Unsalted, Uncured Pork Belly
The road to Baconwaldia started with a piglet and ends with thick cut, incredibly salty and smokey bacon. In short, you feed and water the hog until slaughter; the carcass is either butchered on site or taken to a butcher. With the latter, you receive back a box of difficult cuts of meat, all neatly wrapped and marked. "Pork Chop." "Pork Steak." "Shoulder Roast" "Pig Feet." "Bacon, Fresh." The last cut is what we are after, the pig’s belly. In the world of commerce, pork bellies are a commodity and are traded via futures contracts not unlike frozen concentrate orange juice, cotton, rice, wheat, coffee, sugar and many other bulk items.
That said, Baconwaldia does not involve futures contracts or traders in general. It involves a dedicated farmer to care for & manage the pig; a cold morning with fresh water, hot coffee, sharp knives and good company is also needed to send the hog off onto its voyage toward Baconwaldia.
Traditional, old-school bacon, the bacon of Baconwaldia, would have been created by a skilled charcutiers. The meat would have been salt (sodium chloride) cured for many days, and then cold smoked with hardwood smoke to add further shelf life to the pork belly. The cured and smoked meat would have been wrapped in muslin and hung in a larder or dry cellar; without refrigeration, a properly cured and smoked pork belly would survive most of the winter.
With the discovery of how to produce nitrates and nitrites at the turn of the twentieth century, the onset of mechanization and modern, mass production of foods and the modern practices of animal husbandry, the charcutiers of yore were factored out of the bacon-equation. Machines remove the skin, a brine mixture of salt (sodium chloride), nitrates (sodium nitrate) and liquid smoke are needle-injected into the slabs of meat. Later, the slabs are showered with yet more liquid smoke. The meat is then slow cooked in an oven then frozen. More machines trim the frozen slabs into uniform sizes. I think it is a shame that the pork belly’s modern voyage involves not a whiff of smoke nor a lick of flame.
The wagon-wheel-rutted-road to Baconwaldia that I took did not involve sodium nitrate, liquid smoke or inject-needles. Instead, the process was hands one, and craft-like. Craft Bacon, not unlike Craft Beer. My ingredient and materials list was pretty simple:
- Pork Belly
- Salt (a pink, Bolivian salt)
- Brown sugar
- Kentucky Bourbon
- Local apple & pear tree wood
- One (1) medium steel trash can – to make our smoker
- A short length of steel rod
- Four (4) steel "S" hooks
- Inexpensive meat thermometer
- Resealable plastic zippered bags
Clean the pork belly; removing any dirt, grit or grass (as in my case) from the piece. Also, remove any membrane-tissue or extremely soft fatty tissue. Cut the piece into equal-sized pieces. Coat all sides of all pieces with a heavy layer of salt; group pieces in twos and place into plastic bags. Put the bagged pieces into the refrigerator (even though it is entirely possible to do this whole process sans-refrigeration, it is there, so you might as well just use the damn machine to keep things cool). For the next four days, each day, rinse the pieces and rinse the bags. Re-salt all the pieces and place back into the bags and refrigerate. This whole process is called dry curing. You are drawing out the moisture from the meat at the same time leaving salt in the meat (and fat). If you notice the first photo (above) and then the second photo (above), the fat and meat in the first photo appear "looser" and has an appearance of containing more water than that in the second photo. The second photo is from after several salt changes. Each salt change, your bag will have liquid in it. After round one, you will have a salty, blood-colored mixture. Progressively, the liquid gets more and more water-like after each salt change.
On day four or five, you can add in flavors, if you choose. I did one slab of bacon as "Salt & Brown Sugar" and one other as "Salt, Brown Sugar & Bourbon" In both with the brown sugar, I did 1 cup brown sugar. In the bourbon-ized bacon, I put in two jiggers of Wild Turkey.
By this point, I was running low on my Bolivian Rose salt, so, I let the bags of meat sit for three days more days without changing the salt or flavoring mix.
Smoking was the most enjoyable part for me; making the trash can smoker and having it actually work was thrilling. With a drill, I put several holes through the lid of the can, as well as near the base. I also happened to have an old wood stove from an icehouse (for winter fishing). I removed the door from this little stove and installed it into the trash can.
An inch or two below the lip of the can, I drilled holes on opposite sides and slipped the steel rod in; this was used to hang the meat. With a nice fire going in the can, the lid worked well to snuff out the flames, and the stove door was nice to regulate the amount of oxygen that did get into the can. The smoke was extremely pleasant smelling and even the dogs got into bathing in the wafts of smoke.
You will want colder smoke. I eventually settled in on a slightly hotter smoke than I wanted, but it seems to have done the trick. The smoker seemed to like the 180 degrees (F) area. Ideally, something around 150 degrees (F) would have been nice. Remember, the idea is to not roast the meat, it is to smoke it. The smoke penetrates and further dries the meat.
When all is said and done, you probably did not save any money by crafting your voyage to Baconwaldia, but you will have some damn fine Craft Bacon, a nifty trash can smoker, a partial bottle of Bourbon (unless you drank the rest while waiting for the meat to finish), and a neat story on meat preservation.