How to Make Homemade Bacon: Ingredients and Equipment
Update Nov 9, 2019: This post is a great account of my first attempt at making my own bacon, and it’s worth your time to read. It details some of the mistakes that I made and lessons that I learned, as well as my successes. If you’re looking for a comprehensive beginner’s guide to bacon-making, I’d also recommend checking out my bacon making page. It has everything you need to get started, including customizable cure calculators. Please read on though, this post is great as well!
I’ve always been an adventurous eater, and an adventurous cook. Not much intimidates me in the kitchen, and I make as many of my ingredients as possible from scratch. However, one thing I had not yet attempted was curing my own meat. When I decided to devote a website to writing about bacon, it naturally followed that I would want to learn how to make my own. I’d like to share my bacon-making journey, so that you can learn from my successes and mistakes. It’s been a delicious trip so far!
The biggest hurdle involved in curing my first belly was figuring out where to find one, what supplies are needed, and what recipe to use. I’d advise starting simple with your first batch and learning the basics. Save maple espresso habanero lime bacon for later down the road. This isn’t a recipe post, by the way. There are links below to calculators below, and I’ll walk you through the process I took, but actual recipes will come in later posts. Read on to find out how I worked through the first few steps, and how my first belly (divided into two cures) turned out. Click here to jump to the short version of what I learned from the process.
Where to Start: How Do You Learn to Make Bacon?
Like just about anything else these days, you can learn to cure bacon on the internet. After starting this site, I stumbled across a Facebook group called Makin’ Bacon. The guy that started it also runs a website by the same name, makinbacon.net. There is a ton of valuable information in both places, and I highly encourage you to check them out if you’re going to embark on the bacon journey yourself. The FB group is large and active (as of May 2019), and the people are very helpful if you have questions about ingredients, techniques, or equipment,
I never use only one resource when I’m learning new techniques in the kitchen, so I read 47 more blog posts before whipping up my first batch of cure. I also read through the relevant sections of our copy of Rytek Kutas’s Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing, that I got my husband for Christmas a couple of years ago. It’s an excellent resource, and one that I highly recommend if you’re planning to dive deep into charcuterie.
One of the big things I noticed was that there many different ways to cure bacon, and each has staunch supporters and opponents. For the cure itself, should you use Morton’s? Prague Powder? Celery salt? Table salt? Should the cure be wet or dry? How long should the bacon be cured for? Does it even have to be pork belly, or can you use another part of the pig? Hot smoke or cold? There’s not just one right answer to most of these, apparently, so I decided to dive in and answer what I could for myself.
EQ Method of Curing Bacon
After reading as much as I could find, I decided to start curing bacon using the “EQ,” or equilibrium curing method. All that means is that I weighed out my curing salt and other ingredients precisely, instead of measuring in teaspoons and such. If you cure with Prague Powder #1 (AKA Instacure – more on this in a bit), the recommended amount is a mere 1 teaspoon for 5 pounds of meat. I’m a lot more comfortable weighing that out and knowing that I used exactly the right amount for say a 3.8 pound piece of belly, especially when a meat-curing mistake can result in deadly botulism.
There are three calculators that the bacon geeks recommend, listed below. For all of them, you weigh your belly and input that weight into the calculator. It then tells you how much each of Prague Powder, salt, sugar, and for wet cure water you’ll need in your cure. I started with a dry cure, and used Digging Dog Farm’s calculator.
- Wet Cure: RealTree.com
- Dry Cure with 2% Salt: Digging Dog Farm
- Dry Cure with 2.5% Salt: Local Food Heroes
How to Find Pork Belly
Traditional bacon is made from the fatty belly of the pig, and that’s what we’ll focus on here. I’ve bought pork belly in the past, usually from an Asian grocery store, but I remember the quantities being on the smaller side. We only recently moved to Green Bay, and I hadn’t yet tried to find it here in town. My first few attempts were whiffs, but a phone call confirmed that Costco carried it, which meant I had to rejoin. Places to look for pork belly in the US are:
- Costco/Sam’s Club (membership required)
- International grocery
- Butcher shop/Meat market, or ask at the meat counter of a larger supermarket
- Local hog producer
Make sure you’re buying a whole pork belly or portion of one, not one that has been pre-sliced. My local Costco carries them in the 9-10 pound range, but if you can only find a 3 pound belly the recipes will still work. Check to see if your belly has the skin on. Don’t confuse the skin with the fat (I almost did the first time). If it has skin, it should be pretty obvious. It will be a hard and thin layer, separate from the pure white fat. The skin needs to be removed in order to make bacon. If you’re planning to cold smoke, remove it now. If you’re going to hot smoke, you can wait and remove it after curing and smoking. The bellies at my Costco do not have skin, but there’s a video here on how to remove it if yours does.
