Living in what I lovingly call Pig World (Pigs are revered in Hawaii and were once the food of royalty) many cuts of pork are more abundant and affordable here. Pork Bellies are one of those. I just made two pounds of some of the best bacon I have ever tasted for less than $4. Bacon, always imported the mainland here sells for $6-7 a pound when not on sale. This however was not at all a decision based on money, but instead on flavor and the kind of satisfaction brought about by making things from scratch whenever possible. I roast my own coffee beans, bake my own bread, why not make my own bacon?
I have a Bradley digital smoker which enables me to smoke at any temperature or even to cold smoke. Bacon, as you can imagine needs to be smoked at a cooler temperature than say a Turkey, which I actually slow cook in the smoker. My smoker also allows me to smoke with most any kind of wood, as it requires pressed wood chips. Every 20 minutes a disc of wood is pushed onto the smoker element and the ashes of the remaining disc are then pushed into a bowl of water, making this also a smoker that you do not have to tend to or check frequently.
Maple is one of my favorite smoking woods, as it has a sweeter and less bitter element than say... mesquite. However sometimes I use apple or cherry for delicate smoking too. Pecan is another favorite. There are times though that the intense flavor of mesquite is best. It all depends on what I am smoking. In this batch of bacon, I used maple.
Here are the simple step by step instructions to making your own bacon at home. I have to say, it is one of the most delicious things I have ever made, as simple as it is.
If you have ever cured salmon, this is basically the same process. Another great reason to make your own bacon is that you can make it nitrate free! A simple cure of a spice rub is all that you need. I used one made with my smoked Hawaiian Salt, a bit of Maui Raw Sugar and some spices. I had two slabs, so I did one adding lots of cracked pepper corns (A mix of 6 different kinds of pepper) and the other with maple sugar and California chiles ground up. As you can imagine there are a multitude of combinations you can try. For a good cure though, some salt is needed. All you do is rub the spices onto the flesh of the pork belly and then put it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. In the end, the cure is rinsed off of the slabs and then you can add more aromatics for the final smoking process. The bacon can stay in the bags for up to a week, but need at least 3 days for curing. Turn every day and it is also helpful to have a weight on the bags. After the first day you will notice that the salt is drawing moisture from the meat.
When you are ready to smoke, rinse the slabs and pat dry. Using a sharp knife (I use a boning knife for this) slide the knife just beneath the skin of the pork belly and essentially filet it, removing just the skin (not the fat beneath it) from the meat. Next, add whatever aromatics you want for the final product. These flavors will be present at the edge of the bacon. In this case I used the crushed peppercorns on one and some maple sugar & crushed rosemary from the garden on the other.
You will need to have a smoker that does not have a fire under the meat. One with a smoke box on the side is good, or one like mine which you can digitally set the heating element. A stovetop smoker will not work for bacon. You do not want to heat the slabs higher than 125 degrees or you will be roasting them. I place the slabs on a rack above a drip pan. I do this whenever I am smoking meats, as it just keeps the whole smoker cleaner and eliminates chances of flare ups.
If you have a large smoker like I do, you can experiment imparting smoke flavors to other things while you are doing the bacon. I figure if I have empty shelves, I am "wasting" smoking space. I often do salt, rice, polenta, garlic and other items that taste good with a bit of smoke flavoring.
Smoke for 8-10 hours with the vent nearly closed.
Remove, cool and put in to zip lock bags.
When ready to slice, use a very sharp knife if you do not own a meat slicer (I do not) and slice it. I found after a little experimenting that cutting the slab in half lengthwise enabled me to make thinner slices. Since I was using the bacon for a BLT anyway, it made the bacon just the right size for sandwiches.
And so for a valentine's brunch today, I had home cured Bacon, garden fresh tomato, fresh genoa basil and arugula on home made sprouted whole wheat with home made mayonnaise. I also had local coffee beans roasted here at home! Life is good on the BIG ISLAND!