This week, the planets aligned and I got an unprecedented two days in a row off of both jobs. Two whole days, no responsibilities. Nowhere I have to go, nothing I have to do. Complete freedom. What to do? Binge-watch Game of Thrones on Project Free TV? Read the kickass novel that my coworker authored and loaned to me? 1 Drink a whole bottle of wine?
No, because I am apparently both a freak of nature and a glutton for punishment. With a big, s***-eating grin on my face because it made me happy, I did the following:
- Wandered an Asian market I had been meaning to explore, discovering that they purvey pork belly (which I got), frozen sardines (which I want to get sometime), duck heads (which I don’t think I’m ever gonna get), duck TONGUES (Jesus, how many ducks does it take to get a POUND of duck tongues?), fried grasshoppers (which I tried as a kid but never expected to see actually SOLD in a REAL BUSINESS), and stovetop woks big enough to batter and deep fry a yak (or three immature yaks, AKA ‘nuggets’).
- Cleaned the kitchen of half a week’s worth of grime and debris.
- Cleaned out my kombucha brewing container because the nozzle was getting clogged. I also broke down the scoby because it was getting too big… Anybody in Kansas City need some scoby?
- Used some of the kombucha in a cucumber-pickling experiment. My theory is that, since kombucha tastes vaguely like bread-and-butter pickles, and is full of living cultures, submerging cut cucumbers in kombucha will result in deliciously tangy and slightly sweet naturally-fermented pickle spears. I just sliced the cucumber up lengthwise, put the spears in a jar, filled the jar with kombucha, stuffed a lettuce leaf in the top to keep the cucumber submerged, and loosely fitted a lid on it. I’m leaving the jar out on the counter; I’m thinking if it goes in the fridge, the microbes will get slowed down and not get the fermentation done. Updates as the project progresses.
- I started turning the pound of pork belly that I bought into bacon. (I’ll get more into that in a bit.)
- I started turning one of the pork roasts we got from CostCo into ‘ham’ for sandwiches. (Again, more on that later in this article. 2)
It’s 3:00pm, and I’m only into my first day off. What diabolical scheme shall I concoct for day two? (maniacal laugh. MANIACAL LAUGH.)
What I really want to dig into this time around is the pork projects. Bacon and ham are wildly popular and extravagantly delicious preparations of meat. They are also both ridiculously expensive on a per-pound basis, when compared to other meats. Chicken can usually be had for under two bucks a pound. Pork, at least in roast form, under three. Even beef, which is extravagant enough these days that it rarely appears on our table at all, can usually be had for under six dollars a pound.
Bacon sells at Aldi in a half-pound package for $3.50. (!!!) SEVEN DOLLARS A POUND. And that’s for the super-thin-sliced, shrink-to-half-its-size crap bacon, not the thick, meaty, quality bacon. That stuff comes in at more like $10/lb, once you add it up.
Deli ham is up there, too, around $6.50/lb. And for deli meats, even ‘high-quality’ is pretty questionable. I’d much rather pay under $2/lb for pork roast and cure it myself, knowing exactly what goes into it.
The thing that separates both bacon and ham from plain ol’ meat is that they are CURED. They are not just taken directly from the animal and cooked; that would be delicious, but it wouldn’t taste like bacon or ham. The meat is treated with salt and nitrites, to preserve the meat by preventing the growth of microorganisms. The nitrite also produces the characteristic cured flavor and a red or pink color in the meat once it’s been cooked; if not treated with nitrite, the meat will turn grey when cooked and will, as I said, not taste like bacon or ham.
The use of nitrites is controversial. Nitrite itself is very poisonous if eaten directly. But people have been using it in one form or another to preserve meat for a thousand years, and we probably ingest more nitrites from greens and celery than we do from cured meats, and I’ve already talked about this before and would much rather eat bacon than waste time talking about it.
Sweet, let’s go.
I have been looking for pork belly for a while, both because I wanted to make my own bacon and because I wanted to try my hand at Mao Shi Hong Shao Rou. 4 I have had no luck, because grocery stores are more on the Walmart-end of the fashion/fad curve, and because my suburb of the Kansas City area is devoid of the trendy butcher shops that are scattered through the more cosmopolitan boroughs. But then I discovered the vast Asian market noted earlier. Pork belly, $4.39 a pound! Still more expensive than pork shoulder, but still much, much cheaper than bacon itself.
