I'd been working on getting Dave to smoke some pork belly for at least a year. It's not that he didn't want to, or was just being intransigent about taking his wife's suggestion. After all, he has a full-time job that supports his family, and any free time has been subsumed by a passion for developing his own sourdough starter, using it to make some fine breads, English muffins and biscuits.
Ready to cure in the fridge.
And that's not to mention the cocktail research, which these days is focused on the subject of bourbons and bitters. But after buying him a couple of books on home charcuterie and sending links to online articles on the subject, I could see his interest shifting to a more active state. Then came the day that he announced he'd ordered five pounds of pork belly from New Seasons and needed to go on a hunt for curing salt.
If we were the types to plan ahead, there are myriad online retailers who carry this special combination of table salt and sodium nitrite or nitrate, dyed pink to distinguish it from other salts since it's apparently quite lethal. But because we subscribe to the last-minute school of life, a little research led us to The Meadow, Mark Bitterman's shrine to NaCl. Fortunately it's also close by, so we could run over and get back while the sourdough Dave was working on that day (I didn't say he gave up his infatuation) finished rising.
A sample of the finished product.
The only problem we ran into was finding a bag that would fit the five-pound slab, since it needed to cure in the fridge for a week. Now, we could have cut it in half and slipped it into two one-gallon bags, but that would have reduced the impressive feat of slapping the whole monster on the grill. So not being able to find the 2-gallon bag called for in the recipe, we used a large size oven bag sold for turkeys.
Other than that it was rubbing the slab with the salt mixture, putting it in the fridge in the duct tape-sealed bag and turning it daily for a week. Smoking took about three hours, and then we cooled it, whacked it up into one pound chunks and put it int the freezer. A sample we fried up on the spot indicated a deeply but not overly smoky belly that one volunteer said was some of the best he's ever had. I'd say it was definitely worth waiting for.
Home-Cured BaconAdapted from Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing
• Order five pounds of fresh pork belly from your grocery store, the pork guy at your farmers market, or from a local butcher shop.
• Buy a box of 2-gallon zip-top bags if you don’t have a container big enough to hold the belly or use oven bags meant for turkey.
Mix the following together in a small bowl:
2 oz. (1/4 c. Morton or Diamond Crystal coarse kosher) salt
2 tsp. pink curing salt #1
4 Tbsp. coarsely ground black pepper
4 bay leaves, crumbled
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 c. brown sugar, honey or maple syrup
5 cloves garlic, smashed with the flat side of a chef’s knife
2 Tbsp. juniper berries, lightly crushed (optional)
5 to 10 sprigs fresh thyme (optional)
Put the pork belly in the zip-top bag or in an oven bag. Rub the salt and spice mixture all over the belly. Close the bag (if using the oven bag Dave recommends black duct tape for the aesthetics) and stick it in the refrigerator for seven days (get your hands in there and give the spices another good rubbing around midway through). After seven days, take it out of the fridge, rinse off all the seasonings under cold water and pat it dry.
For cooking in the oven:
Put it on a sheet tray and put it in the oven (put it on a rack on a sheet tray if you have one) and turn the oven on to 200°. (if you want to preheat the oven, that’s fine, too). Leave it in the oven for 90 minutes (or, if you want to measure the internal temperature, until it reaches 150 degrees F.). Let it cool, cut it into usable chunks (we did approx. 1-lb. chunks) and refrigerate or freeze it until you’re ready to cook it.
For cooking in a smoker:
Build a fire from charcoal or hickory chunks. When the temperature inside the smoker reaches 125-150°, put the pork belly on the top rack. Maintain the 125-150° temperature inside the smoker for approximately 3-3 1/2 hrs. or until the internal temperature of the belly reaches 150°. Remove and cool. Slice into usable chunks and refrigerate or freeze.