Nitrites in Bacon: What are They and Why Should You Care?
You may have heard something about nitrites in meat, or noticed that some bacon labels advertise, “nitrate-free.” What are nitrites and nitrates, and why should you care? Both are chemical compounds consisting of a nitrogen atom bonded to two (nitrite) or three (nitrate) oxygen atoms. Nitrates are reduced (chemically converted) in the body to nitrites, which is then reduced to nitric oxide – a beneficial substance. Nitrites are also the substance that differentiates curing salt from salt.
What is a “curing salt”? Unlike regular table salt, which is composed almost entirely of sodium chloride (NaCl), curing salts also contain nitrites (usually) or nitrates. These nitrogen-containing compounds serve several purposed in cured meats. They give cured meats their characteristic flavor and pink color, and more importantly serve to inhibit the growth of clostridium botulinum (the organism responsible for botulism) in preserved meats. They makes bacon shelf-stable, and allows it to be cold-smoked in the bacterial “danger zone”, with temps between 40-140F. It also extends the life of refrigerated bacon to several weeks or even months. The nitrites themselves, however, can be problematic.
Clostridium bacteria can produce spores in improperly cured meat, which cause botulism when ingested. This spore production is increased if bacon is kept at a temperature above 40F but below 140F, as is the case when bacon is cold-smoked. Botulism toxin is a muscle relaxant, or paralytic. It works similarly to a class of medications I use in my anesthesia practice, and trust me when I say you don’t want it running rampant in your body if you’re not anesthetized. When ingested, it often starts with fairly innocuous gastrointestinal symptoms. Generalized muscle weakness then develops, starting at the head and working its way down. If not treated in time it can cause breathing problems, which can lead to death.
Fortunately, it’s really easy to prevent the formation of botulism toxin in cured meat – use nitrites. There is a flip side to this coin. Many people have been warned against consuming nitrites and nitrates, over fears of their carcinogenic properties. Fortunately, there is significantly more nitrite present in things like celery, beets, and even your own saliva than in properly cured bacon and other meats. Nitrites and nitrates are converted in the body to nitric oxide, which does great things like reduce blood pressure and improve blood flow to various organs.
Unfortunately, when bacon is cooked, the nitrites are converted to nitrosamines. Daily consumption of bacon has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer, and well-done bacon is the worst culprit. The FDA has taken steps to reduce the amount of nitrite used in cured bacon to the minimum needed to prevent botulism, but there is some risk if your bacon contains nitrites.
Many “nitrite-free” bacons are cured using so-called “natural” nitrites derived from celery or other vegetables. This is not actually better. Many of these products actually have a higher concentration of nitrates and nitrites than traditionally cured bacon. The actual amount of nitrite in these meats is also unregulated, so there is no way to know whether there is enough to inhibit botulism or so much that your cancer risk is increased.
Bottom line, you have to decide what your risk tolerance is. I’m not willing to risk botulism, so I choose to cure with the small amount of nitrite present in curing salt. I would rather have direct control, so I use a regulated product (Prague Powder #1) instead of something “natural” like celery salt.
If you choose to use only nitrite-free kosher or sea salt to cure your bacon, be aware that you must be very respectful of food safety rules. Do not cold-smoke it, as your risk for food-borne illness will increase significantly while the meat is in the temperature “danger zone” for six hour smoking sessions. You may hot-smoke it at a temperature over 140F, and then promptly refrigerate it. It should also be cooked thoroughly prior to serving. It will have a different taste and color to store-bought bacon, and it will have a short shelf-life even when refrigerated. I have plenty of pork belly recipes that call for a 24 hour dry brine – there’s nothing wrong with seasoning a belly with sugar and salt and then cooking it thoroughly. You just need to realize that the nitrites serve a purpose, and that by leaving them out you need to treat the belly as you would any other raw meat.
