It may seem like a redundant thing to do. Bacon is easily obtainable from shops, so why would anyone make their own? My reasoning is: "Because it's amazing".

    It's almost unreal. That bacon, perhaps the most beloved form of cured meats, is really easy to make. Easy enough, that I generally make anywhere between 4-12Kg at a time, so I'm ready for unexpected visitors, barbecue events, "just 'coz", or the Kosher apocalypse.

    Ready for the broad strokes on dry curing some bacon?

    You need:

    Equipment:

    • Kitchen scales.
      The more accurate, the better, but I've gotten along ok on my typical kitchen scales with a minimum increment of 2g. It's probably best if your scales can handle 1-10Kg at a time.
    • Zip lock bags, or vacuum sealer. Make sure that whatever you use, it does not leak. You'll be effectively curing/brining the meat in its own juices. If you lose the fluids things won't go well.
    • Baking dish/oven tray: I generally use this to give something to support wide slabs of meat while measuring it on the scale.
    • Small bowl for measuring cure out.
    • Oven/Meat Smoker/Barbecue.
    • Meat Thermometer (or barbecue controller if you're getting fancy)

    Ingredients:

    • Pork: I say pork for ease of comprehension. However, there are other forms of meat being used to make bacon these days.
      • If you like streaky American style bacon, then you'll want pork belly. If you want a slightly less fatty option, you can change the cut to sides or back. Ask your local butcher for advice. However, bacon can be made from other parts of the pig if you wish. Some people insist that you must leave the rind on, however, I find that the curing works better if you get your cut with the rind removed. Up to you!
    • Cure (Salt with more salt, and occasionally, extra flavouring)
      • You can buy pre-made curing mixes. I buy mine in "Maple Bacon Flavour" from: https://www.smokedandcured.com.au/misty-gully-maple-bacon-cure-1kg/ or you can make your own. Now please note that many curing mixes contain a small amount (usually less than 1%.. often somewhere around 0.85%) of sodium nitrite which is a salt, but a salt that is toxic in very small amounts. It's important that you measure out these cures accurately for the weight of the meat you're curing.
        • If you're wondering "How dangerous is it?" and "How do I tell the difference between the salts?" The people who make cures that do contain a small amount of Sodium Nitrite (which is completely different from Sodium Chloride, also known as everyday "table salt") are required by law in many countries to list this in the ingredients. Sodium Nitrite is potentially lethal to adults with a dose of just 2.6g. Before you panic, lets do some maths here:
          • Once again, it's important that you realize that many cures are 95% (usually more) normal salt, with a small amount of the dangerous stuff mixed in (lets say 0.85%). Furthermore, when you only use (40g of the mixed cure per 1Kg of meat) , the amount of actual Sodium Nitrite that's put on each kilogram of meat is just 0.34g. Ignoring the important step of washing off the excess cure (that comes next) you'd need to eat roughly 7Kg of unfinished bacon to die. (No one wants to eat unfinished bacon, it's just so darn unpleasantly salty) Washing the excess cure off, soaking the meat, and then cooking (which forces both liquids and a little cure out in the process) means there's even less sodium nitrite.
      • If you don't like the idea of using Sodium Nitrite, some recipes will suggest that you only need "Kosher salt". Firstly this salt is not going to make any amount of pork "Kosher". It is really just another name for your run-of-the-mill sodium chloride (table salt) in salt flake form, which falls somewhere between rock salt normally used in salt grinders, and salt grains (found in everyday containers of pre-ground table salt). If you use "kosher salt" alone, please note that it is a significantly slower way to cure pork, and you might not get that characteristic pink/reddish colour that you might expect. However, I haven't done it that way, so I can't speculate on that process, but I'm sure there's information out there on the "net".
      • Flavourings and other additives can be anything. Some use maple syrup, some use coffee grounds, some use spices, others use bourbon, whiskey, and other beverages to marinade/flavour the meat. However, it is possible to go too far.. I mean, you still want to taste the meat, don't you?

