Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Smoking Shoulder Bacon

Thinking about smoking some bacon? Put down that cut of pig belly and follow these directions for a perfect piece of smoked pork that will have your guests begging for more!

What you'll need:

Back before home smoking became popular, one could find pork belly in your local (or perhaps not so local) asian food markets for under two dollars per pound. That just simply isn't the case anymore, with most stores selling slabs of the pristinely marbled meat for no less that $4/lb and higher if you're in a bigger city. Fortunately, you can still make excellent bacon for a lot less, using a quality cut that, very fortunately, most people avoid due to it's long cooking time. Of course, I'm talking about the pork shoulder roast.

A lot of the time, you can get a shoulder roast for somewhere in the order of $1.29 - $1.49 per pound. Factor in a 10 to 15% loss when you remove the shoulder blade and this still works out to much less than $2/lb for your own homemade bacon!

The first step of the process, once you've acquired a shoulder or two, is to de-bone the roast using a sharp knife. Start at the ends of the roast and slice inward as if to cut the piece into two thick slabs. Feel for the bone and slice up and along it and then around as best you can to remove it while leaving the bulk of the meat intact. This might take a little practice, due to the bone being somewhat T shaped.

The second step of the process is figuring out how salty you'd like your bacon. Most of the time, I recommend brine that is 60 degrees of salinity. You can achieve this by looking at the following chart or by adding 1.567 lbs of pickling salt (it's important to not use iodized salt) to one gallon of warm water. This won't produce a fully saturated solution by quite a long shot (actually about 15.8% while fully saturated is about 26.4%) but if the water temperature is really cold, it may take a long time to stir into solution.

Salometer Degrees Percent of Sodium Chloride (Salt) by Weight Pounds of Salt per Gallon of Water Pounds of Salt per Gallon of Brine Pounds of Water per Gallon of Brine

For other products, you can find a quick reference chart right here:

Brine Strength Product
0 - 20, too weak
20 chicken
30 poultry, fish
40 chicken
50 spareribs
60 bacon, loins
60 - 80 hams, shoulders
80 fish
80 -100, seldom used

Once you've dissolved the salt into solution, you have a basic brine. Adding other things like brown sugar or spices like black pepper are optional - experiment, have fun! Start with small quantities and work upward - I would never recommend using more brown sugar than you use salt, stick to a few ounces and figure out what sweetness you like. I prefer that the sweetness somewhat offset the saltiness of the final product, not be the major player on the taste profile.

You may also want to use a curing salt to prevent bacterial growth. You can find a pretty good list of them here: Pink Curing Salts

Use a ratio of 5oz / gallon of water to maintain approximately 200 ppm nitrite.

Find a spot that is somewhere around 38F to 44F - a refrigerator is great but if you don't have the room, the workshop during cold months or a root cellar might also do. Use either food safe (#2 HDPE) plastic buckets or one gallon zip lock bags and make sure your piece is completely covered with brine.

On average, it takes about 11 per inch of thickness to cure most cuts, however, you'll want to brine your shoulder slabs approximately 1.5 - 2 days per pound. Experiment a little!

When your cut is cured, take it out and soak it in clean water for at least two hours, changing the water every 30 minutes. This will more evenly distribute the salt from the brine throughout the cut. Dry off the piece with paper towel and get your smoker or BBQ lit.

What I typically do is pile the lump charcoal into a pyramid and use charcoal lighter fluid to get it ignited. Once you have a good pile of coals, push them into a corner and spread them out a little, but you don't want coverage across the bottom of the BBQ like you would if you were cooking. You just need a spot to throw the wood chips and you want to keep a lot of the heat away from your pieces to prevent overcooking. 

After you've soaked your wood chips "a little", make sure most of the water is off of them and pile them high on the hot charcoal. Again, don't use easy light because it contains parafins and other fuels that might lend off flavors to your bacon.

Put the bacon in with the wood chips and coals and close it up as best you can to prevent the chips from igniting into flame, but not enough that they go out completely. Let your piece smoke 3-4 hours and if you have a digital temperature probe, check to see what the internal temperature is. It takes 30 minutes of 147F to kill parasites, and a little higher for some of the nastier bacterium. I would still advocate slicing and frying the piece to be sure.

When you're done, you will have something that looks like this!

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