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Bacon. There are few foods that create visceral cravings more than bacon frying on the stove. In Texas, these sense memories are ingrained within us since birth. Everyone knows what bacon smells like, and it just smells delicious. And those that disagree, well, they are just lying.

My love affair with bacon started in Bosque County – a sleepy, rural place a hundred miles from nowhere with one flashing light. Bacon wasn’t wrapped around anything, or used as “bits” – it was fried on the stove in its own grease. It wasn’t straight as a ruler like the bacon cooked in the oven on a wire rack or uniformly crispy like that from a microwave. It was crunchy in spots but flabby in others, and near the end of cooking it almost always had some burned crumbs sticking to it. And when you were done with the frying the hot grease was poured into a recycled Folger’s Coffee can and kept in the cupboard. To this day, I don’t know why that plastic cover on the can didn’t melt.

My mother taught me how to fry bacon which was a skill she was taught by her grandmother. And as far as I can remember as a child, no one ever complained about how the bacon was cooked. Today people order bacon like Starbucks – extra crispy, “lean” (that’s a crazy one), and God forbid “turkey bacon”. But back as a child of young parents of the Greatest Generation – it was sliced thick, usually by someone with a meat slicer and 9 fingers, and wrapped in butcher paper. No, bacon didn’t come in plastic back then either.

The rural people – especially the poor rural people – of Texas relied on the pig for much of the protein in their diet. Cattle were either sold or milked and chickens were used for eggs except maybe on Sunday. For the rest of the week, pork was the staple. “Fat back” – or at $12/lb today what we call “pork belly” – was used in beans or black-eyed peas, the grease was used to fry eggs or make corn bread, and a slice of country ham might find its way into dinner. The hog even contributed as the sole source of soap for the family. But it was the bacon that was king.

Pigs were prized possessions and they were bred to be big – not lean like the ones today. Big pigs fed big families. And any extra fat on the pig was just rendered off for – you guessed it – more bacon grease. One of my favorite photos of my mom as a child is with one of their very large hogs. Imagine the “likes” that this photo would have received on Instagram. But given the position of the pig it is clear what was important in the picture.

The act of curing bacon was one of preservation and survival. There was no refrigeration so curing meats like bacon and hams with salt and smoke were the norm. And most families had their own special recipe and flavor profile but you can bet it was simple. All parts of the hog were used and most of the larger cuts were turned into sausage. Although dried sausage is common in the German settlements of Texas, in Central Texas this sausage was often gently fried and then poured into mason jars with its own grease, covered with more grease, and then stored in the cellar. The remaining small parts of the pig including the head were trimmed and made into a deli-style meat called “souse”.

Today you can find artisan bacon producers in Texas, but there is something extremely satisfying about making it yourself. Fortunately you don’t have to deal with the whole hog. There is nice pork belly available almost everywhere.

Home-cured Bacon

2 to 3 lbs pork belly, rind removed, trimmed and squared off for easier slicing later

2 to 3 tbs kosher salt (1 tbs of kosher salt per 1 lb of pork)

1/2 tsp pink salt (see note below)

1/4 cup sorghum molasses

2 garlic cloves, minced and smashed

1 tbs black pepper, coarsely ground or #16 mesh

2 tsp thyme, fresh

1 tsp coriander seeds

1/2 to 1 tsp juniper berries, whole

1/2 tsp all spice berries, whole

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, optional

1 to 2 bay leaves

Mix all of the ingredients except the pork to make a rub. Firmly massage the mixture on all sides of the pork belly and place it in a large plastic bag. If there is extra rub, place it in the bag as well. Put the bag into the bottom drawer of the refrigerator and flip the pork belly over every day for 7 days. Liquid will begin to form and the pork will start to get firm – this is all normal.

After 1 week, rinse the pork belly thoroughly under running water to remove as much of the rub as you can. Then place on a wire rack and place uncovered in the refrigerator for another 24 hours.

Make sure the pork belly is completely dry with the use of paper towels. This is important as smoke will not adhere to wet areas. Place the pork belly in a smoker and smoke at 230 degrees for about an hour and a half until the internal temperature is 150 degrees. Any smoke will do, but milder woods such as apple wood are ideal.

Chill the bacon before slicing (in fact, even slightly frozen will make it easier). Slice into long strips about 1/4 inch thick. The bacon can be sliced or left whole and wrapped in butcher paper and frozen for 3 to 6 months.

A note about pink salt: “pink salt” is a curing salt containing a mixture of table salt and a small amount of sodium nitrite. The latter is a preservative that helps to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus and also gives the characteristic pink color and contributes to the flavor we know of as bacon. You can make bacon entirely without it but the meat will have the look and taste of smoked pork belly. This product is available online and sometimes you will be forced to pick between different kinds of pink salts. Make sure you pick Prague #1 which is meant for meats that are cured but meant to be eaten more quickly.

#bacon #curing #pigs

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Dan McCoy