a different bacon ideal—rigid or floppy, nearly burnt or just sizzled. Here, I’ve learned a good trick for when you’re making bacon for a crowd, when frying up a single panful just won’t do. We cut our bacon in fairly thick strips, laying them out side by side on parchment-lined sheet trays and popping them into the oven to cook until just crisp. Take the slices off the trays and lay them out on cooling racks to drain; this keeps them from getting soggy with grease and steam while you go about prepping the mimosas and flipping the frittatas. Pour the excess grease off the baking sheets (into an old jar or bowl, not down the sink, since it will thicken and harden into a drain-blocking sludge as it cools). To reheat, slide the bacon, still on its racks, back onto the baking sheets, and return to the oven until crisp and hot. Serve immediately, if you can bear to let any of it leave the kitchen.
Recipe: Smoked Maple Bacon
Summary: The following recipe is adapted by Headlands kitchen intern Damon Little from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.
Prep Time: 60 minutes
Cook Time: 4 hours
Total Time: 5 hours, plus 8 days' curing time
Yield: About 4 lbs
2 tbsp red pepper flakes, crushed in a mortar
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1.75 oz kosher salt or sea salt (not iodized)
1/4 tsp pink salt (curing salt)
1/4 cup maple sugar or packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup (grade B has the most flavor)
One 5-lb slab pork belly, preferably from a pasture-raised animal
- Combine the chili flakes, pepper, salt, pink salt, and sugar in a bowl and mix well. Add syrup and stir to combine.
- Rub cure over both sides of the belly, making sure to work it under any flaps and into any crevices. Seal meat in a 2-gallon resealable plastic bag, or place in a non-reactive (glass, ceramic, stainless steel) container a little bigger than the meat. The salt and sugar will pull liquid out of the meat as it cures; make sure the meat stays bathed in this brine throughout the process.
- Refrigerate meat, turning and rubbing the belly to redistribute the cure every other day, for 7 days.
- Remove belly from pan, rinse it thoroughly to remove any remaining cure, and pat dry. Put belly on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, for another 12 to 24 hours.
- Smoke the belly in a hot smoker for 2 hours. The finished internal temperature of the bacon should be about 150 degrees F.
- If, after 2 hours, your bacon has not reached this temperature, remove from the smoker. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place belly on a metal roasting rack over a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 60-90 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees.
- Remove bacon from oven and let cool. When cool, cut into one-pound pieces, and wrap tightly in plastic. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.