Bacon Basics – bacon-in-a-bag method for ‘dry’ curing at home

Readers (& participants) in the Big Bacon Challenge will have noticed how little effort is involved in making dry cured bacon at home.  While I was teaching myself to make bacon by this process (which involves daily application of dry cure to the piece of meat), I came across several references to bag methods of ‘dry’ curing.

In this ‘bacon in a bag’ method, you apply the cure to your meat, put the whole thing in a plastic bag, seal it up, and leave it in the fridge for several days, turning occasionally, and adding fresh cure once in mid-process.  It removes the trivial once-daily intervention in the curing process, and the need to find space for a dish in the fridge for the length of the curing process, so might be even easier for busy busy folk… *if*, that is, the results stack up in terms of flavour and quality.

I used my normal black pepper cure for this experiment.  My total cure weight was 10% of the weight of the meat and made up of 4 parts of supracure to 1 part of dark soft brown sugar with about a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper added (see here for more advice on mixing your dry cure).

Dry cure applied, in bagIn addition to your piece of belly or loin pork and cure, you need a nice large freezer bag which is reasonably robust, and some sort of clip or bag tie to seal it.  Sprinkle a bit of your cure into the bottom of the bag, place the washed and dried piece of pork in the bag skin-side down, and then continue to rub cure on the meat until you’ve used about half of your total dry curing mix.  Seal the bag excluding as much air as possible, and put it in the fridge.

After 3 days, pickle in bagTurn the bag over from time to time (I turned it every time I went into the fridge for something else, but once a day is fine).  You will notice quite a lot of pickle accumulating in the bag.  After two days for belly, or three days for loin, take the bag out of the fridge.

Drain the pickle, and apply the rest of the cure, before returning the bag to the fridge for another three days.  Effectively we’re curing in a very concentrated brine made from the applied salt and the meat’s own water.  By this stage, at around the half-way mark, it’s already showing the changes I’d expect from successfully-curing bacon, which is a good sign!

Bacon out to restAfter these three days have passed (making a total curing time of five or six days depending on your bacon cut), take the bacon out of the fridge.  Remove it from the bag, rinse it off under the tap, pat dry carefully with kitchen paper, and return it to the fridge un-covered on a plate for 24 hours to finish drying and form a pellicle (that glossy, slightly tacky surface layer).  After that, wrap it loosely in a piece of baking paper and keep it in the fridge until you want to slice it and eat it.

I rested mine for three days before slicing – I was planning to put it through the smoker but the weather on my day off wasn’t particularly suitable.

Sliced for breakfast this morning, the texture and appearance on slicing was exactly as I have come to expect from my home dry-cured back bacon.

Sliced bacon

I sliced away but retained the outside piece for lardons before carefully preparing four slices for frying.  The piece of loin pork I used was very lean, and needed a little olive oil to the frying pan to really get things going.  The bacon re-arranged itself in the pan as the rind buckled, but didn’t noticeably shrink, and there certainly wasn’t any of that nasty white watery muck we’re so used to seeing in commercial bacon!

Bacon for breakfastBreakfast this morning was my bacon with some butcher’s black pudding and a fresh home-reared egg, served on a toasted English muffin.  What could be nicer on a lazy Saturday?

And tasting wise?  I would say I couldn’t detect a difference between bacon prepared this way, and my usual technique – but with one caveat.  One of my slices was the second-slice from the edge after the one I’d held over for lardons.  This slice, quite unlike the others, was unpalatably salty, with almost a salt ‘sting’ on the tongue.  I think this can probably be ascribed to the concentration of cure applied at once in this method, despite a good long resting period, the outside surfaces of this bacon are quite aggressively salted.  I would cut off a thicker end-slice in future when using this method – probably somewhere between 5mm and 10mm of the end grain at both ends.  Used in a stew or sauce, it would be fine, but it’s less than ideal to eat as sliced bacon.

So, if you want an *even* easier method for home-cured bacon, do give this one a whirl!  For me, though, it’s likely to be a technique I fall back on when I know I’m going to have a really busy week and still want some bacon for the following weekend.

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Piecing It Together – fabrics, quilting, and an amazing shop

I discovered the most amazing Aladdin’s cave of a fabric shop yesterday – friends took me along to The Bramble Patch in Weedon, Northants, and oh my goodness I was in heaven!  The Bramble Patch is really a quilting shop, but houses a veritable treasure trove of fabrics (including hundreds of fat quarters), patterns, kits, and accessories.  Kid in a candy store just doesn’t describe my feeling about places like this!