There is quite a bit of pseudoscience out there on the issue of nitrites, nitrates, and nitrosamines. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. If you’re interested in more information, I highly recommend reading Rytek Kutas’s book linked above, and I’m linking some reasonable sources below.
What is Curing Salt?
Curing salts, broadly, are a combination of sodium chloride (NaCl, table salt), sodium nitrite (NaNO2), sodium nitrate (NaNO3), anti-caking agents, and usually pink dye. There are a few different types: Prague Powder/Instacure #1 and #2, and Morton’s Tender Quick. There are also commercially available “bacon cure” products, that should contain everything you need to, well, cure some bacon. If you purchase one of those, just make sure you follow the directions exactly regarding the ratio of cure to meat.
Prague Powder #1
Prague Powder or Instacure #1 is what we typically use to cure bacon. It consists of 6.25% sodium nitrite, 93.75% sodium chloride, and trace amounts of anti-caking agent and pink dye (to differentiate it from table salt). Note that it is NOT the same as Himalayan pink salt – common misconception among newbies. If you don’t have a butcher shop nearby that does meat processing you’ll probably have to order it, but I got mine in two days from Amazon. One teaspoon is all that is needed to cure five pounds of pork belly. This is why I choose to use the EQ, or equilibrium method and weigh out my cure ingredients. This stuff is so potent that I didn’t want to be off by half a gram.
Prague Powder #2
Prague Powder or Instacure #2, also sold as SlowCure, is not what you want for bacon. It consists of 6.25% sodium nitrite, 4.75% sodium nitrate, 89% sodium chloride, and anti-caking agents and pink dye. It is intended for longer-cured meats such as salamis and prosciutto – the nitrates are slowly converted to nitrites, allowing the cure to act over months.
Morton’s Tender Quick
Tender Quick is much less concentrated. It consists of 0.5% each of sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, blended with salt, sugar, and a bit of preservative. The amount needed is much higher – 1 tablespoon per pound of meat – so your measurements don’t need to be as exact. Most bacon recipes that I see, however, call for Prague Powder, and you cannot substitute one for the other.
My First Attempt at Curing Bacon
So, I did all of my research, ordered my curing salt, and tracked down a 9 pound pork belly from Costco. Finally, I was ready! Or so I thought. I cut my bellies in half, and weighed each portion. I was all prepared to get creative with my cures, and decided on garlic black pepper brown sugar for one half, and a spicy maple for the other. Mind you I had no idea what I was doing. I plugged the weight of my belly halves into the Digging Dog Farms calculator, and got the following:
First of all, the 6.25% in the nitrite box does not mean that the cure should include curing salt at 6.25% of the weight of your belly+cure. It refers to the fact that you should use Prague Powder/Instacure #1, and the actual weight as a percentage of the total is 0.25%. If I were creating a calculator, I would word it differently.
When you enter your values, first input the weight of the pork belly. You can’t change the Nitrite box. You can change the salt and sugar content, and it’s OK to play with those a little. This calculator defaults to 2% salt, but I tried #2 a bit higher since some recipes call for 2.5%. To #1, I added (unweighed) 1/2 tsp cayenne, 1 tsp granulated garlic, 1 tsp paprika, and 1/4 cup maple syrup. To #2, I added 2 tsp of black pepper, 1 tsp granulated garlic, and split the sugar half and half between white and brown.
I learned with this first attempt that I needed a new kitchen scale. Mine only measured to the gram, and estimating the amount of curing salt needed made me uncomfortable. I went ahead with it though, and got everything measured out and rubbed all over the bellies. I bagged each half belly in a one gallon bag, and stuck them in my basement refrigerator to cure. The plan was to cure them for 10 days, but we went out of town the last weekend and they wound up staying in the cure for 12. I also meant to flip and rub them every day, but forgot several times. All of these things may have played a role in what happened next.
