No Smoke Without Fire – Boxing Day ham and Christmas bacon – Blog Advent (2)

This morning, bright and early (probably a little *too* early after last night’s lovely Christmas dinner with some excellent friends!) and in the freezing cold, I got my smoker out and set up.  For the past couple of weeks, my fridge has been half full of partly cured pork products.  Well, the curing finished last week, and today it was time for some smoke!

Smoker, set up ready

What you can see hanging there is my boxing day ham, and a batch of Christmas streaky bacon.  For more information on my DIY cold smoker, you can have a look at the smoking and curing posts, collected here.  For suggested UK supplies of smoking and curing ingredients and paraphernalia, have a look at my suppliers list.

The little sawdust-burning ProQ cold-smoke generator has served me very well in the course of the last year or so, but we had a bit of excitement with it this morning, after the tea light which is used to start the sawdust smouldering decided to overheat and do a striking impression of a miniature chip pan fire!  You’ll be relieved to hear, I’m sure, that no serious harm was done to the bacon, and that I still have my eyebrows!  It was however alarming enough that I’m going to look into alternative ways of starting the smoulder in future.

Boxing-Day Ham

Baked home-cured hamThe amazing colour of the ham comes from the same treacle-based cure I blogged about using earlier this year, though in deference to the larger piece of pork leg, and the fact that this time, it has the bone in, I allowed a curing time of 10 days.  The only other change was the addition of a couple of fresh bay leaves to the curing solution.  The gorgeous 2.5kg piece of pork leg came from our local farm shop butcher, who has wonderful meat.

Between now and Boxing Day, once it’s rested for 48 hours to let the smoke flavours permeate, I’ll wrap it up and put it in the freezer.  I’m expecting that, once boiled and glazed, it will look a lot like this – I can’t wait to see what difference the smoke makes!

Christmas Bacon

Gorgeous pork bellyThe bacon is mostly intended for gifts (except for the biggest piece, which is mine-all-mine!).  It was a great success last year, and seemed popular with its recipients!

It’s been curing over the last week, using a bacon-in-a-bag technique I’ve been refining over the last year.   Nearly all my home-cured bacon is made this way now, and I’ve settled on an 8% cure for most purposes, made up with between 66-75% curing salt and 25-33% sugar.

This total batch was about 2.5kg in weight.  In addition to the meat, I used –

  • AromaticsSupracure – 133g  (see my other curing posts for more information about this pre-mixed curing salt)
  • Mollasses sugar – 66g
  • Aromatics, consisting of 4 bay leaves, 20 juniper berries, 40 allspice berries, one clove, and about 1/4 of a whole nutmeg
  • Two large strong freezer bags

Prepared bacon cureGrind up all the spices in a spice grinder (except the nutmeg, which you’ll probably be safer grating by hand), and then mix the spices into the salt and sugar.  Prepare the pork belly by trimming it if required and then slicing into the appropriate pieces.

With cure rubbed inNow rub about half of the cure generously over all the surfaces of the pork, and pack it into the freezer bags.  Put these in the fridge and turn them over at least once a day, alternating which one is on top if you have more than one bag.

In two days (three if you’re using pork loin rather than belly), pour off any liquid which has accumulated in the bag – this may be very little if you started with excellent quality meat that hasn’t had water added! – and apply the rest of your cure mixture before returning to the fridge for a further 3 days, turning daily as before.

Bacon in a bagAfter your 5 or 6 days in total have elapsed, take the bacon out of the bag, rinse it carefully under cold tap water, dry with kitchen towel, and place on open racks or uncovered on plates in the fridge for another day (or ideally two) to allow the pellicle to form – this is a sticky glossy surface which will develop on the surface of the bacon.

Then, you can eat your bacon, or, as I did today, smoke it.

I’ve used a mix of beech and apple sawdust for todays smoke run, it gives quite a strong, aromatic smoke which I think will stand up well against the robust flavours in both the ham brine and the bacon cure.

