Big Bacon Challenge: Day Four – nearly there!

If you’re making streaky bacon from belly pork, this is the last time you need to drain the pickle from your bacon, and apply the rest of the cure – if you’re making back bacon from loin I’m afraid you have one more day of this to go.

Final cure applicationStill, all of you are now tantalisingly close to the marvellous ‘eating the bacon’ stage of the experiment.  Your meat should be looking very much like bacon by now.  Hungry yet?

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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Big Bacon Challenge: Day Three – short and sweet!

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the bacon challenge!  Which is ironic, as on day three of my bacon process this time, I did in fact forget entirely and only remembered on the morning of day four.  It’s not a disaster – if you do forget an application, just do it as soon as you remember and then carry on as you were before.  Magic.

Today, you’re just repeating what you did yesterday.  You should have it down to a fine art by now, and it should take no time at all!

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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Big Bacon Challenge: Day Two – carry on as before!

This is where it all starts to get a little bit repetitive.  Today – just like yesterday – take the bacon out of the fridge, pour off the pickle, re-apply the dry cure (another quarter or fifth depending on whether you’ve got belly or loin) turning the bacon the other way up, and put it back into the fridge.

Bacon - day 2There’s something special today, though – you should start to notice a change in the appearance and texture of your meat – already it’s less like pork and more like bacon, it may be visibly darker pink in colour than it was, and will certainly be starting to feel firmer, all of which is evidence that the cure is being absorbed, water is being removed, and the character of the meat is changing as a result – it’s the alchemy of curing, and it’s exciting to see each and every time.

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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Big Bacon Challenge: Day One – getting into the swing of things!

What you do with your bacon today is the template for the next few days, really.

Bacon with pickle aroundGet your container out of the fridge.  You’ll notice the liquid in the bottom – its  probably a brown colour from the sugar in your cure.  This is called the pickle and is completely normal – it’s made up of salt and sugar from the cure, and liquid being drawn out of the meat – but we want to get rid of it, or our dry cure will turn into a brine cure pretty quickly.  So hold onto your bacon securely while you pour the pickle away.  Don’t bother trying to dry the meat or the dish or anything like that, though.  You might also notice, like mine, that the skin of your bacon has gone a bit blotchy.  This is because of uneven distribution of the cure at this stage, and isn’t anything to worry about.

1-day bacon, with dry cureNow look at the dry cure you have left over and roughly divide it into four parts (or five, if you’re making back bacon).  Accuracy isn’t important here, just more-or-less.  Now rub your quarter (or fifth) of cure all over the bacon like you did yesterday, leaving the bacon the other way up in the dish – so if it was skin-up yesterday, skin-down today.

Bacon with cure re-applied, after first 24hrsThat’s it, about a minute’s work. Just replace your clingfilm and put the dish back in the fridge.

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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Big Bacon Challenge: Day Zero – time to begin!

So, now you’ve (hopefully!) received your pack of curing salt, have laid your hands on a promising looking piece of pork, and are raring to get going turning it into bacon.

Belly pork, skin side upFirst of all you may need to do a bit of preparation with your pork.  If it came as a tied ‘joint’, cut all the string and flatten it out.  Rinse it under cold water before drying carefully with some paper towel if there’s any loose material on the surface left over from butchering, or if it seems ‘wet’ – this is more likely to be the case if it’s been vac-packed or previously frozen.

Belly Pork Piece - trimmed with skin-side downA loin piece should require no further preparation, though you might want to trim away any really loose bits of meat.  If your belly piece has come from a butcher or farm shop there may still be ribs on the inside surface.  Trim these away from the rest of the meat, preserving as much flesh as possible.  You also want the non-skin side to be able to absorb the cure as well as possible, so if there’s a thin layer of fat on this surface, you want to remove it.  It should peel away carefully, or use a sharp knife.

Now weigh your prepared meat and make a note of the weight in grams. Mine weighed very slightly under 600g.

Weighed-out curing saltThe total cure weight is going to be 10% of the weight of the meat – so for 600g I’m looking for a total weight of cure of 60g, which is going to be 80% curing salt and 20% sugar – so in my case 48g of salt and 12g of soft brown sugar.  Mix these together thoroughly in your airtight container.