    Method:

    1. Evaluate the size of your food saver roll or zip lock bags and cut your pork into nice (square) pieces that will comfortably fit inside them.
    2. Weigh each piece of meat, and note it down. I generally use a permanent marker and write on the bag/vacuum sealed roll.
    3. For each piece, accurately weigh the amount of cure needed using the following formula: Number of kilograms (Kg) x 40 grams. (If you have 2.25Kg, that's 2.25x40g = 90g)
    4. Rub the entire surface of that particular meat with measured cure, making sure you get into all the nooks and crannies.
    5. Put the meat in your zip lock bag and try to squeeze out as much air as possible, seal it up fully. If you're not sure about the seal, feel free to use tape on your bag to create a stronger or secondary seal. Alternatively, vacuum seal your now coated slab of meat. Just make sure than none of the cure forms a lump where the sealer might actually want to run the seal across. I've had this issue, and had to seal it a second time in a different location.
    6. Put the pieces in the fridge horizontally. (I generally try to keep them all fatty side up, or all meat side up so I can keep track of which ones I have flipped over.
    7. For every 500g of meat, you need to cure each piece of meat in the fridge for a day. Minimum 4 days, max 8.  Flip it over once a day.
    8. After a day or two, you'll notice a fluid building up, this is good. Do not drain it. Just keep flipping it over once a day until you've cured it for the appropriate length of time.
    9. When you've reached the end. Take the meat out, and wash the excess off under running water.
    10. Soak your meat in a fresh batch of ambient-temperature water (in a sink or container) for 1 hour to further remove any excess cure.
    11. Pull the meat out of the water, and pat it dry with paper towel or a clean cloth.
    12. Put each piece of meat uncovered in the fridge. (I use wire cooling racks for maximum airflow) Some people say you can get away with just 6 hours, but I generally prefer to leave it overnight, up to 24 hours. Leaving it uncovered, you'll notice a shiny skin developing on the meat. This is called "pellicle" and if you like smokey bacon, you really want this to develop properly. This is what the smoke flavour will attach itself to.
    13. Now it's time for the pre-cook.This method is for "Hot smoking", and is generally the easiest to do with the stuff people have lying around.
      • If you're using an oven, then the best way to add smoke flavour is to use liquid smoke (trust me you don't want to be setting fire to wood chips inside).
        • Turn the oven to 110 degrees, spray the meat with liquid smoke, and put it in when the oven is at 110 Celsius.
        • You could use a meat hanger to cook the meat in the oven, but again, I just put it horizontally on the shelves with a drip tray underneath, and it works fine.
        • Regularly check the internal temperature of the meat with a meat thermometer. When you get to 65 degrees Celsius, you're done! Pull it out and allow to cool.
      • For better results, I recommend a smoker or charcoal barbecue, feel free to add wood chips, (some say maple or hickory woods, or some sort of fruit woods such as apple, cherry). I'm quite partial to apricot and plum wood chips myself... or if you're using natural charcoal, you can skip the chips and just use the regular smoke from a natural charcoal barbecue. I generally go for a "low and slow" temperature (somewhere around the 110-125 degrees Celsius mark).
        • Again, I've never used a meat hanger for the barbecue, so I just put the meat on the grill and that works fine. I let the drips fall into the fire, it creates a lovely smokey effect. However, I do use heat deflectors (ceramic shields) to stop the barbecue from grilling, and allow a more "baking" experience to occur.
        • If you use a meat thermometer you can check on it regularly until it reaches 65. If you're fortunate enough to have a barbecue controller, you can stick your food probe(s) into the respective pieces of meat, set it to 65, and it'll let you know when it's ready.
    14. Once it's pre-cooked. Allow the meat to cool to a slicing-friendly temperature.
    15.  Slice your slabs into slices. Some people like thin slivers/rashers like you get in shops to maximize the "crispiness", others prefer bacon steaks that are simply made with thicker slices. Others like the middle ground and go for chunky/rustic slices of uneven thickness.(Some crispy edges, some thick and moist pieces of bacon too). In any case, your bacon is going to be better than most store bought varieties.
    16. Once sliced, feel free to cook some as a test sample (we can't skip this critical step in our home). As for the rest, we generally lay them out flat in vacuum packs, and seal them up for quick defrosting and longer term storage.
    17. Enjoy your home made bacon. Feel free to add flavourings! There are tons of sites on the Internet with suggestions.