The bacon will be frozen, wrapped as individual pieces in waxed baking paper, until we use ours to make our pigs-in-blankets on Christmas day (it was amazing last year!), or give it as gifts.

Advent - day 2

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Basic Butchery – how to butcher & portion a pork belly

Pork belly is such a wonderful and versatile cut, and so under-rated here in the UK.  Most of my bacon making is with belly, so we get through quite a lot of it.  As a result I tend to buy it most-of-a-belly at a time!  The process of butchering it to remove the ribs and prepare it for curing or roasting is quite simple, and worth learning, since it means you’ll end up with precisely the piece of meat you want for the task at hand, and a couple of little bonus items, too!

Large piece of pork belly

Your butcher will probably offer to prepare your belly for you, removing the ribs and trimming it to your preference, but you never quite seem to get exactly what you were after, somehow!  Doing the job yourself means you get exactly what you want.  This is my starting point – just under 2kg piece of pork belly .

Peel away the inner layer of fatStart by removing the layer of fat on the inside of the belly piece, if there’s one there.  You shouldn’t need your knife for this, it should just pull away if you work gently beneath it with your fingers, leaving a clean muscle surface beneath.  Once you’ve removed it, set it to one side (I usually keep an ‘offcuts’ plate or bowl handy when I’m portioning or butchering meats).  This is effectively pork suet.

Belly portion with fat removedNow you can get a better look at the anatomy of your piece of meat.  As it’s laid out in the photo here, the ribs are on the left, you can see the flap of diaphragm meat lying above them.  On the right side of the belly is a band of smooth muscle.  The ends of the ribs lie almost exactly where the visible edge of this muscle joins the diaphragm.

Cut beneath ribsTake a long, thin bladed, sharp knife and first cut beneath the ribs, as close as possible to them to reduce wastage.  The piece has been rotated 180 degrees from where it was in the previous photograph so that the ribs are now bottom right.  You should be able to feel roughly where the ribs end, so extend your cut beneath them as close as possible to this level.

Finding the ends of the ribsNow gently slice beneath the strap-like muscle we identified earlier, where it lies over the ends of the ribs, and peel it back,  You’ll find the ends of the ribs and the strips of cartilage which link them together.  Gently slice around these and then back underneath. By lifting the rib section it should now be quite easy to join up with the cut beneath and remove this as a block.

Rack of ribs, as removedEither put the rack of ribs to one side, or cut them up into individual ribs at this stage.  This couldn’t be simpler – just feel for the gap between each pair of ribs and slice down the centre parallel to them, your knife, if it’s nice and sharp, should cut straight through the connecting cartilage.

Ribs, divided up.You can trim away any strips of cartilage that area easy to identify – you can see this top left.  That bit is genuinely wastage, incidentally, so chuck it away if you want!  Bag your butchered ribs up, label them, and freeze them for another day (they’re great done on the BBQ with a jerk marinade!).

Pork belly with ribs removed

Now let’s turn our attention back to the pork belly itself.

You can really see now that mine is anything but rectangular! It’s actually sitting ‘upside down’ in terms of how it was on the pig – the top as we look at that photo is the part closest to the middle of the pig’s body, the rib side is towards the back.  As we get closer to the abdominal midline, the proportion of fat to muscle increases, so I trimmed the piece to rectangular, discarding the part which is most top-left in this photograph.

Pork belly, trimmedBecause I’m planning to prepare the belly as streaky bacon, this will give me more manageable, even chunks.  You can see the effect of the trimming in this photograph – the piece has been rotated again so the rib-side is now away from us.  Add your trimmings to the ‘offcuts’ bowl.

Belly pieces, divided upNow simply divide up your belly as you like.  Mine weighed almost exactly 1.6kg at this point, so I divided it evenly into four ~400g pieces.   A large piece like this would be fantastic roasted slowly whole, too, perhaps with chinese spices, for a special meal for a big gathering!  Roast pork belly has the *best* crackling.

