Cured bacon as we know it got its start in the Middle Ages and was enjoyed by kings and peasants alike. Few foods today are as popular as bacon. The American obsession with it has led to creations such as bacon jam, chocolate-covered bacon, and bacon sushi. Yet despite our fetish with it, few of us attempt to make bacon from scratch at home. We feel safer if our bacon is left to the experts, shrink-wrapped, and doled out to us in FDA-approved, calorie-counted slices. But homemade bacon is surprisingly easy to make. You simply rub pork belly with seasonings, add one secret ingredient, and let it sit in the fridge for a week. Easy-peasy.
Many people think that bacon needs to be smoked, which may contribute to the trepidation that surrounds making it at home. And while smoking does add another flavor dimension to bacon, it is not strictly necessary. What is necessary is the addition of sodium nitrite, the secret ingredient. Sodium nitrite is an antioxidant essential to the curing process, since it acts as a preservative and prevents the growth of botulism. It also serves to flavor the bacon. We prefer to use Prague Powder #1, which is a combination of table salt, sodium nitrite, and red food dye. The dye is added so that it can be distinguished from plain table salt, but it also contributes to bacon’s characteristic rosy hue.
Nitrites have gotten a bad rap in recent years thanks to sensationalism in the press. But what most people don’t know is that nitrites are a naturally occurring substance. If you avoid bacon because of the nitrites, then you should probably also avoid celery and spinach and beets, all of which naturally contain nitrites in abundance. In fact, the “nitrite-free” bacon at your Whole Foods is not really nitrite free, it is just cured with celery juice. Any toxicity associated with nitrites is due primarily to overconsumption. But even if you lived exclusively on bacon, you would be hard pressed to consume too many nitrites. (Of course, there may be other health ramifications of such a diet.) And anyone who is paranoid should remember that potatoes are full of solanine, eggplant contains nicotine, and chickpeas and fava beans have a dose of cyanide, all of which could be deadly if ingested in large amounts.
In addition to the personal satisfaction of eating bacon that you’ve handcrafted, you also have the luxury of complete artistic control. You might crave allspice, nutmeg, and white pepper in one batch of home-cured bacon. Perhaps an Asian-style bacon with soy sauce and star anise stirs your soul. Or you might score a particularly toothsome piece of artisanal pork belly, from a pampered pig raised exclusively on walnuts, berries, and poetry. Your flavor combinations can be as simple or as complex as you want. You can brine the pork belly with supermarket ingredients, or coat it with herbs and spices you have grown yourself, then smoke it over a hardwood fire. Regardless, when your guests moan in pleasure, you get to claim all the credit.
There are two methods for curing bacon: using a curing rub and brining. The results are nearly identical, although our brine recipe doesn’t include any sugar, so it’s a good option if you prefer your bacon with no sweetness.