Tempted by the wafting smell of gently sizzling bacon but tired of the watery, tasteless store-bought stuff? Me too. Wary of the nitrates used to preserve it commercially? Ditto. But I'm not that keen on botulism either so I wondered - is there a way to make nice dry bacon without nitrates? The answer is: Yes, there is, but first, a bit of history.
For hundreds of years, potassium nitrate (saltpetre) crystals have been mined and manufactured. Traditionally these crystals were then mixed with other natural curing agents and rubbed into bacon, ham and sausages to prevent botulism developing while they cured in the cool larder for months on end.
These days, saltpetre has largely been replaced by sodium nitrate to do that job in bacon and ham. Sodium nitrate is also used widely as a food additive to give the appealing pink colour and tangy flavour we've come to expect in a whole range of other meats including saveloys, luncheon sausage, and smoked chicken to name a few. Nitrates are highly toxic and their use as a food preservative is heavily regulated. The problem is no-one can regulate how much we are consuming across multiple food products, so it's a substance to keep an eye on reducing or eliminating where possible.
With this knowledge in hand, I set out to make my own nitrate-free bacon. Initially, I had some spectacular failures following old recipes that required long curing periods in salty brines, accompanied by much rubbing, soaking in wine and hanging in chimneys (the bacon not me). Then I realised the whole point of those recipes was to produce something that would keep for months if not years at room temperature.
I don't store my bacon in a cool larder, I have a perfectly good fridge freezer, so preserving qualities weren't high on my bacon checklist. I also worked out that popping said bacon into the freezer would stop botulism in its tracks. So I simplified the curing process and my experiments became much more successful.
Now I make mouth-wateringly good bacon without nitrates in 3 days, and you can too - here's how:
Ingredients & Equipment:
- Pork Belly
- Brown Sugar
- Salt (non-iodised)
- Wood chips for smoking (I use manuka but any aromatic wood is good)
- Hot Smoker
- Large plastic bin with a lid
- Sharp knife or bacon slicer
- Take a piece of pork belly, I usually ask the butcher for a whole side and do a big batch to freeze but you can start smaller until you get the hang of it. Trim off any cartilage or ribs left on the pork and any hangy, flappy bits so you've got a nice smooth piece of meat to start with. I use pork belly because it's thin enough to cure quickly and it's got a nice mix of fat to meat to make streaky bacon.
- Sterilise the plastic bin with boiling water, dry it, and then place the meat in it. Cut the meat into two or three pieces if you are doing a whole side.
- Mix together salt and brown sugar in a bowl and rub it all over the meat. I like quite a sweet cure so I do 50/50 salt to brown sugar and I mix enough to generously rub into the meat on both sides, (see the photo at the top). Many recipes call for a higher salt ratio but because you're freezing the finished product you're not relying on the salt to preserve the meat, it is merely drawing the moisture and adding flavour. Too much salt and you'll get something inedible, not enough and you'll get wet bacon with no flavour. You'll get the hang of it - I don't even measure it now.
- Put the lid on the bin and leave it in a cool place, either overnight or for 12 hours and that's your first day done. In hot weather, it's best to do this part in the fridge.
- Next morning, turn the meat and rub the gooey sugary brine all over it again. Put the lid on and leave it for another 12 hours.
- Do the same again and leave overnight and that's day 2.
- On the third day, you should have a lot of liquid and the meat will have reduced in size and feel tighter. Remove the meat from the bin and pat it dry, then leave it to dry on a rack in a cool airy place for an hour or so while you get the smoker ready. The fridge is fine in warm weather.
- Put the chunks of meat into a hot smoker and smoke with manuka chips (or a wood of your choice) for 2 - 4 hours depending on whether you like a strong smokey flavour or just a hint of smoke. When it comes out of the smoker, cool it on a rack and then put it in the fridge overnight to set and that is day 3. (I'm not sure I'd use this recipe with a cold smoker as you don't want to have the meat hanging around for hours on end given the lack of preservatives, it may spoil during the smoking process - someone with more experience using cold smokers may like to comment on this)
- The next day it will be firm enough to slice. You can use a sharp knife to make thick rashers. I'm lucky enough to own a vintage meat slicer that my sister found at a garage sale, still in its original box and it makes short work of the job.
Remember it is raw meat and must be kept in the fridge or freezer once it has been sliced and you must cook it well before eating. I like to store it in the freezer, taking out enough for each meal. It will keep in the freezer for several months and can be cooked from frozen. Cook it more gently than shop bacon because there is no water to get rid of. You won't need any extra fat, just lay the rashers in a pan on a low heat and you'll get something that looks like this.
This "recipe" is very adaptable. You can add herbs and spices if you like, a few crushed juniper berries and peppercorns are nice, but be sparing with seasonings as a little goes a long way. I've also tried a batch with a little maple syrup and one with a bit of honey in it and they were both delicious.
And yes, I know, salt, sugar, fat and smoke are not superfoods, but man cannot live by goji berries alone - enjoy in moderation. Or not!