When time was up, I excitedly took my bellies out of their cure, and let them sit on a metal rack (another mistake) in the refrigerator overnight to form a pellicle (help the smoke flavor adhere better). Resting your bacon on metal can cause a green discoloration to the meat. It isn’t harmful, but it isn’t pretty either.
I brought them upstairs to the kitchen the next day, and realized that I had a problem. Belly #2 looked great, but belly #1 didn’t seem to have cured appropriately. The color and texture were both uneven, and seemed to match. The pinker areas were firm, like all of belly #2, and the grayer areas were very fleshy. It may have just needed more time in the cure. It may also have been fine to eat, especially if hot-smoked and/or eaten within the next week, but out of an abundance of caution I decided not to chance it. I shed a few tears, and belly #1 went into the trash.
Why do I think one of my bellies didn’t cure appropriately? I think a few factors played into it. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.
- Imprecise kitchen scale that only measured to the whole gram
- Turning bacon every 2-3 days instead of nightly in a dry cure
- Adding heavy, wet ingredients (maple syrup) to a dry cure without adjusting my total weight. Maple sugar would have been a better choice, and I should have substituted it for the sugar amount given by the calculator
With some trepidation, I proceeded to smoke belly #2. I’ll discuss hot versus cold smoking in a later post, but I went with cold smoke this time. We have a Masterbuilt electric smoker, which I used simply as a ventilated box. I bought an A-maze-n pellet smoker maze and some applewood pellets, placed that on the bottom shelf, and placed the belly on the top. The pellets are a bit hard to light – I didn’t have a butane torch lighter yet, so after some googling I soaked a paper towel in vegetable oil and used that to get enough of a burn to get the pellets to start smoking. I smoked for 6 hours with no other heat source in the smoker. You do want to be careful trying to do this in hot weather – many people hot smoke in the summer, or place a giant ice cube in the smoker to keep the meat from getting too warm. It was April in Wisconsin, however, so outdoor temps were in the low 50s. For more about cold smoking bacon, read about my second attempt here.
I let the bacon rest for another day, and then tried hand-slicing. I have a pretty solid knife collection, but didn’t quite have anything with a long and thin enough blade to do a good job with it. We had enough to all have a taste, and immediately fall in love with the bacon, but I was back to Amazon Prime to find a better slicing knife. I went the inexpensive route with this 11-inch granton-edged slicer, and had much better results. When you go to slice your bacon, place it in the freezer for an hour beforehand. It’s a good tip for any thin-sliced meat. Throw it back in for a little longer if it gets too pliable partway through slicing. I did get a bit of a hand cramp slicing just 4 pounds, so down the road an actual meat slicer might be in the cards, but while I’m learning hand-slicing is fine. Tedious, but gets the job done.
My next task was the best part – fry it up and enjoy! My favorite way to cook bacon of any kind is in a cast-iron skillet, but I have an entire post on how to cook bacon that you can check out if you’d like to learn more.
What I Learned
- Where to buy pork belly: Costco is your best bet in the US, but try Asian groceries, meat markets, and butcher counters as well
- Use the EQ curing method with an accurate (to the tenth or hundredth gram) kitchen scale. Calculators are found here, here, and here
- The “curing salt” called for in these recipes is known as Prague Powder #1 or Instacure, and contains 6.25% nitrite
- Nitrite prevents the growth of botulism, but some people worry about possible increased cancer risks with high consumption. I use nitrites in my cure, and you can scroll up for a discussion of why
- Start simple for your first batch – you can add complicated flavors once you’ve got the basic cure down
- Try to flip your bacon daily, especially if using a dry cure
- Cure bacon for one day per 1/4″ of belly thickness, plus two extra days to be safe – this is usually about 10 days total
- Let your bellies dry in the refrigerator for a day prior to smoking
- Do not place bellies on a metal rack – it causes discoloration
- Get a butane torch prior to your first smoke if you’re using pellets – trust me, it will make your life way easier
- Enjoy the journey! Even though I had problems with my first attempt, the bacon that resulted was amazing. Learn from your mistakes and keep tweaking it!
- To continue along and read about my second attempt, click here!
- Homemade Bacon Making – A Comprehensive Guide with Cure Calculators