As recently as 2011, fresh pork bellies (slated to BECOME cured) were actually traded as commodities on stock exchanges in Chicago and elsewhere. Contract buyers would agree to take delivery, from the seller, a specific quantity of pork bellies (eg. 40,000 pounds) at a predetermined price on a future delivery date. Many investors believed that the price/lb was somehow representative of overall micro-trends in the American economy, so buying and selling were based on short-term prognostication.
None of the buyers or sellers actually ever took possession of the pork bellies. They would just trade them back and forth until some meat packer was ready to take delivery. Sometimes, they would be held too long and spoil, and the investor would lose his capital. Interest waned and Wall Street started speculating in other commodities.
What are the Vegas odds on Berkshires?
Happily, prognosticating next week’s price for pork bellies had already become part of American comedians’ lexicon. Building castles in the air with bacon that isn’t even bacon yet has a seemingly foolish, comedic irony about it, but I suppose at least a few fortunes were made and lost in this industry. Smoke and mirrors, hickory or pecan, perhaps.
Better to smoke cured pork than to just blow smoke
Pork bellies (there are two per pig), comprise about 12% of the animal’s total weight. You have to wonder what they do with the rest of all those pigs because bacon is so popular. Until the 90’s, I don’t remember really seeing them in any form other than cured for bacon, along with the occasional Pancetta. They had a history in American peasant cuisine, all cooked up with greens and so forth. But the bacon that we serve for breakfast, on sandwiches, and even burgers still dominated. Forty some odd years ago,
wonder what they do with the rest of all those pigs because bacon is so popular. Until the 90’s, I don’t remember really seeing them in any form other than cured for bacon, along with the occasional Pancetta. They had a history in American peasant cuisine, all cooked up with greens and so forth. But the bacon that we serve for breakfast, on sandwiches, and even burgers still dominated. Forty some odd years ago, Denny’s featured a “British Burger” that combined bacon with the usual burger fare. We thought that was really pushing the envelope!
I worked at Denny’s for a short while, resigning just before I most surely would have gotten fired. I used to get in trouble for eating the British Burgers. They weren’t on the employee menu. We were supposed to eat salads.
How can you call it a salad if it doesn’t have cured pork on it?
The prices on pork bellies at Costco do seem to fluctuate quite a bit. When they introduced them just a few months ago, I saw them at $1.95/lb, and I’ve seen them since then as high as $2.95/lb. Retail markets offer them to the unwary shopper as high as $7/lb, Fully prepared bacon costs even more than that, in spite of the fact that there’s very little waste in curing pork bellies.
At home, curing meat is a little time consuming and requires space in the refrigerator for at least a couple of weeks. Large scale producers can accelerate that process with specially designed equipment. Bacon is a high margin item, and that’s why the big meat packers would rather you NOT find out how easy it is. Some would have us believe that the curing process is expensive, complicated and dangerous for that very reason — the almighty dollar. Steak is not an everyday item, but bacon plugs away, appearing on breakfast plates with persistent regularity. It’s part of our culture.
Maybe that’s why they named the band “The Cure”
$2.50/lb or thereabouts is a pretty good price, even though you can find leaner cuts of pork for less. It’s all about perceived desirability. I have to admit, I’d rather have pork belly in one of its many forms than boneless pork loin, which is pretty stable around $2/lb. Pork loin is the anatomical equivalent of the New York and Rib Eye steaks from a steer. I just don’t care. I’d still rather have pork belly.
Now that we’ve dispensed with the Jeopardy answers, what we’re gonna do here is demonstrate just how easy it is to cure pork belly, and how bacon is only one of many things that you can create with this simple, ancient process.
- Here’s the whole thing, minus the skin, which is the way Costco sells them. Removing the skin is what creates that sort of corrugated appearance on the fat cap.
- Bellies can be purchased and processed with skin on, too. With Sous Vide, they can be made just as tender as the rest of the cut.
- The skin is a little difficult to remove for the novice. If you want to make chicharrones out of them, ALL that fat has to be scraped off in order to make it work. It’s actually more work making the chicharrones than it is making the bacon.
- Some butchers will send the skin, which means they remove it, but include it in your delivery.
Blocked Hogs for the Block, Cured Pork for the WIN
- There are many ways to do this, and they’re all wrong, and all right, depending on who you talk to. I lay no claim to correctness or authenticity–this is just how I did them this time, I blocked the belly by cutting off the ends, about a pound each. We’re going to process those without curing.
- They look a little ragged, but have a good balance of meat to fat. Or is it fat to meat?
- I cut each one in half and set aside.
- Much to the horror of purists, I then split the belly lengthwise. This precludes the end result from looking like traditional bacon. One of these days, the Pork Patrol will come knocking. Until then, we throw caution to the wind!
- I cut each section in half, giving me chunks of about 4.5 lbs/each, which is a perfect size for the Ziploc Gallon bag.
There’s no shame in rubbing a belly now and then
- I was fortunate to come across a product made by Morton’s that they call “Sugar Cure” at the local Fred Meyer’s. I suspect they’re closing this product out because I got 8 lbs for $2. BTW, that name is a whimsical misnomer, and almost all cures have some sugar in them, even though it has little effect on the meat if any. The curing is actually caused by a chemical reaction between muscle, salt, and sodium nitrite. The sugar serves to help distribute the other components. That slightly “syrupy” consistency helps the cure stick to the meat. Even so, some cures have no sugar at all.
