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Makin' Bacon

BaconI’ve long had an appreciation for smoked meats — sausage, brisket, ribs, etc. — but only recently did I decide to step up to the smoker and try my hand at this cooking method.  

Call it the hubris of a man who’s worked in the meat industry for more than ten years, but I thought combining a nice piece of meat with a few burning mesquite logs would yield a delicious, tender and juicy meal. But I soon had first-hand knowledge of smoking’s reputation as a temperamental cooking method, and quickly realized that smoking meat is a nuanced process that requires patience and attentiveness that’s honed through lots of experience. After a few failures (or successes, if you ask my dogs who get a taste of my less-impressive spoils), I improved my technique.

Eating smoked meats in Texas typically means taking down a brisket-rib-sausage plate at your favorite barbecue joint, but I wanted to branch out and make bacon. Smoke has been used to cook and preserve pork belly for generations and it’s actually surprisingly easy to make.

You only need three things to make bacon: pork belly, cure (salt, sugar and time) and smoke. 

BaconPork belly – When choosing a belly I check both cut ends to make sure ribbons of meat permeate throughout.  Some of my smoking buddies have suggested squaring off the ends of the fresh pork belly — they say this exposes the interior to the cure. 

While the presentation is nice, I like leaving the ends rough because they can be chopped off post-smoking for use as seasoning in baked beans or stewed greens. You’ll find pork belly in most of our stores and it’s always sourced from pigs that are raised to our standards of no antibiotics and no growth promotants, as well as the Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating. 

Cure – I use a 2-to-1 ratio of salt to sugar. I prefer brown sugar for a little added sweetness, but you can also try maple syrup for a more caramel-like flavor. Part of the fun of smoking your own meat is that you can experiment with the seasonings in your cure. I recently ground up mixed peppercorns and spread the course grinds over a slab.

I use a dry cure, which is similar to a dry rub when making brisket. (Wet brines, or soaking the meat in salted water, are typically messier and can result in a watery bacon.) Coat the skin and flesh with the cure, and rub it in to make sure every nook and cranny is covered. Let it sit in the fridge, uncovered, for 5 to 7 days, turning daily. Once the meat is firm to the touch it is time to smoke. Rinse off the cure, and pat dry.

Bacon smokerSmoke – Wood choice is a matter of preference. I love bacon smoked with oak or hickory, but I always seem to gravitate toward mesquite – I guess that’s what happens when you grow up on the mesquite-dotted plains of Northwest Texas. 

I use a hot-smoked method, keeping the smoker between 150 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit. When the temperature is stable, place the slab of cured pork belly on the grate. 

I have found that smoking the meat for 1 1/2  to 2 hours is sufficiently long enough to let the wood flavor penetrate the meat and produce the rich brown color characteristic of bacon. 

Let the bacon cool in the fridge overnight (I know this will be hard, but bear with me). After it has cooled, square up the edges of the non cut surface, if you have not already done this before curing the meat. These are the pieces I save for seasoning. Slice to your desired thickness, heat it up and enjoy the magic that is homemade bacon.

There are books and online resources if you want to dive deeper into smoking. My guiding light was Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

If all of this sounds really delicious but you don’t want to take the time, some of our meat departments carry in-house cured and smoked bacon in the fresh case, so you can still bring home the bacon.

Have you ever smoked your own meat? How’d it go? Share some of your tips and lessons in the comments below.

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Jennifer Good says …

How neat!! My brother tried his hand at smoking meat last summer, though I'm not sure how it turned out. But after reading this I think I can easily convince him to try smoking bacon next! You make it sound so easy if you have the patience.

Mamagrows.com says …

I smoke salmon on a 4 burner grill by heating the wood chip box over 2 burners and putting the fish over the unlit burners. It takes a few hours, but it is so worth it! I cannot wait to try this with bacon.

Ashton says …

Wonerful instructions can't wait to try it!! One can never have too much bacon on hand!!

Char C. says …

I've run two rounds of pork belly through my Little Chief smoker now, after curing with salt, sugar, and pink salt for about 9 or 10 days. First time I used hickory smoke; last time (last week!) I used applewood smoke. I think I prefer the applewood. Will have to try oak one time too - we DO use that in our big offset smoker, for ribs, brisket, chicken, pork butt, turning corned beef into pastrami, etc. We LOVE to smoke stuff! I use the Little Chief (because it's electric and smokes at a cooler temp) for salmon too. For that we use alder chips.

Al Smith says …

I love to smoke all kinds of meat, but only tried bacon once. The "pink salt" I used may be safe, but it doesn't look healthy. Did you use pink salt, regular salt, sea salt, kosher...? I would like to give bacon another shot. Who doesn't like bacon! Thanks!

Robin says …

I have read (on meat labels) about curing with a celery extract of some sort. Is this recommended and where can you buy that?

kim says …


Alan Lazar says …

Sounds Great,like the ratios, I usually also put in some garlic and onion powder. did you have any flare ups with the heat?

Todd says …

Are you using any "pink salt" (curing salt) here?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@ROBIN - I checked with Beau and he said that Celery extract is a common natural alternative, but he has personally never used it. It can probably be found online searching for homemade natural sausage.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@ALAN - No issue with flare up, Beau's bellies were a few feet off the flame. A drip bucket can help if you have issues though and the drippings can be basted back on for extra goodness.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@TODD - Beau has used pink salt before, but not on this run.

Mark Thomas says …

Emmett's has been making ham and bacon since 1820 in the village of Peasenhall, Suffolk, UK. All of our fresh pork for bacon production comes from Blythburgh Free Range, 5 miles away. All of our ingredients are totally natural and the smoking is done using our brick smokehouses.

Vanessa Peterson says …

Why aren't you carrying Pedersens Bacon anymore?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@VANESSA - Our products vary between stores and regions so check with your local store to see if it's just out of stock or has been discontinued. They'll be happy to help out!

Matt Fryer says …

Just put some pork bellies in the cure on Friday. This is a great site. On the pink salt, I've made bacon both with and without. If you are making bacon for gifts then it looks more like what folks expect with the pink salt. Nice and bright. Grayer without it, but still tastes almost the same so for my own consumption I would probably just omit it.

Kennedy Mitchell says …

What kind of salt are you using. I'm interested in turning a brisket into pastrami can you tell me if I should use a curing salt and what ratio of curing salt to another type of salt.