Bag your ribs and your offcuts – these will make fantastic quite fatty minced pork for adding to any minced-meat dish that requires extra juiciness and succulence, or for sausages.  Then sit back and admire your work.

Fully-butchered pork belly

My belly portions were for curing, so I prepared a maple syrup cure made up of 100g of supracure and 90g of pure maple syrup, applied about half to all the bellies, and then bagged them together in the fridge. (More discussion of the bacon-in-a-bag ‘dry’ cure method can be found here.)

Belly pieces with maple syrup cureI’ll apply the second half after 48 hours and re-arrange the bellies so they’re skin-side together for the second half of the curing process.  The total curing time would normally be 5 days for belly pork, but these pieces are thicker than usual, so I may decide to let them go a day longer, depending on the texture and appearance at the 5 day mark.  It would be great to get some maple smoke into some of them – but that’ll depend on the weather.  I’ll keep you posted!

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Maple Bacon – and a bonus summer salad

Every so often I ask my lovely husband for ideas – most recently last time I was making streaky bacon.  ‘What cure shall I use?’ I called out from the kitchen.  ‘Maple!’ he replied.  Right oh, maple bacon.  It’s a new one for us.  I ferreted around in the cupboard and dug out a bottle of pure maple syrup.  This was sounding plausible, after all!

[This bacon was made using a variation on the bacon-in-a-bag technique I wrote about the other week, so you should probably go and read that first if you’re not familiar with it.]

For my bacon, I used –

  • 480g piece of pork belly from our local farm butchers’ shop
  • 30g of supracure
  • 26g of pure maple syrup (really, buy the good stuff, not the blended rubbish)
  • A plastic bag big enough to contain the pork, and a sealed container for the cure.

I was aiming for an 8% total cure weight to the meat (lower than the 10% I normally use), with a 1/3rd to 2/3rd ratio of sugar to salt. This was in deference to the rather aggressive salt flavour I got from the outside pieces of my last bacon-in-a-bag effort.  I got the ratio right but slightly overcooked the total quantity, in this event.  You’re thinking now that my arithmetic doesn’t add up, and that 56g is clearly well over 10% of 480g.  You have to consider that maple syrup is about 40% water to 60% sugar (check the nutritional analysis on the back of the bottle for your particular sugar) so my 26g of syrup is in effect 15g of maple sugar, for a total dry-equivalent cure weight of 45g or ~9%.

Bacon-in-a-bag with maple cureThe mix of salt and syrup is not so much a dry cure, more of a ‘gloop’.  Put the pork in the plastic bag and rub all over with half the cure, massaging in well.  Seal the bag, excluding as much air as possible, and place it in the refrigerator.  Store the rest of the cure in an airtight container.  At least once a day (but in practice I tend to do this whenever I’m going to the fridge and remember) give the meat a bit of a massage, and return to the fridge the other way up.

Maple bacon after curingAfter two days, I poured off the pickle, and applied the rest of the cure.  After three more days (a total cure time of 5 days), remove the bacon from the fridge, rinse it under cold running water, dry carefully with kitchen paper and then wrap loosely in baking parchment and return it to the fridge for at least 24 hours (and preferably a few days) to rest.

Maple bacon, slicedYou’ll notice that compared to our previous bacon, this one is a lot paler in colour, and retains a much whiter rind.  Most of the change in the meat before and after curing is in the texture, with a slight pink flush to the meat.  This is because we’ve not added colour by using a dark sugar in this cure.  It slices very nicely!

Bacon pieces fryingAt this time of year, with the warmer weather, perhaps you don’t fancy a bacon roll so much as in winter?  For lunch on a hot day, I love a spinach and bacon salad.  It’s the quickest and simplest of light summer lunches.  First slice your bacon into lardons, and fry it off until slighty crispy.  This bacon cooks beautifully, caramelising very rapidly and rendering off lovely clean clear bacon fat.

