Update: This post describes my second attempt at making my own bacon, and goes into quite a bit of detail on what I learned about equilibrium curing and cold smoking. It’s definitely a good read, and please check it out. However, if you’re just getting started on making your own bacon, I strongly recommend also checking out my more recent comprehensive guide to bacon making, complete with wet and dry EQ cure calculators. Let me know what you think!
With my first attempt at bacon-making under my belt (quite literally, the results didn’t last long!), I was ready to try again. This time with a more scientific approach, using the lessons I learned from my first attempt. I planned to use very simple flavors so I could dial in the basics before adding creative seasonings. I also wanted to work on my cold smoking process, as I had some issues getting my pellets to light and stay lit during my first attempt at bacon. Read on for a ton of helpful information, or click here for the short version in bullet point format.
Preparing the EQ Cure
For a much more detailed discussion of ingredients for bacon-making, refer back to my last post. There, I tell you where to find pork belly (Costco for me), what cure #1 is and the purpose of nitrites, and why you should use the EQ or equilibrium method to cure bacon. This time, I planned to keep it very simple. No additional flavors, just cure, salt, and sugar. I wanted to figure out what percentages of salt and sugar best fit my family’s tastes, and I wanted to sample a wet cure along with a dry this time.
I decided to cut my belly into thirds this time. I used 2.5% salt for my dry cure, and made one batch with brown sugar and one with white at 1% of total weight. The third batch was cured in brine with white sugar. I used the handy dandy EQ calculators available on RealTree (for a wet/brine cure) and DiggingDogFarm to get my numbers, then weighed out my cure. Since my last post, I have purchased a new kitchen scale. My old scale only weighed out to the whole gram. My new one goes to the tenth of a gram, and was under $20 on amazon. It makes me a lot more comfortable measuring the tiny amounts of cure #1 needed for making bacon.
Once I had my cure ready for each slab of belly, I rubbed it down and placed it in a large, labeled zip-loc bag (double-bagged for my wet cure). I lugged them down to my basement beer/bacon fridge, and let them cure for 10 days. I religiously flipped them and rubbed them down daily, hoping to get better cure penetration this time around. One clear advantage of the wet cure was that the brine made flipping and rubbing a lot less necessary. The belly remained submerged in the solution for the entire 10 days, and I think this would definitely be a good choice if other commitments would prevent you from attending to your bacon daily during the cure.
Preparing to Cold-Smoke Bacon
Finally, the 10 days had passed. A general rule of thumb to follow for bacon-making is to let your bellies cure for one day for every quarter inch of thickness, then add two days for safety’s sake. With an EQ cure no harm will be done if it cures for too long, although it will get saltier over time. This belly measured two inches at its thickest point, so 10 days it was.
All three looked fantastic this time. The color and texture was uniform, with good firmness and pink color. From what I’ve read, grey discoloration alone isn’t actually problematic – it’s usually just the result of oxidation. I had texture issues as well, however, with one of the first pieces that I cured, and I wound up throwing it out to be on the safe side. I was glad to see that everything looked and felt great on my second try.
I pulled them out, and sliced off a couple of pieces to taste. We all thought they were just a bit salty, so all got soaked for two hours with a water change after one. I fried up another couple of slices, and they were right where we wanted them. Back into the fridge they went to form a pellicle prior to smoking.
What is a Pellicle?
The word pellicle means a thin outer skin, membrane, or film. In bacon-making, this refers to a slightly sticky coating that forms when the meat is exposed to dry air for a period of time. Air exposure reduces the amount of moisture in the surface proteins of the pork, which makes it tacky. When you smoke the meat, it helps the phenols from the smoke adhere better to its surface.
How to Form a Pellicle
The easiest thing to do is to take the bacon out of its cure, and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight. Hanging it or placing it on a non-reactive rack is best to maximize air exposure. When you take it out, you’ll notice that the texture feels a bit tacky – that’s what you want. I haven’t had this happen yet, but if you leave it sit for too long before smoking, the outer layer will become too thick for the smoke to penetrate. It’s better to leave the bacon in the cure for an extra couple of days than it is to pull it out and leave it to air dry for a week. On the other hand, if you don’t have time to let it sit overnight, you can go ahead and smoke the same day. After a proper cure, bacon is shelf-stable. You can form a pellicle quickly on the counter, by placing the bacon by a fan and drying it with airflow. You can also go ahead and smoke as-is if you desire. The flavor will penetrate the meat, it will usually just take a bit longer.