     Here's some images from my procedure:

    Rubbing the cure all over your meat, working into every nook and cranny
    Image 1: Rubbing the cure all over your meat, working into every nook and cranny. The yellowish tinge is not "chicken salt" as many might believe but the maple flavouring in the cure.

     

    Allowing the bacon to cure in the bag
    Image 2: Allowing the bacon to cure in the bag, flipping over ever day, you'll see the rub mix with the meat juices to make a yellow brine in the bag. Do NOT drain.

     

    Image 3: Once the curing is finished, wash the excess cure off under running water, then allow the meat to soak in ambient water for 1 hour. Remove, pat dry leave the meat uncovered in the fridge overnight. This forms a shiny coating called the "pellicle" (sort of a pearl-shininess shown above) which is what you need to smoke this delicious chunk of meat.

     

    Image 4: Firing up a charcoal barbecue, (waiting for it to burn cleanly) and heating to 110 degrees Celsius, I chose to throw on some apple wood chips for smoking. Here you can see that I haven't set the meat probe temperature correctly. The set temperature should be 65. We still have some way to go.
    Image 5: I've fixed the set temperature, and now we're getting closer to the final internal temperature.

     

    Image 6: This was the thickest piece of pork belly, and as such it took the longest to get to temperature. I've taken the other pieces off as necessary. When done, take off all the pieces and allow to cool.
    Image 7: We have cats, so giant slabs of bacon cooling on the bench is a terrible idea. So we just stick the meat in the (cold) oven for an hour or two.
    Image 7: We have cats, so giant slabs of bacon cooling on the bench is a terrible idea. We just stick the meat in the (cold) oven for an hour or two.
    Image 8: You could use a meat slicer here, but I just use a knife to cut the belly into chunky/rustic (if rustic = "wonky") steaks of bacon.
    Image 9: Once sliced, we simply lay them out in a flattish way in vacuum sealed bags, (for storage efficiency, and defrosting ease) then freeze them. Here is a stack of 7/8 servings of bacon, all from one small piece of pork belly. Sorry about the blurriness of this shot. I actually had been barbecuing all day, with the bacon, the roast for our lunches through the week, and some steaks for dinner. It was getting pretty late, and the light was not bright enough for a hand held shot.

     

     

     I'll add more photos when I make something photogenic enough to be interesting. :~)


     

    This is my first charcuterie article, so I'm going to basically summarize what charcuterie is, and then proceed to reviewing the books I have read on the subject.

    What is charcuterie?

    Basically it's making "processed" meat products. This includes, but is not limited to making:

    • sausages
    • bacon (this technically is a cured meat but it needs special mention... it's it's own food group, right?)
    • salamis (again, a cured meat, but hey, everyone knows salami)
    • terrines
    • pâtés
    • cured meats
    • smoked meats.

    In short, it usually involves, one or more of these preservation techniques:

    1. Salting/brining (because salt kills a lot of stuff, and tastes pretty good too)
    2. Fermentation (using microbial cultures to create safe microbial ecosystems, and to innoculate/out-compete the toxic bacteria, it also adds flavour).
    3. Smoking (not the cigar/cigarette/vaping kind, obviously. Using natural wood smoke preserves meat and gives it that smokey flavour)

    ...and generally mixing it in with spices where needed, and if the product was minced up in the process, stuffing it back into an easy-to-manage package like sausage casings.

    What charcuterie isn't:

    While charcuterie is literally translated from the French term to mean "pork butcher". Many people still think that to do charcuterie, you must be limited to pork meat only, but this is not the case. These days, charcuterie can involve any meat you like. Goat, rabbit, venison, lamb/mutton, beef, chicken, fish, quail, and many other meats are used.

    It's not all meat though, numerous spices, dextrose, and preservative salt types (usually sodium nitrate, or sodium nitrite, not sodium chloride which is your average table salt) are used to both preserve and add flavour. Please note that these salts are not interchangeable, and the sodium nitrate/nitrite can be toxic in seemingly small quantities. It's usually added to cultured meat products in quantities less than 3% of the total meat weight.  Make sure you read those recipes and measure ingredients very carefully, and ensure that unused preserving salts are clearly labelled as hazardous, and kept safely out of reach of children (young or even those old enough to have kids of their own).

    Why do charcuterie?