Spinach and bacon salad with balsamic dressing

Then, toss your crispy bacon pieces, while still warm, into a big bowl of baby leaf spinach, dressing with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

The empty bowl

Doesn’t it look appetising??  It didn’t last long here!

We had a few more rashers for breakfast this morning.  We will certainly be making this one over and over again in the future.  In summary – this is great bacon, subtly flavoured, gently salted, with a gorgeous traditional bacon flavour.  Make it!

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Smoked Trout – so simple, so tasty, and all home-made

Smoked trout – like its close cousin smoked salmon – is one of the great ‘luxury’ foods.  I find I prefer it – the finished product, while it looks very similar to salmon, has a more delicate flavour with less of the aggressively-fishy oiliness which can characterise smoked salmon.  It’s much less readily available, too – and can certainly be expensive, a quick google suggests prices from £40 – £80 a kilo direct from a number of British producers.  Expect further mark-up in a smart London delicatessen!

Sliced home-smoked trout

Of course, if I were just writing this in praise of smoked trout and telling you to go and buy some from a smokehouse on the internet, it wouldn’t be the country skills blog!  Making smoked trout at home is straightforward, and produces a first-class product which is the match of anything you’ll buy from even the most up-market smokehouse or deli counter.  Better still, it costs a fraction of the commercial product.  The two fillets of rainbow trout I cured and smoked for this post cost the princely sum of £1.53, with a combined final weight of a little over 200g – including other ingredients and consumables, that’s a total cost of well below £10/kg.  A little luxury, then, that we can all afford to enjoy a bit more often!

You’re going to be eating this fish raw, effectively, so freshness is of the essence.  Choose a lovely fresh whole trout – with bright clear eyes, red gills and no ‘fishy’ smell – and have it descaled and filleted for you by the fishmonger (or do it yourself – it’s not that tricky really!).  Good quality farmed trout is readily available, even on supermarket fish counters, and if you can get hold of a lovely fresh wild fish, even better!  Avoid pre-packed fillets, whose freshness it is more difficult to be certain of.  Wash the fillets off carefully under the tap, to remove all the mucus coating from the skin.  Make sure you’ve removed all the rib bones and pin-bones (the small pointy bones that run along the middle of the fillet) – a pair of tweezers is very useful here.  This will take a few minutes, but is worth the effort to do properly.  Then rinse the fillets and dry them carefully with kitchen towel.   Weigh the fillets and make a note of this weight.

Trout fillets with cure appliedThe cure I use for trout and salmon is very simple – made up of 1/3rd sugar (golden caster sugar is my favourite here) and 2/3rd table salt.   I favour a short curing time – just overnight – with an excess of dry-cure so that the cure stays saturated throughout.  Be generous – you can afford to be, since the ingredient cost is very low – in the scale of pence for a couple of fillets.

Weighed down for curingYou want a thin layer of cure in your non-metallic dish below the fish, and a good coating over the top.  The photo gives a good idea of the sort of coating you’re aiming for.

You then want to weigh down the fillets to help draw water out – you’ll need to improvise something – I found a couple of plastic ‘take-away’ containers fitted very nicely in my dish, and then weighed them down with tin cans.  Don’t use anything metallic in direct contact with the curing fish.  Put the salted fillets in the fridge.

Cured fillets, next morningI would tend to get the cure going when I get home from work, having collected my fresh fish on the way home – so just before bed I turn the fillets over in the cure, and replace the weights before putting them back in the refrigerator.  The next morning, there will be quite a lot of liquid in the dish and most of the cure will have dissolved. Take the fillets out of the dish, noting the change in texture – the skin will have taken on a harder, almost cardboard character, and the flesh will be firmer and more translucent.  Rinse and dry the fillets, and weigh them again, and note down the reduction in weight.  My fillets had dropped from a starting weight of 256g to 220g at this stage – a 14% water loss.  You’re aiming for a final loss of ~18% by the end of the process, so that’s well on target. Now place the fillets on an open plate, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 24 hours before cold smoking.