Cold Smoking Bacon
So far, I have only cold smoked bacon. I’ve read that it produces a product that crisps up a little better, and that’s my personal preference. I plan to try hot smoking next time, so I’ll talk more about the differences then. The principle behind cold smoking bacon is that the meat gains smoke flavor without being cooked in the process. Temperature are maintained under 86F (30C), and the meat is smoked for about six hours at a time.
Is Cold Smoking Bacon Safe?
If done properly, absolutely. Bacon is much safer to cold smoke than many other meats, since it will generally be cooked prior to serving. However, there is more risk involved in cold smoking than there is in hot. A smoker at 70-80F is right smack in the middle of the “danger zone” for botulism spore formation, and meat that has not been properly cured should never be left at these temperatures for any significant length of time. If you are using an EQ cure with an accurate scale, are using Prague Powder and not “natural” nitrites (e.g. celery salt) and are confident that your bacon has been cured properly, cold smoking is fine. If you are using any other cure, or have people in your family with fragile health or compromised immune systems, it might not be worth the risk. I’ll talk about hot smoking next time, and it might be more up your alley.
How to Smoke Without Heat
If the temp in your smoker climbs above 30C (86F), you really aren’t cold smoking. That means you can’t light charcoal or wood, or flip on your electric smoker to create that delicious smoke flavor. You need a way to flavor your food with smoke without heating it. You have a few different options.
Two Chamber Method
One common method of cold smoking is to create heat in one chamber, keep the food in a second (preferably with a block of ice), and allow only the smoke to transfer from the first chamber to the second. If you don’t already own a cold smoker attachment for your grill, you can DIY a setup by following the instructions here from Grill it Right. You’ll need two grills and a dryer tube for this method. Nick Dawson presents a similar setup, using a terra-cotta pot and a metal trash can, if you don’t have two grills. I’m not particularly handy, so I haven’t attempted either of these, but I’d love to hear how they work out for you if you try it!
Cold Smoker Attachment
There are various devices available that will attach to your existing electric smoker or grill and approximate a cold smoking environment. Masterbuilt makes a cold smoker attachment that fits almost all of their electric smokers, and there are other brands out there that are more universal. We have a Masterbuilt electric smoker, but opted not to buy the attachment just yet. There are two reasons we went a different route. First, our smoker is on its last legs. It has had some electrical problems, so we will likely replace it soon. We didn’t want to commit to this brand (although many people rave about it), since it started having issues after just a year.
Second, this attachment hooks right to the smoker, and therefore transfers some heat to the main chamber along with the smoke. Masterbuilt advertises a temperature range of 100-120F when using this device. For cold smoking bacon this temperature range isn’t a dealbreaker, since it will eventually be cooked through, but it’s not a good choice for things like cheese, dry sausage, or cured fish where its important that no cooking take place. I wanted a device that would give me a true cold smoke. Apparently there is a DIY solution – you can run a dryer hose between the cold smoking attachment and the smoker itself – but I went with option number three.
Cold Smoke Generators
These are some of the easiest products to use for cold smoking, right out of the box, and can be adapted to any smoker or grill. Some are electric, requiring an outlet and possibly a hole drilled into your existing grill or smoker. Others are tubes or trays meant to hold pellets or sawdust. They are lit manually and burn on their own until the medium is exhausted. Food Fire Friends compares some popular options, if you’re interested in reading more.
I had read great reviews online of the A-Maze-N brand of pellet and sawdust smokers, and they’re often recommended in the Makin’ Bacon Facebook group. I decided to go with their pellet maze, which is supposed to be able to produce smoke for up to 12 hours. They make their own brand of pellets, but I just picked up some hickory and applewood pellets from the grill section of my local home improvement store.
Tips for Pellet Cold Smoke Generators
While A-Maze-N pellet smokers require less setup work than the more DIY-intensive options, I still had some difficulty getting mine to work correctly. First off, you need something hotter than a regular lighter to get the pellets smoking. With my first batch of bacon, I tried a solution I’d read online – soaking a paper towel in vegetable oil, putting it into the maze, and lighting it on fire with a lighter. This worked better than the lighter alone, but didn’t produce the kind of smolder I was going for and the pellets didn’t stay lit for more than an hour or two.