- Usually, I make my own cure. It’s not difficult, but if you buy the premade stuff, you just follow the very simple directions. In most cases, only 1 Tablespoon of cure per lb is required.
- The cure is approx 2/3 NaCl (salt, not iodized), 1/3 sugar, and less than .05% Sodium Nitrite by weight — a truly minuscule amount that has extremely effective anti-bacterial properties. Curing is actually MORE effective in this regard than FREEZING. I’m going to skim over the whole discussion about nitrates and nitrites and what goes into hot dogs and all that for now. Sodium nitrite is common, and celery has a high concentration of it, as do our own mouths. We will proceed with the assumption that the curing of meat is safe. It had better be because it is so widely practiced worldwide.
Can so many cured pork belly lovers be WRONG?
- Curing requires about a week per inch to fully penetrate muscle. Since it’s applied over the entire cut, it need only penetrate to the center. That means pork bellies take about 2 weeks to cure. Whole hams may take considerably longer, and require more than one application. Contrary to a common belief, wet curing actually takes almost TWICE as long to achieve the same result. I rarely use wet brining, there’s really no point. Again, as hard as it is to accept, ONLY sodium ions can actually penetrate the complex matrix of tangled proteins of which meat is comprised. All other molecules, including flavonoids (yes, there is such a thing), are just too big. Some components of smoke can penetrate the muscle, but smoke is not generally defined as an actual “flavor.” In some cases, smoke cannot only penetrate the muscle, some of its ingredients can pass all the way through. Smoke dissipates, and that’s actually a good thing. ALL smoke is highly toxic.
- Like fire, curing and cooking were both almost certainly accidental discoveries. Without them, there’s a good chance that humans wouldn’t even be here now, at least not in these large numbers. Ancient civilizations had a hard time providing fresh food every day year round. Learning how to preserve food played an essential role in human expansion. For better or for worse, I’m going to leave that right there.
140Fx12 hours, or until pinch is passed…I pronounce this pork cured, and cooked
- After Sous Vide processing, your section of pork belly will look like this.
- When you cut into it, you will see the characteristic pink hue. The color is NOT caused by dyes of any kind (a common misconception) but is the result of the chemical reaction between the muscle and the sodium ions.
- If you’re like me, you stop here and do a taste test. After all, well, never mind. Fry some, just like bacon. I like to sprinkle a little cracked pepper on it.
- Which is what I did, just like bacon.
- It worked.
- The pork belly is cooked, safe, and can be sliced and fried just like bacon or pancetta. It can also be smoked low, as they say, @225 for an hour or two, and it will pick up a lot of smoke flavor. There’s no shame in painting a little liquid smoke on there, either. Really, it’s okay.
- I’m going to create a rub crust using equal amounts of the four spices pictured above, including garlic powder, which is under the fennel seeds. Do not use a rub with salt–it’s already in the meat.
- The smoked paprika will be the most visible.
- Here’s the secret part. Keep an open mind. Sprinkle the top (or the whole thing) with flour, which will stick to the slightly moist surface.
- Separate an egg, and save the yolk for something else. Covered with a few drops of water, it will keep in the fridge for at least three days.
- Beat the egg white a little bit, and paint the meat with it. This will create a very sticky surface.
We have sprinkles in the forecast
- Sprinkle generously with your rub.
- I even drizzled with a little paprika oil, it will help dissolve the crust.
Maybe just a steady drizzle
- Using a sharp boning knife, score the top, cut about 1/4″ deep, in both angular directions.
- Like this, you can see the hash marks.
- Until you get the marks all the way across. This is so simple but really creates a vibrant visual effect after roasting.
- Okay, we’re almost ready to hit the oven.
- After just those few minutes, you can see the oil has dissolved into the crust.
And this is what you get.
- I turned on the flash attachment to really emphasize the textured surface.
- Now comes the fun part. You can carve and eat as it is, but, usually, I put it in a plastic bag and shock it down to 70F, then refrigerate.
- I sliced a SousVide Onion, 183Fx1 hour, to make some onion rings. A little bit of vinegar to acidulate, salt, drain, and toss in flour until well coated. Then, of course, deep fried.
- A little dollop of sweet and sour pear butter, which is a little bit like apple butter. The pears are cooked down with sugar and vinegar, and finished with butter. The Spanish make a similar thing called Membrillo, which is made from quince.
- A few drops of balsamic syrup or kecap manis, and you’re in business.
- We’re developing a Sous Vide Macaroni and Cheese method, but, even with the familiar variations, it’s a great combination. Cheddar, American, Velveeta, Canned, no shame in any of them.
- A fancy presentation isn’t necessary, but using the crisp fried pork belly cut into different shapes can work.
- A harvest relish with corn and orange bell peppers, some olives, a little parsley pesto, paprika oil, again, any dark syrup — even molasses — a little bit goes a long way.
Posts to the site are living, breathing things, and I update them as I develop variants. Try to keep it all fresh.