You may have read this far, and are now thinking ‘well, that’s no use to me – who has a cold smoker at home?!’.  At it’s simplest, cold smoking requires two things – a source of cold smoke (from smouldering sawdust, for instance), and a space in which to contain it.  Last year, I built a wooden tower smoker, but there’s no need to start with a construction project.  A cardboard box, or a (clean!) upturned bin or barrel, rigged up creatively with a rack or two, will do just as well for the occasional smoking job!

ProQ cold smoke generator, litYou will need a smoke source, and I can heartily recommend the ProQ Cold Smoke Generator, which is a nifty little gadget which entirely takes any stress or complication out of the process.  It’s a little pricey (around £35 at this time), but will pay for itself incredibly quickly once you get the smoking bug!  It reliably provides 10 – 12 hours of cold smoke (depending on the temperature, humidity, and your sawdust choice) with very little heat production.  Have a look at the Supplier’s List for suggested sources of smoking and curing supplies.

Trout fillets, loaded in the smokerChoose a day without too much wind or rain (the occasional shower isn’t important), and where the temperature is roughly between 5 degrees and 15 degrees centigrade.  I’ve successfully smoked between 0 and 5 degrees but smoke penetration is less effective.  Colder, and your fish will freeze rather than taking smoke.  Warmer and the risk of spoilage increases considerably – though cold smoking temperatures up to about 20 degrees are cited in some places.  Get the smoker going first thing in the morning, and leave it for the day – though I would keep it under much closer supervision if using a cardboard box!.

I used a mix of alder and maple sawdust for this smoker burn (about 10% maple) – this produced a gorgeous neutral smoke-flavour with very little bitterness and with a noticeable ‘sweet’ note, presumably from the maple.  It’s definitely a mix I’ll use again in the future.

Trout, fresh from the smokerOnce the smoke generator has burned all the way through, unload your smoker, and take a final weight on your fillets. They should have lost another 4 – 5 %.  They will have a lovely orange-pink colour with a noticeable translucency and a glossy surface.  Then wrap them tightly in cling film, and freeze them.  Smoking fish in this way isn’t really a preserving mechanism, and storage time in the fridge is about 3 – 4 days.  Even if I’m going to eat them very soon, though, I tend to freeze them at this stage – a day or two in the freezer should ensure any parasites which may be present in the fish have been killed off.  You can keep them frozen for a couple of weeks without too much loss of quality, but after a month or so you’ll start to notice the deterioration.

Sliced smoked trout fillet

Once thawed, I slice the smoked trout thinly with a sharp knife, starting at the ‘head’ end of the fillet, at about a 45 degree angle.  There’s a bit of a knack to this, but you’ll get good at it really quickly – and who cares if the slices are thicker, or a bit uneven?  This produces small, almost translucent slices which are great for nibbles.  I love to serve these with water biscuits or oatcakes (or your preferred sort of cracker), cream cheese – or a soft goat’s cheese is also very nice, freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  But the limit is really your imagination.  Smoked trout with scrambled eggs on a toasted muffin is a beautifully indulgent breakfast!

I really do hope you chose to give home-smoked trout a try, and that however you prepare and enjoy it, it brings you as much foodie pleasure as it brings me!

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What’s Your Beef? Beth’s wonderful home-cured salt beef

Salt beef is quite a rarity these days.  I’m aware our American cousins (to whom it’s corned beef) think of it as an Irish thing and eat it with cabbage at St Patrick’s the way we eat haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night.  Despite having Irish heritage, I’ve never eaten salt beef, in this context or any other (honestly, Irish-American folks, that’s one tradition you’ve made up all for yourselves!).  But I was very excited to experiment with the idea when I saw a lovely rolled brisket of beef at our local farm butcher’s shop.