Weighed-out cure mixYou’re ready to take your first steps in the ancient culinary alchemy of curing!

Belly pork with cure applied - skin-sideTake some of your dry cure and rub it all over all the surfaces of your meat.  There’s no hard and fast rule about how much to use for this first application, but I tend to use about 1/3rd of the total cure mix.  The cure will absorb least well through the skin, so while you should still rub some of the cure onto this surface, concentrate on getting the cure in to contact with the meat.

First batch of cure applied, skin-side downNow place your cured pork into your non-metallic dish, cover loosely with cling film, and put it in the fridge until tomorrow.  If you peek later, don’t worry if you start to see liquid in the bottom of the dish – this is quite normal and shows something’s happening!

Remember to seal the container with the rest of the cure in to keep the air and moisture out!

Please do keep me posted on your progress!

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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Big Bacon Challenge: Day Minus One – getting ahead!

So, welcome all to the first post of the Big Bacon Challenge series – I’m so excited!   I put the curing salts in the first class post today to those of you who have asked for them, so I hope they should arrive with you in the next day or two.  In the mean time, there are a few things you can do do get ahead – and I’ve already had one request for starting instructions!

Belly Pork PieceIf you haven’t already found it, start looking for a piece of pork to cure.  Pork belly will make streaky bacon in five days, and a piece of pork loin will make back bacon in six.  I suggest looking for a piece about 500g in weight for your first attempt (and this will leave you enough left-over cure to make another piece afterwards, possibly with some different flavours in the mix!).

You’re looking for a nice quality piece of pork, ideally with the skin still on.  It’s not a problem if the skin has already been scored – as it often will be on a piece ‘intended’ for roasting – in fact I think it helps the cure penetrate more evenly.  In a perfect world it would be gorgeous free-range pork from your local farm shop or butcher, but even a bargain piece of belly from the ‘value’ meats section of the supermarket will produce better bacon than you can imagine, so don’t fret too much – it’s just an experiment, after all!  The important thing is that it should be nice and fresh, so buy it as close as possible to starting the curing process.

Now’s a good time to assemble all the extra bits, too.  You’ll be needing:

  • Scales and curing saltA non-metallic dish for curing your bacon in.  I generally use a stoneware or pyrex oven dish, as this can be covered without the cling film coming into contact with the meat so the air can circulate.  Mind you, I’ve seen variations on dry curing that suggest packing all the cure and the meat in a plastic bag for a week, so I’m not sure the vessel makes all that much difference!
  • Some nice dark sugar – between 20 and 40g depending on the weight of your pork, soft dark brown is ideal, or try muscovado or even molasses sugar for a really dark intense flavour hit.  
  • Something airtight to hold your made up cure – I use a small recycled plastic tub with a snap-on lid, but a ziplock bag would also be fine. 
  • Kitchen scales.
  • Cling film.

If you’re getting so excited you just can’t wait, you can get going already following the older posts on making streaky bacon and back bacon.  Or, if you can bear to wait until tomorrow, we’ll start the series of day-by-day instructions, in much more detail!

I can’t wait to hear how all my volunteers are getting along, so please do comment as we go!

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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Bloggers – Your Country (Skills Blog) Needs You!

I’m still looking for a handful of volunteers for Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge!

If you want to try something new and very cool – making your own bacon at home – and have a UK postal address, get in touch, and I’ll provide the curing salt.  Then, just brag about your bacon wherever you blog and to whoever will listen!

Thank you everyone, I now have a full set of volunteers!  Instructions, and hopefully feedback, coming soon!

Finally – Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge is here!

I love home-cured bacon, and I think you will too!  The experience of making streaky bacon for the first time was one of the main motivations behind setting up this blog, and more recently I’ve had great success with home-cured back bacon, too.  And yet despite how simple it is, and how wonderful the final product, the most common reaction I get is ‘Oh but that sounds very complicated, you’re braver than me!’.

Home-cured back bacon

In order encourage as many people as possible to try this simplest of all foody experiences, I’ve come up with the following, very simple plan.  I’m calling it ‘Kate’s Big Country Skills Bacon Challenge’.