    Originally, the sole purpose of charcuterie was to preserve meat. Whether that was to get people through the winter, or long sea voyages, or just in case there was a bad season. In short it a form of preserving food for survival. These days, the preservation process is largely done for the flavour benefits, and does not always involve some form long-lasting product at the end. Charcuterie also can forgo the preservation focus to make more flavoursome meat products that, quite frankly wouldn't survive very well without refrigeration.

    Misconceptions about charcuterie:

    It's very low quality...

    There's an old joke, that people don't want to know how laws and sausages are made. As if there's some deep dark secret inside. Obviously at least one animal has been killed, (probably more) but the general assumption is that you're eating something "questionable". Ok, it's undeniable that over the centuries that sausages and other charcuterie products have been made, that some people have used poor hygiene practices, low-quality ingredients and "filler" of almost every variety. This obviously caused a great deal of problems.

    However, in modern times, there are some very strict meat quality controls in many countries, and the assumption of low-quality meats just isn't true. Is it all going to be wagyu eye fillets, of course not, but it's likely to come from a food-grade carcass.

    Deli = charcuterie:

    Another misconception about charcuterie is based on what people find in the local deli. Please note that while many delicatessens do carry numerous charcuterie products, the products based on milk and eggs, and any other animal products that are not meat, are not charcuterie products.

    It's all cultured meat...

     

    Yes, the salamis, some aged meats, and many of the other charcuterie products involve fermentation. The microbial cultures are used to preserve and flavour the meat. However, there are many charcuterie products such as bacon, ham, prosciutto, etc which are more cured, (heavily salted) than cultured. Many of them are further flavoured and/or preserved by smoking the meat as well. Some products will just be salted and/or smoked, avoiding culturing entirely.

    If bacteria is used to preserve the meat, hygiene isn't an issue:

    No, I mean, heck no! People who think this do not understand cultured food products like cheese, sauerkraut, salamis at all. Hygiene is more important than ever when fermenting foods. Ultimately, you're creating an environment fit for growing bacteria, moulds and fungi. Most people know that there are many varieties that are toxic for humans, either directly through infection, or indirectly by creating toxins. Obviously, you want good microbes, not bad ones growing in your food, and an erroneous (or careless) attitude to hygiene will eventually poison you and your loved ones. I'm so not visiting your place for a meal if you think hygiene is unimportant.

    All fermented foods (even more so for meat products) require extremely clean kitchen/preparation environments, with sanitized utensils, containers, surfaces, and thoroughly washed hands at the ABSOLUTE minimum.

    So given all the risks, why do I do charcuterie?

    There are many reasons, such as:

    1. I know what I put into my sausages, and can flavour them to taste.
    2. I have friends who farm animals. I have access to some amazing meat. It's not always in a freezer-friendly, or spatially efficient forms though.
    3. Freshly made pâté is amazing.
    4. Home-made bacon is not even in the same class as store bought.. I don't eat much store-bought bacon anymore.
    5. I already make my own cheeses, mix and bake my own bread and pizza bases, grow my own tomatoes, basil, garlic, and make sauces out of them, why not make the prosciutto/bacon/salamis for the pizza as well? Then I barbecue and smoke it in my kamado. How many meals like that can you say that you grew or made every ingredient (sans flour). There's a reason I haven't had a Domino's pizza in the last decade... even though Domino's is cheap and easy... for me, it's just not worth it.

    To do this effectively, I need to know what I'm doing. So that's where some books come in handy.

    Ham's book reviews on Charcuterie!

    Book 1 - "Professional Charcuterie: Sausage Making, Curing, Terrines & Pâtés", By John Kinsella & David Harvey.

    Cover of "Professional Charcuterie" by John Kinsella & David Harvey This book is actually a gastronomy textbook and recipe book in one. Please don't let that scare you off because it doesn't have the usual "dryness" you'd normally expect from a textbook. Professional Charcuterie has numerous images (many drawings and some black and white photos), and a surprisingly to-the-point writing style. It is mostly written from a U.S. perspective, and as such the notes about food safety, hygiene, and the laws pertaining to food businesses are all from the U.S. of A. Even so, the information is relevant regardless of wherever you may be.

    Having said that, the book structure is well thought out, and despite being nearly 300 pages long. The first 74 pages give you the basic theory, and then the rest of the book is recipes, appendices, glossary, and index.

