Praise the pork belly — two of the world’s best cured meats are easy to make at home.
Everything’s better with bacon, and it’s a pretty simple matter to make your own. Bacon and its Italian counterpart pancetta are fundamental members of the expansive world of cured meats. At their most basic, they require just three ingredients — meat, salt, and time — plus a little woodsmoke for bacon. But there’s plenty of room to get fancy.
Pancetta is the simplest to make. Think of it as the gateway drug to making bacon. It’s a meat that is lightly cured, but brings big, porky flavor to classic Italian dishes like pasta carbonara or all’ amatriciana.
Head to your preferred butcher, and purchase a slab of quality pork belly. (Pro tip: If you can find hog jowls instead of belly, you will make guanciale, which is even better.) How much is entirely up to you; personally, I go in for about 3 pounds per batch.
Get an accurate weight on the slab, because you want a 3% ratio of salt to meat to get a good cure. For this reason, I usually weigh in metric; for 1kg of belly I would weigh out 30g of salt. If you’re unwaveringly American, that’s ½ ounce of salt per pound of meat.
Trim the belly so it’s a nice, even shape. You can remove the skin or leave it on. Lay the meat on a sheet of cling wrap on a sheet pan. Mix the salt and spices, and rub it all over the belly. Wrap tightly in a few layers of cling wrap, making sure the cure is in contact with all the meat.
Keep in the refrigerator on the sheet pan for 5 days, turning daily. The belly will release some liquid; this is normal.
On the fifth day, unwrap, rinse, and pat dry. Your pancetta can now be cut and cooked.
You can intensify the flavor by hanging the pancetta, and even turn it into a cured meat that can be eaten uncooked.
Wrap the pancetta in 3 layers of cheese-cloth. Truss the pancetta with butcher’s twine, creating loops on about 1″ intervals. Hang the pancetta in a cool, dark place for 3 weeks or more. The ideal curing temperature is around 55°F, with humidity at 70–75%, but you can get perfectly satisfactory results by hanging it in a basement or any other cool place in the house.
Remember when you got that initial weight? Continue to weigh your pancetta as it cures. In order to be consumed as an uncooked cured meat, it must lose at least 30% of its weight (another reason I weigh in metric). When it’s ready, the flesh should feel evenly firm, not squishy in the center.
When you unwrap the pancetta, you may see mold. Fuzzy, white mold is in fact a good thing; it’s harmless, and you can wash it off with vinegar. Ditto green mold. If you see red or black mold, however, you’re in the danger zone, and the pancetta must be tossed. (This is unlikely unless you had it in an exceedingly humid environment.)
Your cured pancetta can be refrigerated, wrapped in paper, for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 3 months.
America’s favorite pig product differs from pancetta in a few key ways. First, the cure typically has sodium nitrite, which, aside from deterring Clostridium botulinum spores, gives bacon its signature pink color and faintly tangy flavor. It’s also often sweet rather than savory. Finally, bacon is smoked.
Sodium nitrite is sold as Prague Powder or Instacure #1, and is often referred to as “pink salt.” (Don’t confuse it with Himalayan pink salt or similar naturally occurring salts.)
TIP: If you’re concerned about nitrate consumption, you could omit the pink salt. The resulting product will still be good, but will lack the signature flavor of classic American bacon. In my opinion it’s better to simply enjoy bacon in moderation.
Make a cure by mixing the salt, pink salt (nitrite), and sugar. This is enough for more than one slab, and can be stored in a sealed container in a cool, dry place indefinitely.
Again, trim the pork belly to an even shape. Lay ¼ cup of the cure on a sheet pan, and dredge the belly on all sides.
Place the belly in a large zip-top bag and add the remaining cure from the sheet pan. You can also add flavors such as ¼ cup of maple syrup, and a shot or two of bourbon. Remove air and seal tightly.
Place the bag in a container, and keep it in the refrigerator, turning daily to redistribute the juices and infuse the bacon with flavor.
On the fifth day, give the belly a poke. If it’s still a little squishy, keep curing it. If it’s firm at the thickest parts, it’s ready to smoke.
Rinse the belly and pat dry with paper towels. Lay it on a rack, on a sheet pan lined with paper towels, and set a fan on low to blow air over the meat for a few hours. Or, you can just leave it on the rack in the refrigerator for 1–3 days.
The goal here is to create what’s called the pellicule. This is a tacky layer of proteins on the surface that will bond with smoke, creating deliciousness.
Preheat a smoker to 200°F. When the meat is just lightly sticky to the touch, place it in the smoker, on a rack over a drippings pan.
The bacon is ready when it reaches an internal temperature of 150°F. Remove and let cool. If you left the skin on, wait until it’s just cool enough to touch, then carefully trim it away with a sharp knife.
Like pancetta, bacon will keep a week in the fridge and 3 months in the freezer. But, realistically, it will get used much faster than that.