High-quality, dry-cured, streaky bacon retails for around £25 a kilo. I can buy a kilo of organic, free-range, pork belly for £10. The ingredients needed to cure it, most of which I have – salt, molasses sugar (or maple syrup, which I don’t have), black pepper and maybe a few herbs – will cost very little, a couple of pounds at most, even if I have to buy maple syrup**. The main ingredient – time – is free.
**This has a remarkably short shelf life, surprisingly – just 4 weeks from opening, so don’t get carried away and buy more than you can use.
So, making my own will cost me less than half the price of buying it** – gives you a good idea of the profit margin on the commercial version. I’ve found some rather good free-range, organic, pork belly at Graig Farm. And when I’ve gained experience, I can move on to the much thicker back bacon, made from the boned loin, which will take longer to cure.
**Except for the small detail of the delivery charge, but buying other meat as well will help to offset that.
I’ve also bought a bacon slicer, having discovered how much harder it is to slice cured meat than raw, when slicing the panceta, so I didn’t fancy slicing a kilo or more of bacon by hand. Anyway, bacon needs to be uniform in thickness, and I like it quite thin, too (I’d far rather have several layers of thin rashers in a sarnie than one layer of thick ones).
Having had a look at what was available (and affordable), it came down to an all-plastic job which, frankly, looked a bit toytown, from Lakeland (£41), and an all-metal and far more robust machine for £4 more, from Amazon. Absolutely no contest.
It comes with three blades, too, for different products.
The big question, when curing meat, is whether or not to include sodium nitrite in the cure. The stuff itself is toxic in quantity (but you’d have to eat an absurd amount of bacon – pretty much have to live on the stuff – to ingest a dangerous amount). The big problem is that the metabolites of sodium nitrite have been implicated in cancer. However, I’ve been eating commercially-cured bacon for most of my life, and have come to no harm, just like most people, and it does protect against the admittedly very slight risk of botulism (an even bigger risk with sausages, allegedly, but I’m still unscathed).
I’m thinking of smoking some too. I loathe commercially-produced smoked bacon – tastes like it’s been rescued from a warehouse fire – but I think my own, cured with maple syrup and smoked over applewood chips might be pretty good. It’d have to be done outside – damn smoke alarms here are connected to the fire station – so I’ll wait until Spring, buy a small smoker, and do it outside in the garden.
Small smokers are fiddly and need a lot of attention, but cost about £40. A self-contained, automated, smoker is around £500 and pretty much needs its own shed. For me, one of these will get the job done – a stove-top smoker than I can use outside with a camping stove as the heat source.
I don’t want something so heavily smoked it’ll last forever, just given a little flavour, and that will be ideal. I might have to add more wood chips in the middle of the process, but that’s hardly onerous, as long as I’m upwind!
And yes, I do know a barbecue can be used – the lidded/kettle type – but I don’t have the room or the inclination. The above has the benefits of simplicity, ease of use, and portability – it has to be capable of being bagged up and carried on my powerchair. Try that with a kettle barbie!
And in case anyone’s wondering, after making sausages, why I’m going off at a tangent, I’m not really – I’ll have my own sausages, bacon, and black pudding – but it’s a fact that sausages are a logistical nightmare, needing two good days, health-wise, in succession, whereas back pudding/morcilla only needs a couple of hours in the same day, and there’s lots of scope for resting, and bacon takes just 3 sessions of about 15 minutes each, and each a week apart, the first one to prepare and apply the cure, the second to wash, dry and hang it in the cold bedroom, the third to slice it.
I don’t know, the way things are, if I can get back to making sausages, but I have started baking bread again, which I hope is a good sign, but I can sure as hell make black pudding and bacon, and panceta too, when I’ve used my first batch.
And, of course, as I’ve said elsewhere, I love learning how to do new things – when you can’t be bothered to learn anything new, you might as well check your life insurance policy and call it a day. And I’m serious about that – life is one long learning curve. Of course, none of us will like the last thing we learn, but we have no say in the matter – until that day comes, though, life is full of new experiences to be explored, and/or new things to learn how to do. I might be stuck indoors (and on wheels very soon), which puts a crimp in the new experiences, but that doesn’t mean the learning stops. There’s always something…
Coming up quite soon, I hope, is faggots and gravy, with chorizo, pastrami, and haggis on the agenda. Both haggis and chorizo, because of the way they’re made, can be spread over 3 days and come to no harm, possibly 4 for the haggis, so hopefully they can all be done over the winter.
Recipes, for the bacon and other stuff, will be published in due course.
As always, watch this space…