UK BBQ Mag Winter 2016/2017 - Page 67

Bacon

The ability to make your own bacon is probably one of the most fundamental human survival skills, it would set you apart from any other ‘post apocalyptic’ survivors who would have to make do with scavenging the occasional root vegetable while you eat like a king.

In all seriousness though, it is such a great skill to perfect and, even better, it is incredibly easy. It also gives you a comprehensive understanding of the principles of curing solid muscles which will give you the confidence to branch out into other cured meats (more of which below) and also potentially get to grips with future air dried charcuterie products, all of which require an initial curing stage before being hung to dry. All in all then, bacon is the gateway to a whole world of high quality, homemade foods, over which you can have complete quality control and save yourself a small fortune into the bargain.

The various ways of making bacon, from traditional brines where the meat is immersed in a liquid as it cures to the currently very popular ‘cure in a bag’ methods, commonly mis-termed ‘dry cured’, when in fact, given that they’re trapped in a bag with all of their own moisture are what I call, a limited brine cure (this method is however very useful when dealing with sticky cures involving honeys, treacles or maple syrups).

Here, I’m going to set out an actual dry cure method using a measured equilibrium (EQ) approach which is the simplest and most efficient way to make bacon with a known salt content and which, as long as it has been given at least the minimum time given to cure, does not rely on precise timing and will not get anymore salty if left longer and nor will it require any soaking or other nonsense to make it edible.

For those interested in brine cures, which have a lot of benefits, in terms of the subtle introduction of liquid born flavours, you can simply follow the ham cure section below as this will work just as well for bacon or any other cut you choose for that matter.

Anyway here we go with basic bacon 101, which will provide with top quality, dry cured bacon inside a week and no excuse to ever pay through the nose for supermarket crap of unknown origin ever again.

STEP 1: THE MEAT

Any cut will do, we are working on the basis here that for starters, we are going to be using pork, but for those reading who don’t dabble in hog, you can do this with lamb or beef quite happily.

Always get the very best meat you can, either direct from your farmer who’s livestock and methods you know and trust, or from a butcher who can vouch for the same things in terms of where it came from. Like all good food, the results are inextricably linked to the quality of the ingoing ingredients. If you want the best bacon, you need the best pork.

Having sourced your meat supply, decide on your cut. I’m a huge fan of well made shoulder bacon, but there’s no getting away from the fact that loin (back) and belly (streaky) are the favourite cuts. Personally, I much prefer streaky as it it’s fat content produces a much more flavourful result and I find it tends to take cure flavourings much better, but each to their own.

Once you have your meat, you can skin it or not, depending on your preference and trim to the size you want your bacon, then, most importantly, weigh the meat and make a note of this.

STEP 2: SALT AND CURE MIX

There are various ways of doing this with ready made proprietary ‘all purpose’ curing salt, which will be a mix of salt and sodium nitrite (the fast acting antioxidant and curing agent), or you can mix your own by using salt and cure #1 (often known as prague powder 1). This is a very carefully measured and perfectly consistent mix of salt and sodium nitrite, which can then be mixed with the rest of the salt to provide a cure mix of a known strength.

There are now also celery juice alternatives for use in curing, which give a consistent and known strength if for any reason you prefer to use vegetable based nitrate rather than the fast acting nitrite commonly used. I would note here that many people have made a lot of effort to promote nitrite free curing methods. I would say however, that most of the reasons given for this in terms of perceived health risks are fundamentally misinformed and ignore many of the reasons we use nitrite when making bacons for taste, colour and flavour as well as safety.

For me, bacon without nitrite is salt pork. A perfectly respectable product in its own right, but hey, if you like grey bacon, and insist on thinking there is something wrong with nitrite use, knock yourself out.

Having sourced this ingredient, you can decide upon the percentage rate that you prefer. Generally, a good guide, is between 20 and 25 grams per kilo and the increments between these two levels will have a surprisingly large effect on taste. I tend to go with 2.25 to 2.5 myself, but this is a personal thing. When talking in terms of grams per kilo, this is total salt/cure mix, so we’re talking 20 grams of all purpose cure or 20 grams being the combined weight of salt and cure #1.

