Making your own bacon is very easy and affordable, especially because fresh pork belly is a relatively cheap cut of meat. And when you make it yourself, you get total control over the quality of the meat and the ingredients it is cured with!
So, if you have time and some space in the fridge, you can enjoy the wholesome, chemical-free goodness of homemade bacon right from your own kitchen! So, here’s how to cure bacon at home, (and have it taste even better than store-bought!)
Nitrites and Food Preservation Safety
There is one main concern when curing and preserving meat, and that is botulism. While botulism is usually related to improper canning procedures, food-borne botulism also occurs in meats that have been improperly cured. (See the USDA Food Safety website for guidelines on safe handling of bacon.)
To prevent this, commercially preserved meats contain sodium nitrite (sometimes called “pink salt”), which acts both as a preservative and a color fixer. This is what gives store-bought bacon that bright red color.
Sodium nitrite is toxic in high quantities, and has been linked to migraines in some people. Some organic “un-cured” bacon brands use celery juice in lieu of pink salt, but celery juice can often contain even more naturally-occurring sodium nitrite than the curing salt! This won’t help migraine sufferers much.
But the main concern with sodium nitrite (or even high levels of naturally-occurring nitrites from celery juice) is that when it is exposed to high heat in the presence of protein (like a piece of fried, nitrite-cured bacon), proteins in the meat bond with the sodium nitrite to produce toxic nitrosamines—and certain nitrosamines have been proven to be deadly carcinogens.
Basically, frying and eating nitrite-cured bacon presents the perfect scenario for nitrosamines to enter your system.
That sounds pretty bad, right?
Unfortunately, the sodium nitrite (or naturally-occurring nitrites from celery) is necessary in a large industrial setting, where many different people, machines and industrial processes are involved in getting the meat from the feedlot to the store, free of botulism and other harmful bacteria.
But the home cook can better control the variables and handling procedures involved in curing bacon, and can get those assurances without the addition of nitrites. And your bacon will taste much better than anything you’ve purchased in a package.
Selecting Your Pork
If you eat a lot of pork, then you should know how important it is to get it from pigs that haven’t been tortured in industrial feedlots, fattened on GMO soy and corn, shot up with pharmaceuticals and antibiotics, and then processed with chemical additives and nitrites.
This means you need to buy pork from organic sources—or better yet, from a farm that raises their pigs naturally on pasture and forage. If you can get pork belly from a heritage breed like Berkshire, Duroc, or Kurobuta, it will have a richer, meatier, more distinctive flavor than conventional pork bellies.
When shopping, choose a fresh, unfrozen, unsliced, organic or pasture-raised pork belly from your butcher or local farm that is between 1–2 inches (3–5 cm) thick and 6–8 inches (15-20 cm) across. Look for pork belly that has about a 1:1 ratio of muscle to fat. You might need to special order it.
You can get pork belly with skin (sometimes called the “rind”) or without. Ask your butcher to remove the skin but save it for you so you can make fried pork rinds, chicharrones, or “cracklins,” if you like.
As soon as you get your pork belly home, start the cure because raw pork fat goes rancid after just 4 or 5 days.
Smoked or Unsmoked?
The process of “curing” anything simply means using salt to draw the moisture out, so that the food lasts longer. And that is what you are going to do with your pork belly to make it into bacon.
After curing, almost all commercial bacon in the United States is smoked, whereas bacon in other countries is cured, but not smoked. With bacon, the smoking step is more about adding flavor than it is about preserving the meat.
This recipe gives you the choice to use a smoker or to gently roast the bacon in the oven. For the smoker version, hickory, cherry or applewood chips will give you the best flavor.
If you want that smoky, American bacon taste, but don’t have access to a smoker, you can “cheat” by using a natural liquid smoke during oven-roasting. Small bottles of liquid smoke can be found near the barbecue sauce on grocery store shelves. Read the ingredient list on the label carefully to make sure it contains all natural ingredients.
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How to Cure Bacon
For a sweet cure, add one or more of the following:
- Cut your pork belly into a nice square, bacon-like block. Rinse it and pat it dry.
- Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl until they are uniformly combined.
- Mix the wet ingredients (if using) in a separate bowl until they are uniformly combined.
- In a glass dish, use your very clean or gloved hands to slather the meat all over with the wet ingredients (if using) until thoroughly coated everywhere.
- Place one half of the dry cure mixture in the bottom of the glass dish.
- Place the wet pork belly into the dish and press it into the salt/sugar mix.
- Carefully pour the rest of the dry mixture across the top of the meat and press it in uniformly all around, using your hands to thoroughly massage the cure mix into every nook and cranny of your pork belly. Use up any excess mixture in the dish to make sure both sides are thoroughly coated.
- Place the dish in the refrigerator for 5-10 days, until the meat feels firm throughout, with no soft spots. (5 days is a good average for a thin belly about 1-1/2 inches thick, but check to be sure. The longer you cure it, the saltier it will be.)
- As the cure dehydrates the bacon, liquid will accumulate in the dish. It’s supposed to. Think of it like brine. Turn the bacon over every day, and slosh the brine around it.
- After 5-10 days curing, thoroughly rinse the salt/sugar brine off of the pork belly.
- Pat the bacon dry with a clean towel and set it on a rack over a baking pan. Allow the bacon to air-dry uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours. It will develop a pellicle, or protective skin, on the surface of the meat. Without the pellicle, the smoke won't stick to the meat and you won’t get that bronzed surface that looks and tastes so good.
- If oven-roasting, preheat the oven to 175–200 degrees F. If using liquid smoke, baste the cured pork belly with a pastry brush to evenly coat all sides. Roast for about 2 hours until bacon reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees F, the minimum safe temperature for pork. The meat should be cooked a bit on the outside, but not all the way through.
- If smoking, smoke over hickory, cherry or applewood chips at 175–200 degrees F for 2–3 hours, until meat reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees F, the minimum safe temperature for pork. The meat should be cooked a bit on the outside, but not all the way through.
- Let the bacon cool to room temperature on a wire rack over a baking pan, tightly wrap in parchment paper, then refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. (This sets the flavor and texture.)
- Slice off the ends of the cold bacon, which may be very dark and more salty than the innards. Fry and eat if you like.
- With a long, very sharp knife, slice your bacon across the grain, thin or thick, as desired. Use hard-to-slice pieces in pots of beans or soup. Cut bacon into cubes to make lardons and use them like bacon bits in salads, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, baked beans, sauces, etc. If you put the bacon slab in the freezer for 15 minutes, it becomes easier to slice.
- Fry bacon pieces/slices in a skillet, or crisp them in the oven. Save the fat for up to a month and use it to fry.
- Homemade bacon will keep for a week in the refrigerator and several months in the freezer.
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Updated October 2021