Fat Quarters at The Bramble Patch

I’m slightly in two minds about quilting – I think the end results can be stunning – particularly some the contemporary abstract / geometric patterns, and would love to have a gorgeous family quilt and be able to say ‘I made that’.

On the other hand, I’m a quick and dirty sort of seamstress.  I can’t see much merit in taking twice as long over a sewing project to achieve perfection – ‘good enough’ is good enough for me!  Quilting – and I would love to be proven wrong here – strikes me as the end of the sewing crafts spectrum that rewards accuracy and carefulness, rather than my ‘that’ll do’ attitude!

The range of patterns and kits on offer is really quite impressive – not to mention tempting! – in particular, some very sweet jubilee and union jack cushion covers.

Fat QuartersMuch to my husband’s apparent relief, I managed to escape with only five new fat quarters for the fabric stash – what he doesn’t quite appreciate, I think, is the brain-full of ideas and inspiration I’ve come away with too!

I’m extremely tempted to go on one of the quilting courses they offer (and no doubt much more of my hard-earned cash is liable to go their way in the future!) – in the meantime I’d welcome any tips and leads on utter-beginner quilting skills & project ideas you might know about!

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Inspirations – Isabella Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’

I like to think that, had she been alive today, Mrs Beeton would have been a blogger.  Before her death in 1865 aged 28, which followed the birth of her fourth child, she wrote prolifically.  Her husband, Samuel Beeton, was a publisher, and much of the material in the book was first printed in the form of articles in ladies’ magazines between 1859 and 1861 before then emerging in one volume as the book we would recognise as ‘Household Management’.

It’s fair to say that much of the material in ‘Household Management’ was collected (plagiarised, according to some less charitable commentators) and edited together, rather than being original to Isabella Beeton, but she probably invented the modern mode of laying out recipes – with an ingredient list at the top, followed by directions and cooking instructions – something we take for granted today.  While it is to a great degree a recipe book, it also contains wonderful snippets of advice on all aspects of victorian life – on medicine, the law, clothing, manners, the rearing of livestock, and of course famously the selection management of one’s servants.

Most of the recipes stand the test of time quite well – do avoid however the recommendation to boil carrots for about three hours – there are some wonderful snippets which are utterly of their period and richly reward the reader’s attention, though perhaps not their imitation!

Mrs Beeton on Whooping Cough:  “This is a purely spasmodic disease, and is only infectious through the faculty of imitation, a habit that all children are remarkably apt to fall into, and even where adults have contracted whooping-cough, it has been from the same cause, and is as readily accounted for, on the principle of imitation, as that the gaping of one person will excite or predispose a whole party to follow the same spasmodic example.” Her recommendations for treatment are… equally surprising!

On paying visits of courtesy (to be done after luncheon!): “They are uniformly required after dining at a friend’s house, or after a ball, picnic, or any other party.  These visits should be short, a stay from fifteen to twenty minutes being quite sufficient.  A lady paying a visit may remove her boa or neckerchief, but neither her shawl nor bonnet.”  So there you go, boa off, bonnet on – are we clear?

There are some marvellous-looking (not yet tested here!) recipes for home-brewed – and sometimes fortified – wines, as well as curing and preserving – after all it’s a book from the years before refrigeration – and for this reason alone deserves to be on everyone’s bookshelf and dipped into regularly.  Obviously we’d all like an old hardback copy complete with colour plates, but as it is widely available in paperback reprint (my well thumbed copy is a recent Wordsworth Edition) and is free to download in a variety of e-reader formats, albeit often without it’s illustrations, you really have no excuse!

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Big Bacon Challenge: Rounding Up – volunteers’ feedback

A few weeks ago now, all my lovely volunteers for the Big Bacon Challenge made their first batches of home-cured streaky or back bacon.  Several of them have blogged about their experiments, so I’d like to bring together some of their comments and reports.  I wanted to show as many people as possible that making your own bacon at home is not only incredibly simple and straightforward, but produces some of the best bacon you will ever have eaten – these reviews I hope go some way to supporting that!