Back to my computer I went to do more reading, and I wound up ordering a butane torch lighter. These produce a hot, sustained flame, and are used most often to caramelize the top of a creme brulee. They also produce enough heat to light pellets, and to keep them smoldering for several hours in a maze or tube. If you go the pellet smoking route, I highly recommend picking one of these up as well. Amazon has several options for under $20, and you’ll probably be able to find other uses for it in your kitchen as well! Load up your tray, and hold the torch over the end you’re lighting for a few solid minutes. This will allow enough pellets to light to produce a sustained burn.
Another point to remember with the pellet smokers is that the pellets won’t stay lit if they aren’t bone dry. Simply sitting in the bag can allow them to accumulate moisture, and that will make the fire go out more often. Many people recommend microwaving them for a minute or two prior to filling the smoker. It can’t hurt, and it may help.
In order to stay lit, a fire needs oxygen. Make sure that all of the vents are open on your smoker, and if using an electric smoker, open the chip tube loader and possibly the chip tray as well. The vents on top alone won’t likely be sufficient to keep the pellets lit. Check the smoker periodically and make sure things are still smoldering away – relight if necessary, and play with microwaving or letting more air in if you have problems.
My results: Cold Smoked, EQ-cured Bacon Three Ways
Absolute deliciousness! I cold smoked my bacon for a total of ten hours over two days. The first day I did have trouble keeping my maze lit, and only documented four hours of smoke time, but the second day went much better after trying some of the suggestions I listed above. I used a mixture of hickory and apple pellets.
After cold smoking, I hand sliced my bacon with granton 11″ slicing knife, and fried up some test pieces in my cast iron skillet. I gathered my family and had them all taste the bacon blind. The salt and smoke content was excellent. We were surprised to note that there was virtually no difference in flavor between the two dry-cured bellies. One cure used white sugar and the other brown, but the flavor of the brown sugar didn’t come through at 1%. We all gave a very slight edge to the wet brined bacon in texture, possibly due to more even penetration of the cure. Dry cured bacon, however, should be easier to add flavoring to since there isn’t a diluent.
Clearly we loved all three versions – ten pounds of bacon barely lasted two weeks. The differences were subtle to indistinguishable. My kids were heartbroken when we ran out on our camping trip, and I broke the news that we’d have to eat store-bought until mid-July! We were leaving for a 17 day trip to Spain, and I didn’t want to start another batch until after we returned.
What I Learned
- Wet and dry EQ (equilibrium) cures both work very well, and the differences are minimal – calculators are found here, here, and here
- At 1% sugar, we could not distinguish white sugar from brown in a dry EQ cure after time in the smoker – I would consider adding molasses if a brown sugar flavor is desired
- A pellicle helps smoke adhere better to the bacon, especially when cold smoking. If there isn’t time to let the belly sit overnight in the refrigerator, place it on the kitchen counter next to a fan for an hour. Then start the smoking process.
- You can DIY a cold smoker by using a dryer hose to connect two chambers: one with the meat, and the other with the heat (creating smoke)
- Pellet smoker mazes/tubes require: a STRONG flame to light (preferably a butane torch), good airflow to stay lit (open vents), and bone dry pellets
Steps for Cold Smoking Bacon with a Pellet Smoker
- Cure pork belly for 7-10 days, using a recipe that contains nitrites (Cure #1, Prague Powder, Instacure #1, Morton’s Tender Quick)
- Allow belly to rest uncovered – preferably in the fridge overnight – to form a pellicle
- Place belly into smoker – either hung on a hook, or set on a rack
- Prepare pellets by microwaving on high 1-2 minute to remove moisture
- Fill pellet maze or tube with pellets
- Using butane torch, hold flame on one end of smoker maze/tube for 3-5 minutes. Use a glove to handle smoker, as the metal will become hot
- Place maze/tube into smoker or grill, opening vents. Let fire burn for 15 minutes before blowing out flames.
- If outside weather is very warm, cool inside of smoker – consider placing large block of ice in with belly. Monitor temperature and attempt to keep smoker under 85F. Consider hot smoking instead on very hot days.
- Close door of smoker. Smoke bacon for up to six hours per session. Check every hour or two to ensure that maze/tube is still producing smoke – relight if needed.
- If a second or subsequent session is desired for heavier smoke flavor, let bacon rest in the refrigerator overnight and follow these directions again the next day.