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Makin' Bacon

I’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. 

Pork 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.

Smoke – 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.