Streaky bacon mid-curing, with dry curing mix applied

‘Ghoti’ writes about her bacon over on LiveJournal:  My favourite exerpt from her report – “So, in summary: utterly delicious, and a three year old can make it.”

‘Amlees’ wrote up her bacon day-by-day at Alison Was Here, and her collected bacon challenge posts can be found here:  “So the bacon is cured and rested and ready to eat.  John cuts thick slices and fries them for breakfast, with an egg on the side.  The bacon is delicious and satisfying, if a little salty. (…)  However, the bacon is as good as the bacon we normally buy (the expensive dry-cured kind).”

Finally (for now at least) ‘5greenway’ wrote on the Very Berry Handmade blog about their bacon in two posts – at the start and end of the process – “So, the process was really easy. But it would all count for nothing if the bacon wasn’t up to scratch… Just looking at it before cooking, we suspected it’d be pretty good, but it tasted even better than we expected. Not too salty, a nice flavour from the cure & a kind of melt in the mouth texture.”

I’m informed by several of my volunteers that they have since bought their own supply of curing salt and continue to make home-made bacon (and other goodies!), so I’m declaring the challenge a success!

A great big THANK YOU to all of my volunteers, and if any of you have any further feedback, please do comment or email so that I can include it here!

All the Big Bacon Challenge posts will be collected under the ‘BigBaconChallenge’ category heading – so go there to read them all!

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Hamming It Up – home-cured ham, boiled and glazed

A great ham sandwich is one of life’s special pleasures, isn’t it?  A few weeks ago I spotted a big chunk of pork leg on special offer at our local co-op.  It was too much to resist – after all the experimenting with bacon, it was time to add another pork product to the collection.  Time to make a home-cured ham!

I decided to base my cure on a Wiltshire cure, which is a traditional British cure with treacle, juniper and coriander.  The process is a bit more involved and time-consuming than dry cured bacon, but your end result is well worth it!

You will require –

  • Pork legA nice big piece of pork (ideally leg), untied from any net or string it might be wearing when you buy it.  My piece was about 1.5kg in weight.
  • A non-metallic container big enough to hold your piece of pork with some space to spare.  I used a big tupperware box I had hanging around.
  • Kitchen scales, measuring jug, pestle and mortar, and a dinner plate.
  • Curing salt – pre-mixed type such as supracure (see the Suppliers List for more details)
  • Black treacle
  • Juniper berries
  • Black peppercorns
  • Coriander leaf (preferably fresh, or dried if not)

Large tupperware box

The weight of the pork isn’t terribly important, as the amount of brine you need is as much dictated by the size of your container, and the curing time is more to do with thickness than total size.  Estimate the amount of curing brine you will require by putting the pork in the box, bucket or bowl and just covering it with water, then take the pork out and measure the water.  I needed just over 3 litres.  This is also washes any liquid or debris from the surface of the pork.

My brine was made in the following proportions – given per litre of cure for simplicity:

  • Curing salts130g of supracure
  • 90g of black treacle
  • 5g of juniper berries
  • 2g of black peppercorns
  • a big spoonful of dried coriander (be generous, and if you have fresh available so much the better)

Black treacleRemember you’re aiming for these ingredients to be included *in* a litre of brine, not added to a litre of water, so add the dry ingredients to a measuring jug and then add the water so that you can keep track of the total volumes.  You’ll need to add boiling water to the cure ingredients to help dissolve them, once they’re dissolved top up to your total volume with cold water.

Crushing juniper berries and peppercornsGently crush the juniper and peppercorns in a pestle and mortar, just enough to crack them open and release the aromas.   Add these and the coriander to the brine and refrigerate until cold.

Once the brine has cooled, add the pork, and weigh it down with the dinner plate so that it doesn’t bob up out of the brine solution.  Loosely cover the box with cling film, and place in the fridge.

Ham in brine

Plate placed over curing hamNow, once a day, turn the meat over in the brine.  This will help the cure penetrate equally.  Very soon you’ll start to notice the meat and rind darkening as they absorb the treacle, and taking on a firmer texture.

Ham in brine after 5 daysAdvice on the subject of curing time appears hugely variable and for my piece of pork I found advice ranging from 5 to 15 days – I’ll come back to this later, but as I wanted the ham for a specific date I took a punt and went for the shortest advised curing time of five days – based on a rule of thumb of 1 day of curing per inch thickness of meat.