    As a first book on charcuterie, and reference book.... I'd honestly have a hard time imagining one that's better. It covers:

    • origins and history of charcuterie,
    • various equipment for a variety of different "price points",
    • the details about the risks of working with meat,
    • the pros and cons of natural vs synthetic sausage casings.
    • different procedures and styles of charcuterie, and then
    • offers a lot of recipes, many I'm still excited to try.

    I have had this book for over two years, and I still find myself coming back to it whenever the opportunity strikes. I can do a large batch of making sausages when a shipment of new meat arrives, stick it in the freezer and then go months without making any meat products, so a book I can quickly skim over and then look at the recipes shows a remarkable consideration of the reader's needs, and shows that it's written with long-term use in mind.

    If I had to fault the book, it's that the information regarding the actual acts of making charcuterie products is perhaps a little light. If you want to fill in those gaps, I'd recommend watching a few YouTube videos on your topic of choice. You can certainly make a lot of fantastic products without the "nitty gritty" details. But I feel that my confidence was bolstered when I read some more detailed instructions, and actually see what others are actually talking about.

    Overall, I'm very happy to recommend this book as a introductory text with long term reference use in mind. It certainly does not go into the inner workings of fermentation, or chemical changes that curing might bring. However, for many home users, I'd say that it's a very nice addition to the recipe book collection.

    Book 2 - "Charcuterie: The Art of Salting, Smoking & Curing", By Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

    Book cover of Chacuterie

    Will add this review soon, but I've opted to skip to Salumi because I've read that most recently.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Book 3 - "Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing", By Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

    Book cover of Salumi

    Yet another book by Michael Ruhlmann and Brian Polcyn... (I promise I'm not trying to sell you on their books specifically.. I just have these books because I bought them as a set).

    Please forgive my photo of the book's cover. That "greenish tinge" on the stringed meat on the right is a result of the glossiness of the cover. This book certainly does not encourage the creation of sickeningly green meat products, I can assure you.

    Technically, as a topic, salumi is a subset of charcuterie. So it's not going to cover everything in a charcuterie book. However, for those die hard prosciutto, and salami fans, this book will give you more details on that.

    As an experienced dry-rub bacon maker. (Although dry rub is a bit of a misnomer as the moisture from the meat itself will form a brine with the salt rubbed into the surface). Dry curing appeals to me in sheer simplicity. The fact that brines are a good, but often more involved/finicky way of curing meats and cheeses, means I often choose to simply rub salt rather than using a brine. As such, dry curing is a particular interest of mine.

    Salumi is an interesting book. At 270 odd pages long, it introduces you into the world of salumi making from the ground up, and includes a section on how to break down and butcher a carcass, involving a series of detailed drawn illustrations and discusses the differences between American-style butchery and the traditional Italian style.

    While I don't think butchering your carcass from scratch is necessary to make great-tasting salumi products, it's very helpful to understand the cuts, and differences between the near-endless varieties of salumi.

    I personally found the introduction very helpful. It discusses the differences between salumi and chacuterie, although I personally felt the differences could be more clearly explained. Only on page 58 do you start getting into the dry curing theory. From page 86, you get a bunch of recipes (which is where Professional Charcuterie left off), and then on page 126, the book goes into a "deeper dive" on dry curing techniques and practices. These advanced salumi recipes all involve ground meat, and require the additional safety considerations mentioned on page 116-125. As the final section of the book, from page 203 onwards, there's a bunch of recipes that suggest how to incorporate various types of salumi products into your everyday cooking. So everything before page 203 is about making salumi, whist everything after that is about using salumi.

    While this book could indeed be used as a beginner's book. I'd probably describe this text more for intermediate use. As a book on the general charcuterie processes, this isn't a good choice, because it doesn't cover all that, even though there will be some overlap. However, if you love salami half as much as I do, I'm sure you'd find this book helpful.

    Now I just want to discuss that salumi making can be simple or extremely involved. I'd strongly suggest you stick to the simpler recipes at first, as they are amazing in their own right, and it will help you to develop a reference point for you to judge the more advanced styles for yourself. Whether you try this book, another one, or some online recipe, I feel this advice is worth sharing.

    Enjoy, stay safe, and keep learning!

    Ham.

     

     


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