The finished product
I get the concept of “creative madness.” It seizes me from time to time when the desire to reproduce or improve upon a particular recipe becomes as compelling as the need to breathe.
So it was, a couple years ago, that after making bacon chocolate chip cookies for the n-th time, I sneered at the barely discernable smokiness and saltiness in the batch. “I know I can make better bacon myself,” I thought; and within a few hours I was scouring the Internet for techniques and tools to turn raw ingredients into strips of unctuous goodness that can be fried alone to heavenly crispness or minced for addition to a variety of dishes.
Not wanting just homemade versions of typical store-bought processed bacon, I recalled the mantra “fat is a vehicle for flavor.” I envisioned bacon redolent with a variety of herbs, spices, and other aromas, yet restrained in the use of potentially harmful chemicals needed to transform pork belly into every carnivore’s delight.
Bacon results from the use of two centuries-old processes for preserving animal food products, curing and smoking. Curing relies on a dry blend of salt, nitrates, nitrites, sugar and seasonings to draw out moisture, inhibit bacterial growth, and impart flavor. However, nitrates and nitrites have been linked, at certain doses, to cancer and other illnesses; and salt is a common culprit in hypertension, though humans require some dietary sodium and chlorine to sustain life. Smoking layers on more flavor while attempting to seal the outside surface of the product. Together, curing and smoking provide the means to develop virtually infinite numbers of flavor profiles in bacon….or salmon….or chicken….or beef…. And they are as accessible to the home cook as they were to my Welsh ancestors or to modern industrial meat processors!
During my first fit of “bacon madness,” it took less than a week to determine that what I wanted were the flavors of coffee and cocoa. Either balances nicely alone against salt or crisped bacon flesh, and their natural synergies heighten the taste further. Rendered out with the fat during cooking, coffee and cocoa would elevate bacon chocolate chip cookies to atmospheric heights!
1000-1300g pork belly (I buy whole pork bellies (5-6kg) and cut them down leaving rind on til cooking)
60g (¼ cup) coarse kosher salt
20g (4 Tbsp) espresso-ground coffee beans (or dark instant)
5g (1 Tbsp) unsweetened cocoa powder
10 black peppercorns, crushed
55g (¼ cup) brown sugar, packed
a pinch of thyme (optional)
NOTE: One could add 1 tsp (2g) pink curing salt (not Himalayan pink salt!) to maintain a pink color in the meat; otherwise, it will appear lightly brown to gray…. of course, the coffee is likely to darken it anyway!
For smoking: 2 Tbsp cocoa nibs or 3 Tbsp cocoa powder
Equipment: a one-gallon (4 litre) zip-top plastic freezer bag, 13x9 baking dish (something big enough to hold the cured pork belly), aluminum foil, meat thermometer
Mix the cure ingredients together in a small bowl. Lay the pork belly rind side down in the freezer bag or an easy to clean work surface. Sprinkle the cure on the pork belly and rub it in. Scatter any excess cure on the pork belly after transferring into the bag and before sealing it. Place sealed bag in the baking dish, zipper clearly up, and place in the refrigerator for 5-7 days. Halfway through the cold curing, massage the pork belly well for 5 minutes while still sealed and place back in the dish rind side up before returning to the refrigerator. When the cure is done, remove the disk and the bagged pork belly to the countertop while rigging the smoker.
Pre-heat oven to 175C (350F). Fashion a small cup out of foil to hold the cocoa nibs or cocoa. Place cocoa in the foil cup, and place it in the corner of the baking dish. Fashion two finger-width rods of foil two inches shorter than the baking dish (11”/27cm). When the oven has reached the desired temp, place baking dish inside. When the aroma of cocoa fills the kitchen, remove the baking dish and lower the oven to 88C (190F), place foil rods on the bottom of baking dish (to keep pork belly elevated), and lay pork belly rind down on the foil rods, pushing the cocoa cup to one corner. Cover dish tightly with foil and return to oven .
Oven smoke the pork belly until its internal temperature reaches 150F to avoid drying it out (you’re going to eventually cook it). Allow smoked product to cool loosely covered in the dish before transferring to another zipper bag for refrigeration….. or slice and fry!