Michelle Stevens' love affair with bacon started when she was a child, gawking at vast uncut slabs of smoked pork through the butcher case glass while shopping at the Broadway Market with her grandmother.
Later, bacon would sustain her when she was pregnant with her first son, Clayton, and bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches became a mainstay of her survival diet. Then came the trip to Charleston, S.C., about 10 years ago, where she found cooks putting applewood smoked bacon, the local favorite, into greens, grits and more.
Stevens brought back a prized recipe for shrimp and grits with bacon, and "more awareness of using bacon as a cooking ingredient," she said. So when she got a chance recently to try her hand at making bacon herself, she was game.
It took a little shopping, a week of mostly waiting, and a few hours of her attention. The result?
"Absolutely worth the hunt, time and process," said Stevens, whose Buffalo Cheese Traders company supplies fine cheese to local restaurants. "It turned out to be a labor of love and fun."
For those who prize smoked cured pork belly, making bacon at home might be the finest way to harness its magic.
"The thing that's cool about making it yourself, or buying better bacon, is that you can cut it the way you want," said Jeff Biesinger, a Bennett High School science teacher who likes cooking and competitive barbecuing in his spare time.
"Realizing bacon doesn't have to be sliced is kind of a big thing for me," said Biesinger. "Taking a one-inch cube of bacon and putting it on a skewer with a piece of steak and grilling both till they're nice and crispy – you don't hear anything [when people eat], just murmurs."
He cuts batons of bacon to render into crisp crouton-like chunks for the classic French salad frisee au lardons, and matchbox-sized pieces to slip into steamed, puffy Asian buns with pickled cucumber, scallions and hoisin sauce.
Supermarket bacon just doesn't cut it for him. "You can tell when you cook it in the pan, it's all watery and blubbery." If he runs out of his own, he heads to Spar's on Amherst Street.
Last week, Biesinger led a boutique bacon seminar of sorts, helping Stevens and a handful of other bacon rookies transform their first pork bellies. He wrangled the pork, a case of Berkshire bellies from Schneider Premium Seafood, and more from T-Meadow Farms in Lockport, a producer of heirloom breed pork.
He even wrote a guide to making bacon, excerpted here. "I try to do everything once myself, and then I judge whether it's worth my time," he explained. Bacon made the cut.
Chris Emo, a project manager for Hadley Exhibits, was another bacon beginner driven by the notion of taking control of his bacon. "There's a do-it-yourself movement going in a lot of different ways," Emo said. "It's a spirit, or ethos, I identify with."
As a child, he ate bacon produced on a farm his parents visited. Now, when he shops for bacon at the market, he usually finds himself wishing he had better choices. "The bacon really was much better than anything you can buy at the store," said Emo. "I'm moving in that vein to get back to that."
BEISINGER'S BACON FOR BEGINNERS:
From Jeff Biesinger's guide to do-it-yourself bacon:
Recommended equipment: Digital scale, ziptop plastic bags, Weber-type kettle grill, thermometer. Sheet pans with wire racks that fit in a fridge will assist with drying.
Many nonsupermarket butchers have pork belly, fresh or frozen, including Lupas Meats, Broadway Market (892-4809); An Chau international food store, 3306 Bailey Ave. (837-2303); Lorigo's Meating Place, 185 Grant St. (885-3623); Federal Meats, numerous locations; Johnny's Meats, 1191 Hertel Ave. (876-2500).
Call first, and expect to pay $2 to $5 a pound. Most butchers will order it for you, though you might have to buy a case, about 30 pounds.
If you want to buy local, heritage breed pork belly, contact pork producers like T-Meadow Farms (434-7206), who sell pork belly, $7.75 a pound, at the Williamsville Farmers' Market on Saturdays.
Curing can be done wet or dry. Biesinger prefers dry curing because it requires less cure mixture and takes less room in the fridge. All cures should contain a small amount of Instacure #1, a blend of salt and sodium nitrite available locally at The Sausagemaker, 1500 Clinton St. (888-490-8525). Sodium nitrite will give the bacon its distinctive pink color and cured flavor, and will provide protection from botulism.
You can mix your own cure or use Tender Quick, a Morton Salt product available at Wegmans. (Follow package directions.)
If you're blending your own, "Charcuterie," by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, offers this basic cure recipe: Mix together 450 grams kosher salt, 225 grams sugar, 50 grams Instacure #1.
"Charcuterie" suggests using 2 ounces (50 grams) of its basic cure recipe per 5 pounds of belly.
Apply the dry cure to the meat as evenly as possible. Seal it in a ziptop bag, put it in a pan in case it leaks, and put it in a refrigerator that's between 32 and 40 degrees.
Flip the belly daily for six or seven days. After the belly has cured, it should feel firm. Rinse the belly with cold fresh water and pat it dry with clean paper towels.
Good smoke flavor requires a dry meat surface before smoking. Surface moisture attracts bitter creosote, while a dry tacky surface provides a nice landing place for the fickle aromatics. "I find that I need 24 to 36 hours in a fridge to get the surface really dry. I put the slabs onto wire racks and the racks on sheet pans in the fridge."
To finish the bacon, it needs to be smoked and heated to a safe cook temperature. Weber kettles work well because you can build a small fire off to one side.
Wrap hickory chips or other smoke wood in aluminum foil, half a cup at a time. Close the packets, and poke holes in them. Put the belly on the grate away from the fire, put the chip packet on lit coals, and close the lid. The interior temperature should be between 200 and 275 degrees; much higher will dry out the meat.
Use a thermometer to determine whether the bacon is done. For preservative reasons, you want to take the bacon to a safe temperature; 150 is generally accepted as safe.
When it's warm enough, take the bacon out to cool. If your meat came with rind, when it's cool enough, carefully slice off the rind. Once fully cooled, wrap and refrigerate. "I have kept bacon cured this way in my fridge for months. You can fry some up now, but it tastes better the next day."