Taking the Bacon Plunge!

   
Can you say "Bacon"?!? (I knew you could!)

After spending the summer and fall reading bacon threads and seeing bacon pictures, the time has come to take the Bacon Plunge!

I stopped by RD and picked up a case of skinless pork bellies. For those of you who may be wondering, a case of bellies contains three cryovac packages, each containing one belly and weighing approximately 9-10 pounds. The case I bought was just over 30 pounds and the meat was frozen.

Each belly was folded over in the cryo for packaging. Unfolded they were about 20-22 inches long and about 9 inches wide. I could see that cutting them in half would make the resulting 11 x 9 slabs much easier to work with.
    

    
We opened up each package, dried the surface with paper towels and spread out on the cutting board. We cleaned up the ragged ends on each of them but waited to clean up the long edges until we had cut the whole bellies down to the sizes we wanted for our individual slabs. We lost about an inch from each end.
    

    
For the first belly, we decided to do a Brown Sugar & Black Pepper cure. We started by cutting the belly into two sections, each being about 9" x 9" square. We found some great information online regarding the formula for making the basic cure, whose components are Salt, Sugar & Curing Salt also known as Pink Salt or Cure #1. We weighed each of the slabs, applied the formula and then weighed out the basic cure based upon the weight of the slab. We then mixed the brown sugar, black pepper and other seasonings into the basic cure. That mixture was then rubbed into all sides of the meat.
    

    
This is how one of those slabs looked when all of the cure mixture had been applied.
    

    
Since the formula for curing is pretty precise, we used a dough scraper to gather up the cure left on the board and get it all onto the meat. As you can see, quite a bit would have been left behind.
    

    
The next step was to place the slab into a vacuum bag and seal it up. We removed most of the air from the bag but didn't try to pull a vacuum on it. We left some room for moisture to accumulate once the cure begins to draw it out of the slab.
    

    
About halfway through the curing process and liquid was being drawn out of the bellies. A few more days of curing and then on to the pellicle formation and cold smoking processes!
    

    
We ran a 6-day cure on the first batch of bellies and then removed them from the bags, rinsed them thoroughly under cold running water and patted them dry with paper towels. We then placed them on wire racks within sheet pans and placed the sheet pans in the refrigerator overnight to allow ample time for the pellicle to form.

Then, the cold smoking process.  The first thing to do was to set up the 22" WSM. We used an empty but foiled pan to catch anything that may drip out of the meat and the bottom cooking grate was in place as a safety net in the event of a catastrophe. The last step was to put the Weber Smoking Rack in place.
    

    
How to hang the bacon was always a question. A package of Raft Skewers from Home Depot (about $6.00) was the answer. All we had to do was put a strategic bend into each of them.
    

    
If you recall, these bellies were skinless so the modified Raft Skewers easily pierced through the fat cap and slid right through.
    

    
Once outside, it was time to load up the 12" A-MAZE-N tube. We decided to be conservative and use a fruit wood instead of something like hickory to help avoid over smoking the meat. We used Green Mountain Grills Premium Fruitwood Blend which is actually a blend of cherry, beech and pecan. Using a pitcher was a very easy way to load the tube.
    

    
We lit the pellets with a small propane torch and let it burn for about 10 minutes...
    

    
...before placing it on the charcoal grate at the bottom of the smoker.
    

    
We hung the meat on the smoking rack and then watched the smoke begin to rise before putting the lid in place!
    

    
The 12" A-MAZE-N tube will burn for about 4 hours and this is what the meat looked like when it was time to reload with another round of pellets. It was a cool day here in Phoenix and the cooker never got any hotter than 90░F and spent most of the time running between 75░F - 80░F. We ran the cooker with all of the bottom vents open and the top vent wide open as well.
    

    
At the 8 hour mark, we pulled off a couple of the slabs and cut a slices off to test. Don't waste your time taste testing the very end slice as it will be very, very smokey and not a good representation of just how much smoke the meat took (although it's awesome for flavoring other dishes!). We liked where they were so we pulled them off, wrapped them in plastic and refrigerated them overnight to allow them to firm up. In the morning, we pulled out the slabs to slice and test. We were slicing by hand with a Forschner granton edge slicer and quickly learned that cutting the slab in half first made slicing evenly much easier.
    

    
Time to cook! We like to use the oven when cooking bacon so we arranged some slices on a wire rack placed inside a baking sheet and cooked the bacon at 350░F for about 18 minutes.
    

    
The end result. And, yes, it tastes as good as it looks!
    
So, what did we learn?

Well, the first thing we learned is that we did allow the meat to spend too much time in the smoker. We think it would have been much better after just 4 hours and that is where we'll do our first test slices when we run the next batch. The other thing we're going to do is attach a 5 cfm fan to the smoker and run it continuously during the smoking process to increase the airflow. We think the tight confines of the WSM and the slow, natural airflow may have allowed the smoke to linger too long in the cooker and that increased airflow will help. These slices were not full-on bitter but you could tell they were a bit over smoked.
    
Overall, not a bad first effort.
    

 

    


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