Cold sliced home-cured salt beef

A bit of asking around family brought me the information that my sister-in-law, Beth, and her family, were keen salt beef curers and consumers.  She kindly shared her recipe & process with me, which I’ve adapted slightly to suit my purposes.

Raw rolled beef brisket

You will require the following to salt your beef –

  • Piece of rolled beef brisket, mine was about 1kg, which was about right for a meal for two plus cold cuts, or would have served four for dinner.  You may need to find a real butcher’s shop, since brisket, despite being great value, is rather unfashionable and rarely available in the supermarket.
  • Curing salt (I used supracure, which is the pre-mixed salt-and-saltpetre mix I use for making bacon).  Alternately you can use plain salt with (or without) added saltpetre.  You won’t get quite the same flavour without the saltpetre, and the beef will be grey rather than the characteristic dark pink colour of salt beef.
  • Dark sugar, whatever sort you prefer
  • Whole peppercorns, juniper berries, cloves, bay leaves (dry or fresh), and a few sprigs of fresh thyme.  Or experiment with any other herbs / spices you think might work well!
  • A non-metallic bowl big enough to completely submerge your beef in
  • Large saucepan, kitchen scales & measuring jug

Herbs & spices for the brineOnce you’ve gathered all your tools and ingredients together, you need to make your brine.  First, work out how much brine you need.  Put your beef in the bowl and cover it completely with water.  Then take the beef out, and measure the water. That’s your target volume.

Now, for each litre of brine you require, weigh out the following into the saucepan –

  • 300g of supracure
  • 100g of dark sugar
  • Approximately 10 peppercorns, 6 juniper berries
  • A bay leaf, a clove, and a sprig of thyme (or whatever herbs and spices you fancy!)

Add the required volume of water (the more observant among you will notice that you’re going to end up with slightly more brine than you actually wanted, due to adding the dry ingredients – this is fine, don’t worry!) and heat to dissolve all the dry ingredients.  Boil the brine briskly for a few minutes, and then allow to cool (refrigerate once it’s at room temperature to get it down to about 5 degrees centigrade).

Beef in the brineOnce the brine is cold, add your beef.  Weigh it down with a small plate or saucer if required to keep it fully submerged.  This is quite a ‘hard’ (concentrated) brine and the beef will tend to want to float up in it.  Now put the bowl of brine & beef in the fridge, and apart from turning the beef over in the cure once a day, if you remember to, leave it alone. My 1kg piece of beef was in the brine for 5 days.  You’ll want a longer curing time for larger pieces of beef, perhaps up to 10 days or so.

After your curing time has elapsed, take your beef out of the brine.  It will have become considerably denser and firmer in texture (surprisingly so, in fact), as well as darker in colour.

After curing, soaking in fresh water

The alchemy that is salt-curing has happened now, so you’re going to want to soak the salt beef for 24 hours to reduce the saltiness of the finished product a bit.  Wash off the beef and submerge it in clean tap water (it will sink, so you don’t need to weigh it down this time) and return it to the fridge.  Change the water at least once during the 24 hours.

Salt beef after 24 hours soaking in fresh waterNow, either cook it straight away, or remove from the soaking water, and return, covered, to the fridge for a day or two until you plan to prepare it.

Salt beef with stock vegetablesI prepared my salt beef in the simplest way, by poaching it gently.  Add a quartered onion, a handful of roughly chopped carrots, a bay leaf and some peppercorns to the saucepan, and cover the beef with water.  You could also add some celery, but I don’t particularly like it.

Poaching liquid, after cookingBring to the boil and then simmer, covered, very gently for two and a half hours (longer for larger pieces), until it yields easily to a fork. Then remove it from the poaching water and rest for half an hour, covered with foil. The water you’ve poached the beef in will now look like a rich beef broth.

Sliced poached salt beefAfter resting, slice your beef thickly (it’ll fall apart if you try to slice it too thinly) and serve with your choice of side dishes.  Potatoes and cabbage appeared to be traditional (at least in some circles!) so I opted for boiled new potatoes and wilted spring greens, served with a white sauce made from a roux, some of the poaching liquor, a glug of cream and a big spoon of hot horseradish.