I will post an 80g pack of ‘Supracure’ curing salt (enough to cure up to 1kg of bacon) to the first 10 people to send me their UK postal address.

Then, I’ll post day-by-day instructions to follow.

Thank you everyone, I now have a full set of volunteers!  Instructions, and hopefully feedback, coming soon!

That’s it, simple as that!  All I want from you in return is to make your bacon, and to write about it, take photos of it, tweet about it, post to facebook about it and generally brag to anyone who’ll listen about how awesome, easy and worthwhile it is!  With any luck, for some of you it may even become a habit of a lifetime.

In order to make your very own bacon, you will need to provide a piece of fresh pork belly or pork loin up to 1kg in weight (ideally with the skin on), a non-metallic dish big enough to hold the meat, ~20g of sugar (soft dark sugar is best), some cling film, a refrigerator, and a couple of minutes a day for five consecutive days.

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Back To Basics – home cured back bacon from start to delicious end

Home cured streaky bacon has been a constant fixture in my house since I first made it back in October – in fact I’ve not bought any ‘commercial’ bacon since.  Back bacon used to be our house favourite though, before I started curing.  A couple of weeks ago I saw a tied pork loin ‘roasting’ joint for sale half-price in the local co-op, and it seemed to good to refuse.

Home-cured back bacon

For home-cured back bacon, you will require –

  • Ingredients for home-cured back baconA piece of pork loin.  The roasting joint was a bit big so I cut it in half to give me a piece about 650g in weight.
  • Curing salt such as Supracure (see the Suppliers List for details), 8% of the total weight of the meat, and
  • Sugar (soft brown sugar is ideal) 2% of the total weight of the meat, to make a total cure weight of 10%
  • A non-metallic dish big enough to contain the meat, and some cling film to cover.
That’s it – I wanted to keep the first effort as simple as possible!

First day - dry-cure rubbed in

Weigh out the cure ingredients and mix them together well.  Now rub about a quarter of the cure mix all over the pork, including on the skin.  You can see it start to draw out moisture from the meat straight away.  Cover the dish loosely with some cling film, and put it in the fridge until tomorrow.

Second day - with 'pickle' in dishThe next day, there will be some liquid in the bottom of the dish.  This is the ‘pickle’ and is made up of some of the curing mix dissolved in the liquid that’s been drawn out of the meat.  It’s completely normal, so don’t worry.  Pour it away, or your dry-cure will pretty quickly turn into a brine cure.  Now take about a quarter of the remaining cure and rub it all over the meat again.  Put it back in the dish the other way up to last time (so skin side up, if you started skin-side down).

Third day - the bacon should be changing texture by this timeRepeat this process for another three days (so that you’ve rubbed cure into the bacon five days running).  By day 3 you should notice a distinct difference in the texture of the meat, it will be firmer in consistency and a bit darker pink in colour.

Finished back bacon, ready to sliceOn the sixth day (so one day longer than the streaky bacon process – this is because the meat is thicker than belly pork), remove the bacon from the dish, rinse it under the tap, dry it carefully with kitchen towel, wrap it loosely with greaseproof paper and put it back in the fridge.  Ideally, wait a couple of days before you start eating it, do let it rest at least overnight.

Home-cured bacon, fryingThen slice your amazing bacon with a sharp knife, and cook however you prefer.  I like to pan-fry my back bacon.  This one is gorgeous and I can only heartily recommend you make some for yourself!

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A little egg-centricity – all about the chicken and the egg

Nothing beats a really fresh free range egg.  For breakfast, fried or poached, boiled or scrambled, or for lunch in an omelette, a really fresh egg – preferably laid this morning – is head and shoulders above any other egg you’ve ever tasted.  You can see the difference straight away, even before you crack it – the shell may well be a bit grubby, and a slightly funny shape, an unexpected or uneven colour.  When you crack it open, the egg white is firm and ‘sits up’ in the pan, and the yolk is a deep orange, and bigger than you expected – if beaten, the raw egg is a rich dark yellow, rather than off-white.  In your mouth the yolk is velvety and rich, creamy and almost sweet with a luxuriant almost-custard quality and the white is firm but never rubbery – a million miles away from the flaccid anaemic and tasteless output of battery cages and the supermarket supply chain.