Once home, I unwrapped the porcine packet and discovered, to my great delight, that the skin was still attached! 5 All of the recipes I’ve seen involve removing the skin before curing the bacon, but have never given a reason why. I had to dig into obscure culinary message boards to discover any grounds for this practice, and the only good reason I found there is that the skin can get tough and chewy if cooked too hot. Considering my practice of cooking bacon relatively gently in the oven rather than over high stovetop heat, I decided to eschew both convention and waste, and left the skin on. Hell, if it doesn’t turn out well I can just cut it off after the fact.
So I’ve got my pork belly. Time to mix up my rub. 6
I searched around on Punk Domestics and eventually settled on NorthWest Edible’s Basic Bacon recipe, because it looks simple and I want to establish how to make some basic bacon before I start customizing my own spice mix. NWE’s recipe uses a 4-pound pork belly, and I only bought a pound, so I’m gonna scale it down a bit. Here’s what I used:
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp table salt (NOTE: IF A RECIPE CALLS FOR KOSHER SALT AND YOU ARE USING REGULAR TABLE SALT OR SEA SALT, USE HALF AS MUCH. The NWE recipe calls for a half cup of salt for 4 pounds of meat. So I took a quarter of that, which is 2 Tbsp [there are 16 tablespoons in a cup], then DIVIDED IT BY TWO because I’m using plain ol’ table salt.)
- 3/4 tsp cracked pepper
- 1/8 tsp pink curing salt
I mixed all of this up in my awesome little Magic Bullet , then rubbed it all over the pork belly and put it in a freezer bag in the fridge. I’ll turn the bag over once every day, to make sure the brine coats the meat fairly evenly, and in ten days I’ll slice off a little bit, fry it, and taste it to see how I’ve done. I’ll let you know. Unless it’s horrible. Then I’ll be embarrassed, and you might hear about it and you might not. Sometimes my pride is all I have.
So I’ve got about two pounds of pork sirloin roast from CostCo, and I want to turn it into delicious sandwich meat. How to go about this?
I could use a dry rub, like I did with the bacon. But I decided to use a brine, just so’s I could try out a different technique. With a brine, you base your salt and nitrite measurements according to how much WATER you’re using, rather than how much meat you have. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems it doesn’t matter if you have a pound of meat, or three pounds of meat, or ten pounds of meat, if you use the same brine it’s all gonna taste the same in the end. You just need to make sure you give the brine plenty of time to penetrate all the way through the meat. (Witness the importance of ample curing time in my corned beef post.)
Curing your own meats is still a pretty novel thing in the culinary hobbyist world. It seems a lot is still being worked out, and little information has become common knowledge, even in the ever-esoteric blogosphere. A fair amount of what I found was gleaned from message boards and forums catering to BBQ enthusiasts. One apparently very well-regarded gentleman posted this recipe. I divided everything by two for a half-gallon batch of brine and ended up with the following:
- 1/2 gallon (8 cups) water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 heaping Tbsp salt (≈1/6 cup)
- 1 tsp curing salt (The original recipe was for 1 Tbsp/gallon of water, which would mean one and a half teaspoons for my half gallon of water, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt anything to cut the amount down a little bit.)
I mixed all that up until the everything was dissolved, then poured it into a gallon freezer bag over the pork sirloin roast. The bag went into the fridge (in a casserole dish to make sure any leaks wouldn’t get over the whole fridge), and I’ll try it out in about a week. I might soak the roast in some fresh water before roasting it; some recipes I’ve seen suggest it to avoid overly salty ham.
So it’s coming: home-cured bacon and ham. I’m so excited. I just can’t hide it.
- Well, I am gonna do that anyway. ↩
- I put ‘ham’ in quotes because a ham is technically the leg of the pig, and the cut I’m using is a sirloin roast, which comes from the pig’s back. But I’m curing it to taste like the ham one usually gets from the deli, so I’m just gonna call it ham, recklessly disregarding proper differentiation between cut and curing style because it’s gonna taste like ham and I don’t think any of my readers actually care anyway. ↩
- Note that curing salt, AKA Insta Cure #1, AKA Prague Powder #1, AKA ‘pink salt’, is NOT the same as Himalayan pink salt. The Himalayan stuff is just some kind of salt and contains no nitrites. There are also curing powders out there like Insta Cure #2, Prague Powder #2, etc. These have nitrates in addition to nitrites and are intended to be used for cured meats that need to dry-cure for a long time, like saucisson or Spanish chorizo. Unless you are an accomplished charcuterist (that’s a word, right?), you will probably only ever need the #1 curing powder. ↩
- Because I am a huge nerd. We’ve established this, right? ↩
- As previously noted: nerd. ↩
- So called because you rub it on your meat. Heh. Meat. ↩