Cured ham, resting on plateAfter your curing time is up, remove the ham from the brine, rinse it carefully under the tap, dry with kitchen towel and place on an open plate in the fridge.  I rested my ham for just one day, because I was in a hurry to eat it – but I suggest it would be better to rest it for 2 – 3 days before cooking.

It will have completely changed appearance from the pork leg that went into the cure – the meat is a dark mahogany colour and the rind a warm brown.

You can now cook your ham however you like – I prefer to boil mine first, until it reaches an internal temperature of 70 celsius.   I changed the water after the first 20 minutes, this helps reduce the saltiness in the final cooked ham.

Putting the ham on to boil    The ham after boiling, rind side showing    WIth rind removed, and fat scored

Then, I remove the rind, score the fat, glaze with treacle and finish in a hot oven for 20 minutes.  Once the ham has cooled (if you can wait that long!), slice and sample.

Treacle-glazed Wiltshire cured ham, fresh from the oven

The fist thing you’ll notice is that it’s undeniably ham – it has that characteristic pink colour, and gently salty-sweet ham flavour – but what flavour, nothing but the very best traditional ham, this, no added water, none of the strange gristly bits we’re all so used to in commercial re-formed ham.  The treacle flavour is very much to the fore, a bitter-sweet deep note, and the aromatic flavours from the juniper are just about detectable.

First slice!What would I do differently next time?  I would have used more juniper, but I didn’t have enough in the cupboard.  I would definitely use fresh coriander if I had some, as this flavour was pretty much lost using the dry herb.  I would also cure for a few more days – maybe seven or eight for this size of pork leg.  Right in the centre of the ham, I found a small patch of meat that hadn’t cured through, and was the grey colour of cooked pork rather than the pink of cooked ham.  A longer curing period would hopefully have avoided this.

I might also have rested the ham for longer, and increasing the resting time might have delt with the evenness-of-cure issue by allowing more time for the cure to balance through the meat without increased curing time, but I wanted to use it to make a ham sandwiches to feed some very good friends the next weekend.  Plain, or with mustard, or pickle, the giant pile of sandwiches went down extremely well!

Sliced finished cured and glazed ham

On a slightly different note – the Country Skills Blog is six months, and 50 posts old today!  Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting so kindly, and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog for many more months, years, and posts to come!

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Signs of Spring – the lambs are arriving!

Not much to say today, folks.  Just thought I’d share some photos of lambs that I shot yesterday evening just before sunset on my mobile phone camera.  Aren’t they wonderful? (The lambs, that is, the matter of the greatness or otherwise of the photos is left as an exercise for the reader…)

          

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Foraging Skills – blossom watch

Spring is in full flood now, with bulb flowers and that lovely acid spring green colour of young leaves appearing everywhere.  You’re likely to be seeing lots of frothy white blossom in the hedges, and that’s worth keeping your eyes out for.  The sort you’re looking for is on otherwise naked branches, and spread evenly over the bush rather than forming clusters.

Blackthorn blossom

This is the blackthorn (the name is no coincidence!) or sloe bush.  So if you’re a fan of sloe gin (and let’s face it, isn’t everyone?) and fancy making some this autumn, make a note of any really good stands of blossom you see in the next week or two.  Final identification takes a slightly closer look – single small white flowers, armed with some nasty spikes on dark coloured wood.  The leaves, when they appear, will be small and rounded.

Blackthorn blossom - close up

You’ll notice that the blossom extends quite a long way inside the bush – this is one of the things that’s going to make picking, when you get to it, a bit of a challenge!

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With Apologies for the Hiatus – it’s been a busy month!

There’s been a lot going on the past few weeks – my little sister’s wedding, the reason for the wedding bunting I’ve been making since Christmas, beginning a new job, and finally, now that we’re home from a much needed holiday, spring is well under way and we’re seriously behind on our garden preparations!

Congratulations to the bride and groom on a gorgeous wedding – very much their personal style and lots of beautiful handmade touches to the ceremony and reception. I was particularly taken by the home-grown baskets of bulbs as table centres, and the handmade pyrography favours.  The bunting was pleasingly well-recieved!

At the wedding

Normal service on the Country Skills blog will be resumed very shortly – including a round-up of my volunteers’ thoughts on their big bacon challenge results, more foraging tips, and how to make your very own home-cured ham!

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