Salt beef with potatoes and spring greens

It was beautiful, though I say so myself.  The beef, served hot, is incredibly tender and succulent.  Cooled and sliced, the rest of the salt beef is also beautiful and will make cracking sandwiches.  It’s firm and dense, slices nicely, and has a lovely gentle aromatic flavour.  Home-cured salt beef is sure to become a regular culinary feature in our household.  If any of you have favourite ways of preparing or serving salt beef, I’d love to hear them.  Finally, thank you so much to Beth for her recipe and guidance, and I hope you all consider giving salt beef a try some time!

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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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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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Big Bacon Challenge: after the challenge – what now?

You’ve come to the end of the bacon challenge, hopefully sampled your efforts and agreed they are *good*, so where do you go from here?

I was very pleased (a teeny bit smug, even?) to hear that one of my volunteers has already dived in and ordered her own supply of Supracure – if you want to do the same, I can heartily recommend both HotSmoked and Weschenfelder (details in my Suppliers List) for curing and smoking supplies.  Both sell Supracure in 2kg packs for about six or seven pounds.

Before considering whether to do the same, and make curing a regular part of your culinary routine, it’s worth giving the costings a little thought.  By necessity this is just a snapshot – since food prices are constantly shifting – but it gives an indication.

Retail-packed back baconLet’s look at 1kg of back bacon.  On the basic recipe this will take 1kg of pork loin, 80g of curing salt and 20 g of sugar.  We’ll ignore the sugar for convenience, since it’s a small quantity and you almost certainly have it already.  The curing salt costs – round figures – about 30p.  So really it’s just the meat we need to consider.  You can generally get hold of bog-standard own-brand back bacon on ‘2 packs for £4’ type offers where the pack size is between 230g and 250g. Bearing in mind this bacon is about 13% added water, let’s call that an equivalent per kilo cost of about £9.

Compare with this, Tesco this week list their Rind-on Pork Loin Roasting Joint at 3.99/kg – admittedly a half-price special offer, but even the full cost of £7.99/kg represents a *small* saving.  The key to really making this work is to buy whatever’s cheap this week – be it loin or belly, or even belly slices.  It’s a pretty safe bet most supermarkets will be discounting something suitable at any given time.  Of course it pays to be flexible, but if you only like back bacon, buy loin when it’s cheap and freeze it – or make a big batch all at once and then freeze it once it’s bacon – personally I can see no difference in quality from doing this, though obviously you should do one or the other, not both!

To even start to compare like with like, though, it’s really good dry cured butcher’s bacon you need to consider – a spot of quick googling suggests this is for sale from various producers at about £15/kg.  So it’s clear that with a bit of canniness, not only is the end product fantastic, but there’s an easy 50% saving to be made on the cheap & nasty brine-injected supermarket commercial bacon offering, and a tidy 75% off the nearest equivalent butcher’s bacon.  Streaky bacon is usually a little cheaper than back, but since belly pork is a cheap cut par excellence, the maths for home-cured streaky bacon generally adds up just fine without depending on special offers.

Convinced?  Then you’ll need to decide what to try next.

My usual ‘house’ cure is actually a black pepper cure – essentially the cure we used for the Big Bacon Challenge, but with 3 grams of freshly ground black pepper (I recommend a pestle and mortar for this) added per 50-60g of cure mix (curing 500 – 600g of bacon).  This cure is great with or without smoking the bacon after curing – more of which later.

Juniper and Bay cure, and ingredientsIf your taste runs more to cooking bacon for stews and sauces than to breakfast rashers, perhaps try the bay and juniper cure, which produces a lovely deep rich aromatic flavour.

The limit to what to add to cures really is your imagination – within some basic limits on proportion of salt and sugar (I’ve used between 20% and 33% sugar with great success) – do some reading (perhaps look in the Library for inspiration) and see what you fancy!