Carefully weigh out the right amount of salt/cure mix for the weight of meat (see step1), so for every kilo of meat you weigh out for example, 20 grams of salt/cure mix.

STEP 3: APPLICATION:

At this point, all that is to be done to create great, simple, classic tasting bacon is to rub your salt/cure mix all over the meat until all of the weighed out mixture has been applied evenly in a rough, 75% meat side and 25% fat/skin side, ensuring that every bit of the mix adheres well, especially in any pockets.

What I am concentrating on here is the ingredients actually needed to cure safely and to provide a simple and delicious bacon. Sweeteners, spices and aromatic herbs can be added on top of this basic mix to you hearts content, and experiment away knowing that underneath these additions is an effective and reliable cured product.

STEP 4: CURING PHASE

For dry cure, the meat simply then needs to be rested on a slightly tilted tray or plate (alternatively on a wire rack above a suitable tray or plate), in a fridge with the occasional turning. For a period long enough for the salt/cure mix to be drawn right through the muscle. As all meats vary to some extent, in terms of density as well as fat content and dispersal, definite curing times can vary slightly, but a reliable rule of thumb is that one day for every half inch of thickness to the centre of the meat, i.e. a two inch thick belly would need two days, a four inch thick loin would take 4 days. Then add a day to this total. Meaning that your belly would be 3 days and your loin 5.

STEP 5: Equalisation & flavour development

Once the initial curing has had enough time, give the bacon a quick rinse and set back into the fridge to equalise.

This stage is very important for achieving a consistent flavour, as once the curing agents have got to the middle, and met one another as they headed in from each side, they will then tend to spend the next period balancing themselves out through the meat, insuring a consistent level throughout, regardless of the impact that fat caps or differences in density may have had in the process of the cures.

After letting the bacon equalise for minimum of two days, ideally nearer a week, you will have firm, dry, perfectly cured product with a consistent and well developed flavour throughout.

Brine Cured Ham

Having set out a basic approach to dry curing, where the rub mix containing both the curing ingredients and the sweeteners and aromats and spices are all applied dry to the surface of the meat, we can now look at wet methods, where a liquid brine is mixed and the meat immersed in this in order to cure and absorb the flavour elements.

Brining is still an excellent method that we use a lot commercially, when curing different cuts. It’s incredibly efficient, in that once the meat is cut up into it’s primal (shoulders, bellies, loins and hams) they can all be put into the same brine tank to cure and simply be pulled out at different times, when each of them would have been suitably cured. This is the traditional curing approach for the creation of cured collars, ham hocks, back and streaky bacon, as well as typical gammons, and allows one brine cure to be mixed for all of them.

For the sake of this article though, I’m going to concentrate on methods most suitable for the home user wanting to brine cure their own ham, but be aware that once you have mastered this simple technique, it can be applied to many other cuts, including immersion cure bacons or ham hocks.

The method that is by far the simplest and doesn’t rely, as the big brine tank methods described above do, on the precise timing of when to pull the meat from the cure in order to stop it becoming too salty, is the 2:1 measured brine approach.

For me, it is the equivalent in simplicity and reliability of the measured dry cure equilibrium approach, and it’s beautiful simplicity is that the brine should weigh half of the meat weight and that the brine is of a known and adequate salinity, which ensures effective curing, but can never be overly salty, even if left too long. (note: Credit is due to Oddly, Phil and Paul on Franco’s great sausagemaking forum for successfully developing this method)

This simple approach to beautiful homemade hams is below.

STEP 1: The Meat

As with the discussion over bacon above, the fundamental rule of curing is that the end product will only be as good as what you put in at the beginning. Quality of the ingredient is key. Source outdoor reared (ideally pastured or woodland) pork, and preferably an older animal, rather than an immature, factory farmed and basically flavourless protein. This will provide you with a flavour, texture and intramuscular fat content that makes for better product.