Fresh egg

It’s a sad fact that in the supermarket dominated, urban West, most people have probably never tasted a really good, fresh egg.  We think of eggs as being uniform, sized and graded, cheap and frankly, dull.  But they’re a natural product, and they vary – in size, colour and shape – and from the very firmest, freshest example, to the end of their storage life when the egg white is watery and the best of the flavour is gone.

I said nothing beats a very fresh egg, but of course that depends what you’re doing with it. If you want to beat the egg and use it to help with raising – in baking, or a soufflé – or you want hard boiled eggs peeled for a Salade Niçoise, then the very freshest eggs aren’t for you.  The egg white – the albumen – is actually in two parts.  The outer albumen is quite watery, you can see it spread out in the pan in the photo above.  The inner albumen is much more firm in a very fresh egg (but in an egg which has been stored for some time you probably won’t be able to see a distinction between the two).  In a very fresh egg this inner albumen has too much structure and tends to want to hold together, which doesn’t allow the batter to rise properly.  Furthermore, if you hard boil a really fresh egg and then remove the shell, the outer albumen will come away with the shell, which is a waste and makes for a scruffy-looking boiled egg.  Eggs about a week old are best for baking and hard boiling – realistically you won’t get eggs much fresher than this from the supermarket, though.

Egg storage

These are my eggs, and three things are obvious – first the range of shapes and sizes, secondly that they’re in some sort of wire device (it’s called an Egg Skelter, and I wouldn’t be without it) and not in the fridge, and thirdly that, frankly, they’re a bit grubby!

The size variability is something that you have to make adjustments for with ungraded eggs.  My approach is to weigh them and then adjust according to standard size references.  The Lion Egg Scheme people have a size guide here.

Fresh eggs will keep safely at room temperature for 3 weeks (it’s no coincidence that this is the length of time they have to stay ‘fresh’ under a warm hen if being hatched!), but if you do put them in the fridge, then you need to leave them there.  If eggs are removed from refrigeration, moisture condenses on the outside of the shell and can then be drawn through into the inside of the egg by osmosis, potentially pulling pathogens from outside the shell into the egg itself and increasing the risk of food poisoning.  My eggs don’t sit around for anything like three weeks (if I have a glut I know plenty of people who are happy to help me deal with it!) so storage at room temperature is ideal.  Better still, the egg skelter enforces first-in-first-out use, which is trickier with other storage systems.

So you’d think washing the dirt from the outside of the egg would be a good idea, right?  In fact dissolving these contaminants in water, and disrupting the outside surface of the shell, also increase the risk of pathogen entry.  Much better to leave grubby eggs as they are, and rub off any loose dirt and mud from the surface just before use.  Egg washing is not permitted in the production chain for commercial shell eggs in the UK, on a risk assessment basis, though it is common practice in other countries including the US (they tend to wash in a chlorine solution – because bleach is what you want in your eggs!).  This goes some way to explaining the obsession with clean eggs in intensive production systems – and the resulting battery cages (improved, but not yet gone), as ‘dirty’ eggs are downgraded.

I’ve kept hens for two and a half years now.  I wasn’t expecting get as attached to them as I have, they’re fascinating animals.  Funny feathery little dinosaur-descendants they certainly are, they’re inquisitive, social (and not always sociable!) little creatures.  Only when you’ve watched hens scratch around for bugs, enjoy a bit of a flap and a wing stretch, and then settle down into a well-earned and apparently thoroughly indulgent dust bath, can you really start to understand how inhumane intensive cost-led egg production systems are.  This is Gertie, by the way, my ‘top hen’, being a bit confused by her first sight of snow, and wondering what I’m doing with that camera.

Outdoor hen

You may not be able to keep your own poultry, but if only for the sake of your palate (never mind the quality of life of the poor intensive egg-producing bird) it’s worth seeking out the best and freshest outdoor reared eggs you can find – farmers markets and farm shops are a great place to start – or ask around, you may be surprised to find a colleague keeps backyard hens, and if you’re really super nice to them, they may be prepared to share! Then, enjoy your wonderful, freshest eggs, with the best home cured bacon for the most amazing breakfast fry-up you’ve ever tasted.

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