I can’t leave the subject of bacon curing without a brief mention of smoking.  Not everyone likes smoked bacon, of course – though since commercial ‘smoked’ bacon has concentrated smoke-flavour added to the brine, and bears about as much resemblance to the real thing as Nescafé does to a real steaming espresso, perhaps it deserves a second chance..?

I’m British, so when I think about smoking bacon we’re talking about cold smoking.

The key to this process is bathing your cured meat in cold smoke over a period of several hours (I usually smoke my bacon for 10 – 12 hours), so you either have to produce your smoke consistently, and with as little heat as possible, within the smoking box, or produce hotter smoke at a distance from the box and then ‘duct’ it in allowing time for it to cool down.  It’s a tinkerer’s paradise, so please do consider it for a bit of a mad project – there are as many designs for DIY smokers as there are people who build them I think!

ProQ cold smoke generator, lit

We designed and built a wooden tower smoker – effectively just a fancy wooden box with some shelves in it – which I fill with smoke using a commercially available cold smoke sawdust burner.  I probably could have constructed a smoke generator very similar for not much money, but I wanted to start with something that would Just Work, the cost wasn’t prohibitive (around £20) and I don’t regret the decision.  It’s a great piece of culinary gear, think how much fun – and flavour! – you could have with smoked trout and salmon, smoked salt, smoked garlic and chillies, as well as your bacon!

Finally, a big thank-you to all my Big Bacon Challenge volunteers – looking forward very much to hearing what you all thought of your efforts  – and to the rest of my readers, thank you for your patience with the bacon-centric tone of the blog the last couple of weeks, normal service will be resumed very soon!

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: time to share and enjoy!

You’ve made your bacon, and now it’s time to sample it!

You can do anything with your home-cured bacon you can do with shop-bought bacon, and more.  Of course you can slice it and fry or grill it as part of a full english breakfast (or in a floury bap with ketchup, or in a sandwich with lettuce tomato and mayo).  You can dice it and enjoy it in stews and pasta sauces (think lardons or pancetta).  Really the only limit is your imagination.

Sliced home-cured streaky bacon

I recommend you sample your bacon for the first time cooked very plainly – sliced and fried or grilled – since you’ll get the best sense of what the flavour and texture is like this way.  Get a nice sharp long-bladed knife – it’s worth taking the extra couple of minutes to sharpen this if the blade isn’t quite up to scratch – and slice the bacon as thinly as you can.

Sliced home-cured baconYou’re not going to get it as thin as commercial bacon, but that’s fine – aim for about 2mm thickness, this should be very achievable with some practice.  It’s worth cutting a thicker piece off first to get a nice flat edge – this won’t go to waste as you can dice it for a stew or a sauce later.  Leave the rind on – you don’t have to eat it, you can always trim it off later.

Bacon in the panPut your sliced rashers into your frying pan on the hob, and wait for the sizzle.  This really will be the first sign you get that things are cooking.  What you won’t get is the pan full of white liquid we’re all so familiar with from commercial bacon, in fact it will stay completely dry until later in the cooking process when the fat starts to render.

Frying bacon in panCook your bacon, turning occasionally, until the fat is rendering and you have some lovely golden caramelised areas.  This bacon will take longer to cook than stuff from a packet – it’s sliced thicker, and it’s a lot denser, so be patient and take the time.

Bacon & egg breakfastThen serve in whatever way you like – we had ours with a fried egg and toasted muffin for breakfast.  The hens get a mention for the gorgeous fresh egg, too!

If there’s any bacon left over, wrap it up in the paper again and put it back in the fridge.  It will keep at least a week and usually two.  Don’t be tempted to seal it in a plastic bag, cling film or in a tupperware box, it’s a natural product and needs to breathe!

When you taste your bacon, please let me know what you think of it!  In the last post of the bacon challenge series, I’ll suggest some ideas of places your new skill might take you next!

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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