There are only a few dishes in barbecue where a pit master can take it to the edge and really personalize the food. Sausage is one. Smoked bacon another.
Former ferry Captain Kenny Burtness dropped by one day and left us a one pound slab of his homemade smoked bacon. This was not by any stretch of the imagination normal looking bacon. Irregular in shape with wide swings in fattiness and leanness, Kenny had used an unusual blend of spices and maple syrup for his personal style.
It turns out there are a lot of bacon makers on Lopez Island, Washington, where we live. Bruce Dunlop of Lopez Island Farm started making his own bacon because “it was so easy!” Now, he always makes bacon.
To make our smoked bacon, we started with pork belly from Midnight's Farm on Lopez Island. That's the same place we got the meat for our recent apple smoked pork belly item. It's a Berkshire/Tamworth heritage breed. The rubs shown below show a range of styles so I can have a special bacon for a particular dish.
Pork belly (size according to styles of bacon you want to create. In the pictures we started with a 12 pound pork belly)
3 cups light brown sugar
¾ cup kosher salt
¾ cup black pepper (cracked or coarse ground)
2 Tbsp dried orange peel
The base rub at these quantities covered the entire belly. I had 5 types of bacon to make and divided the base rub into fifths, then added the special components.
I made sage smoked bacon by adding three tablespoons of sage to the base. A spicy smoked bacon rub came from adding three tablespoons of chipotle powder. For a Carbonara I added to the basic rub three tablespoons Italian seasoning mix, one tablespoon fennel seed and three cloves of smashed garlic. For pepper bacon I used the basic rub and added a layer of coarse ground pepper after the smoking. I even made a sweet bacon by smearing the pork with agave syrup and then covering with the basic rub.
To start, thoroughly clean the pork belly, pat dry and then cut into a size similar to the size of a package of bacon. Cut across the grain of the pork when making slabs.
Mix your rub ingredients and apply the individual rubs to the separate slabs. Place the flavored slabs in separate zip lock baggies and label accordingly. Lay the bags out on a tray and refrigerate for seven days. Flip over the bags daily to allow the flavors to permeate all of the pork.
After seven days remove the pork slabs from the bags and rinse thoroughly. Pat dry and lay the slabs out in a single layer on clean trays. Return to the refrigerator uncovered for 24 hours. The pork will form the pellicle, a tacky skin that helps the smoke flavor (and color) adhere to the meat.
When starting your smoker, use a chimney with a small amount of charcoal and a page of newspaper to light. We are not looking for heat in this smoke. Ideally you want a smolder of the wood, holding the temperature close to 150 degrees.
I used a large flat chunk of wood and laid the charcoal on top of the wood. Since this is a relatively short smoke any common smoking wood will do. Unquestionably, apple, cherry or maple woods are outstanding to smoke pork. Each wood has its own unique character and flavor profile so choose accordingly.
The goal is not to cook the pork but to permeate the meat with a smoke flavor. I smoked the pork for 45 minutes.
When finished on the smoker I add coarse pepper to the slabs as needed and vacuum seal each slab separately for long term storage. All bacon not used immediately needs to be frozen for later use.
Bacon in the fridge should be good a week and frozen bacon should be good for several months. For easier slicing when pulling a fresh slab from the freezer, cut the slab while still partially frozen. We cooked our sliced bacon in the oven on convection for about 15 minutes or until done.
Be prepared for an unusual experience both visually and taste! It’s not your mama’s smoked bacon.