Monday, January 24, 2011

Did I Just Fall off the Turnip Truck?

Photo from ilovebutter

Apparently I did just "Fall off the Turnip Truck" ... well, at least as far as charcuterie is concerned. Probably because I live under a rock in Nowheresville. If I had been a Foodie, I would have known about the "back-to-the-cure" movement that has gripped food enthusiasts for the last 6+ years, ever since Michael Ruhlman's book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing was first published.

As it is, I am Jannie-come-very-late to the party. And actually, that's okay with me; better late than never! I've just spent several days reading through 2,929+ posts written (mostly by professional food folks, chefs, restaurant owners and the like) on making their own charcuterie based on Ruhlman's book... with The Man himself answering and/or responding to many posts. All this reading of course is on top of the hundreds of blogs and other forums on the subject (and books) that I have devoured over the last 2 years.

The are two things that stand out from all I have read:
#1: Making Your Own Bacon is incredibly easy.
#2: Once you make your own bacon, you'll never go back to store-bought bacon again (given the choice)!

Making bacon requires no equipment most of us don't already have. All you need is a refrigerator, a large zip-lock bag, salt, sugar, perhaps some spices or maple sugar to taste, and an oven. Oh, you do need some curing salt, called "pink salt"... which is 6¼% Nitrite (NOT Nitrate) mixed into regular salt...  but a pound of it is VERY cheap (under $3 pound), and just tiny amounts (portions of a teaspoonful) are generally needed per big slab of bacon.

I just bought a 2+ pound piece of pork belly (shown above) in an Asian Market for $2.99 pound, and with the addition of 3¢ worth of salt and cure, plus my time, I can make much better tasting and healthier bacon than I can buy at $7.99-$8.99 or more per pound! (Have you noticed store-bought bacon is no longer sold in 1 pound packages, but instead sold in 10 or 12 oz. packs?) I would have preferred a larger piece of pork belly to make bacon, but that's what the market had. It's okay for me to use it for practice, although everything I have read says it will it NOT fail if I follow the simple directions.

For those with chemical phobias amongst us (and that includes me): nitrItes (not nitrAtes) convert to nitrous oxide in the curing process... and nitric oxide (chemically written as "NO") has been shown to cause relaxation of blood vessels, and is therefore a key to treating heart problems and related ailments. The most important effect of nitric oxide is to relax the walls of blood vessels, an effect called vasodilation. The result is lower blood pressure and an increase in the flow of blood.

If you want more information, please read this article which talks about nitrates/nitrites in our foods:
Meanwhile, I am working up the courage to start my first bacon cure using the above pork belly section that is still in my freezer. I have no idea why it is scary... it just IS. I'll be back with photos of the process as soon as I screw my courage to the sticking post and get started!

PLEASE keep in mind as I struggle through this that my ultimate goal is to produce edible, highly nutritious and very tasty foods from those pieces-parts that are the cheapest to obtain (for now, anyway). If things continue to get tougher, it might be ALL we can get, so it would be good to know in advance how to use those parts. 

Caveat: My local farmers who raise pastured pigs are now asking up to $9 per pound for pork bellies, due to demand from the upscale market. That's insane, and I won't buy it. The pork belly shown above is also from pastured pork, just not from the "let me gouge you" farm.


  1. I'm excited to see where this goes! I buy naturally cured bacon with only spices and sugar at $7.95 a pound and it's delicious! But I'd like to know, is the store bought bacon cured with nitrAtes versus nitrItes? I buy the "natural" bacon versus certified "organic" but they are raised the same -- free roaming, et cetera -- only difference is the "certified organic" receive organic grain.

  2. Sher, I just opened a package (12 oz.) of bacon from Niman Ranch; I got it at Whole Foods. Supposed to be one of the best bacons other than artisan bacon or homemade...

    The package says "Uncured Bacon, Center Cut. No Nitrates or Nitrates Added"... then in tiny letters: "Except for naturally occurring nitrites in celery powder."

    Ingredients: Pork prepared with water, salt, turbinado sugar, celery powder, lactic acid started culture (not from milk)

    Everything I have read about nitrites in vegetables is that there is NO way to really measure them for production use. The amount varies from one bunch of celery to the next.

  3. I want to smoke my own pork hocks. Does that fall into the subject of charcuterie or is that just smoking?

    The bacon I get is from a local farmer. It's a full pound and the ingredients they list do not contain any celery powder nor lactic acid starter culture. It is an excellent tasting bacon and I get lard from it as well since it's not center cut, but the bacon hardly shrinks at all.

    I'll be tracking your progress. Thanks for keeping me entertained and enlightened.

  4. Your bacon sounds good. Does he smoke it first, or is it just "raw" bacon? I got some like that (raw)from our farmer's market and grind it up to mix with meat for sausages. It's pretty tasteless otherwise.

    Oh Yes, smoking hocks definitely falls under charcuterie! In fact, I just put some hocks in the refrigerator to thaw overnight. Then I'll brine them for 8-24 hours (depends on weight) and smoke them to an internal temp. of 150ºF. Then package and freeze until I want to drop some in greens or beans.

    You should check Ruhlman's book out of the local library. I haven't smoked hocks before, but those who have used his recipe and technique say it's awesome!

  5. Just reserved it. If anything, I'll be a little more educated. Beautiful cover, don't you think?

  6. Yes it is. I don't remember if his wife did the cover photo, but she does most of the photos on his blog. I'm collecting some great charcuterie photos from all over the web, for personal inspiration.

    I'm reading the book again, cover to cover, because it builds technique in steps.


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