The ancient practice of salt curing meat is making a come back since the advent of refrigeration for no other reason than the fact that cured meat products taste good! While such favorites as ham, bacon, pastrami, corned beef, capicola, dried beef, smoked salmon and dry and semi-dry cured sausage may seem a bit daunting to some, the challenge of mastering a new technique is what attracts others.
When you make your own product, you get to choose quality cuts of meat and avoid the animals that were raised on an antibiotic diet and opt for farm raised instead. The truth is that curing your own bacon or pastrami is little more difficult than placing a slab of pork belly or beef brisket in a non-reactive tub with salt, sugar and various other flavorings and then refrigerating it for 7 days while it cures. At which time the bacon is either baked or smoked and the corned beef is simmered in a pot of water until it’s fork tender. Whether you are a novice or a pro, formulating a specialty meat product is much easier than you might think and the rewards are tenfold.
Though your first attempt may not rival the Italian salami or spiced capicola hams that adorn the tempting deli cases in Little Italy, New York, you can certainly make an acceptable imitation at home if you have a desire to do so. These high-quality, imported meats are made according to traditional methods in a defined environment using age old formulas and semi-wild pigs that are fattened on seasonal acorns and other mast crops.
Salt, sugar and curing salt are the main curing ingredients used to make specialty meat products. Though salt was originally used as a preservative to inhibit bacteria, except for the “country style” hams produced south of the border, it’s main function now is to add flavor to the product. That’s not to say it doesn’t still provide some preservative action even at the low concentrations used by modern-day processors.
Making beef bacon at home is a easy three step process, starting with the meat selection. Insofar as beef bellies have to be specially ordered in my neck of the woods and the fact that the customer is obligated to complete the sale, regardless of what they send you, I have switched to beef briskets in recent years. They have just the right amount of inner marbling fat to make a good piece of bacon, plus they contain less saturated fat than conventional pork bellies.
When I’m ready to buy, I avoid the small, thin, factory-trimmed briskets advertised in our area as “first cut” or “flat cut”, because they are usually too thin and too expensive. An untrimmed brisket allows me the flexibility to trim the fat to the thickness I want. And there’s nothing wasted because we freeze the excess fat and use it later on to make venison sausage. Although the average, untrimmed, Cryovac brisket weighs between 8-16 lbs. (3.6-7.3 kg), I can usually find one between 10-14 lbs. (4.5-6.4 kg) if I’m willing to shop around.
Start by removing the brisket from the Cryovac packaging and pat it dry with paper towels. Place the brisket fat side down on a large cutting board. Use your knife to separate the “point” (or top of the brisket) from the “flat” (bottom of the brisket) where the two pieces come together, easily identified by a solid chunk of cod-like fat. Go slow and continue cutting and pulling until you have two separate sections. Trim the bottom side of the flat portion to about 1/4” (.65 cm) thick or less if you like a very lean bacon. Remove the heavy vein of fat from the point and set aside (refrigerate) to make corned beef. Now that you have a suitable brisket, it’s time for the second step of the process which can be either a dry or wet cure (immersion) method.
Wet curing is achieved by soaking the meat in a curing solution consisting of water, salt, curing salt, and sometimes sugar or other sweeteners, added to counter the harshness of the salt and improve the overall flavor of the beef bacon. The curing salt which is made up of 6.25% Sodium nitrite and 93.75% sodium chloride, helps to prevent food poisoning and develop the pink-reddish color commonplace with smoked meat products.
Mix the curing solution according to the instructions on the adjoining page; pump the brisket to 10-12% of its original weight. Submerge the brisket in the remaining solution for 7-10 days at 34-40°F (1-4°C). Turn the meat every second day. After the allotted time has passed, pull the briskets from the solution and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Hang the briskets on bacon hangers and allow to dry at room temperature for 1 hour.
Then move the briskets to a preheated 100°F (38°C) smoker (drafts wide open) and hold until a glossy, sticky coating has formed on the outside of the bacon. The “pellicle” layer is formed as the nitrites in the curing salt pull the water soluble proteins to the surface of the meat. This process usually takes two hours to complete. Close the drafts to 1/4 open, apply smoke and raise the smoker temperature to 135°F (57°C). Hold until the internal temperature of the bacon reaches 128°F (53°C). To ensure maximum smoke and color penetration, cut the smoker temperature back down to120°F (49°C) and hold until the desired color is obtained. Total time in the smoker takes about 6-8 hours. Allow the finished product to cool overnight in the refrigerator before it’s cut into slices.
Next day, freeze the bacon briefly and slice to your desired thickness. Although this is fairly easy to do by hand, an electric meat slicer makes the job much easier, moreover it allows you to cut the bacon into more uniform slices.
Just like its pork counterpart, cured and smoked beef bacon is highly perishable and must be refrigerated for the short term or frozen for long term storage. While whole slabs of uncooked bacon store relatively well when they are wrapped in multiple layers of cling film, loose slices will keep better when they are vacuum packed and flash frozen. Store beef bacon in the refrigerator for up to 8 days or in the freezer up to 3 months. See beef brisket bacon recipe at top of page.