For the purposes of this example, we’re going to talk about boned leg meat, to provide us with the classic cylindrical ham that is most popular. If you don’t fancy doing this yourself, ask your butcher for a boned, rolled and well tied joint of the size you prefer. This should be relatively lean, but with a nice, even covering of fat to it’s exterior, which is essential for flavour and the cooking process.

STEP 2: Salt and Cure.

Brine strength is important here, and rather like the dry cure approach, there is a margin for personal preference. It’s not for anyone to tell anyone else what the best salt content is, as this is purely a matter of taste. But there are lower limits, below which the cure will not be effective and upper limits beyond which the product will be inedible. There is also to be born in mind whether the ham will be eaten hot or cold, as with all cookery, this will effect how the seasonings taste.

My recommendation is to start at somewhere around a 10% salt content for your brine. This will then be the first weight in your 2:1 cure recipe set out below

Basic brine is to use a 2:1 ratio meat to liquid.

1000g meat

Brine

Water 420.5g

Salt 50g

Sugar 25g

Cure #1 4.5g

(or all in one salt/cure mix 54.5g)

Total Amount 500g

You can then add the sweetener of your choice, be that honey, simple white sugar or a dark muscavado, in order to counteract some of the saltiness and also to give an appealing sweetness to the ham.

Some spices and aromats of your choice can then be added to this, to create the flavours within the brine that you want in your ham. Once this is done the liquid forms the balance of the brine weight required to total half your meat’s weight.

This liquid may generally be water, but could just as easily be a beer, a cider, or a wine added in at whatever ratio you fancy trying. Some recommend cooking off alcohol when used in a brine, other recipes have perfectly good success without doing so, it will generally depend on what the alcohol content was in the first place.

So, in order to come up with the calculation, you take your, for example, one kilo boned leg joint and know that you need to create a brine with the total weight of 500 grams. The salt content, with it’s nitrite mix included, would be 29.5 grams to give you the required salt content in the finished ham, the sugar is 25 grams to provide the balance, meaning that we need to complete the 500grams with 420.5 grams of water (or other liquid). This mix should be heated briefly to get the salts and sugars to dissolve, and then allowed to cool completely.

STEP 3: IMMERSION CURE PHASE

Then, the meat can be immersed completely within the brine, for the curing phase.

Given how efficient this method is, and the relatively small amount of brine we’re using, it’s the best that a reasonably tight fitting container is used, which will allow the brine to completely cover the meat, or I would recommend the use of a ziplock or other type of sealing bag, as this allows the meat to be put in, the brine to be poured in and then the excess air to be blown out until the meat is entirely surrounded by the brine. The bag then being sealed, this can be popped into the fridge without any mess, where it can be turned and generally jiggled around occasionally during the curing phase, which follows the same rule of thumb as the dry cure (one day per half inch to centre, plus a day or two).

Important though to bear in mind, that the beauty of this approach is that leaving it longer, or even accidentally forgetting about it, doesn’t matter. The ham will not become over salty, as you have limited the available salt to the level that you want.

STEP 4; Equalization

As with all of these cured meats, once the initial curing stage is complete, the important equalization stage must be remembered, however tempting it may be to get stuck in. Remember, what you are creating here is specifically supposed to be a high quality product and not the wet, flavourless junk that you may as well buy at the supermarket.

So once the ham is out of the brine, give it a quick rinse and pat dry, before setting it on a rack back in the fridge to rest, equalize, and for the flavours to really develop. This is especially important here, as the thicker the piece of meat, the more time this will take. Setting your ham aside like this for a week will pay dividends.

And there you have it, quality brine cured ham, which you can adjust to your liking, using exactly the same method, providing everything from a simple, everyday sandwich ham to a dark beer and treacle cured treat.

Once you have produced your bacons and hams or whatever other goodies you’ve created following these methods, the options are then open for hot smoking or gentle cold smoking before use (see Turan’s great article elsewhere in the mag).

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