How to make your own bacon

How to make your own bacon
Photo: Carlos Javier Sanchez

Pork belly is now easily found in area grocery stores, and that’s the delivery vehicle for making your own bacon at home. It’s a 7-day process, but surprisingly easy to do. Cure. Smoke. Slice. Store. Eat.

Michigan’s Brian Polcyn, a professional chef since 1980, said that it took approximately 150 trial runs working with pork belly before his maple smoked bacon recipe was perfected.

The recipe was a major reason why his 2005 book “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing” (co-written by Michael Ruhlman) has sold almost 300,000 copies by his latest estimate. Many online recipe sites and YouTube videos cite it as the primary source for bacon making.

“I approached the recipe from a chef’s perspective but wanted to do it in a way that was done with simple ingredients and the process was easy to understand,” Polcyn said. “Now, it’s bulletproof. If you go through the steps, you will make great bacon.”

Making your own bacon can change your life. I rank it up there with smoking a perfect brisket. There’s also a tremendous amount of satisfaction in giving your finished bacon to friends and family.

“Bacon is the perfect starting point to understanding how the curing process works,” said Joe Saenz, who opened his Swine House Bodega restaurant in downtown San Antonio in 2019. “It’s pretty hard to screw up, and even if you do a little bit, odds are good that you still end up with something delicious.”

The biggest impediment to making home bacon was acquiring the meat needed to do it, but that’s not the case anymore, as pork belly has surged in popularity. Most meat cases now stock 4- to 5-pound slabs at prices that hover around $4 per pound. That’s right on par with the cost of most commercially packaged bacon brands.

After you have acquired the belly, the process is a simple mixture of salts, sugar and patience. Most cured bacon recipes call for the addition of pink curing salt, which contains sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is toxic when consumed at high levels, but in the amounts used to make bacon, it’s harmless.

“Curing salt kills botulism and does a lot more good than it will ever do bad,” Saenz said.

Home-Cooked Maple-Cured Smoked Bacon

  • 5 pounds pork belly, skin attached
  • 1/4 cup dark-brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons pink curing salt
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup

Pat the pork belly down with paper towels, removing as much moisture as possible.

Mix sugar, kosher salt and pink curing salt in a small bowl. Rub maple syrup on both sides of the pork belly, and apply seasoning mixture evenly to both sides of the belly, including the sides of the meat.

Place skin-side down in a 2-gallon Ziploc bag or a nonreactive container just slightly bigger than the meat. (The pork will release water into the salt mixture, creating a brine; it’s important that the meat keeps in contact with this liquid throughout the curing process.).

Refrigerate, turning the belly and redistributing the cure every other day, for 7 days, until the meat is firm to the touch.

Remove the belly from the cure, rinse it thoroughly and pat it dry. Place it on a rack set over a baking sheet tray and dry in the refrigerator, uncovered, for 12 to 24 hours.

Hot-smoke the pork belly (belly-side down) at approximately 200-225 degrees with wood of choice (hickory, oak and fruit woods work well) until it reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees, about 3 hours. Let cool slightly, and when the belly is cool enough to handle but still warm, cut the skin off by sliding a sharp knife between the fat and the skin, leaving as much fat on the bacon as possible. (Discard the skin or cut it into pieces and save to add to soups, stews or beans, as you would a smoked ham hock.)

Let the bacon cool, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate or freeze it until ready to slice and use.

Outside of the curing salt and gallon-size freezer bags, the other ingredients needed to make bacon are probably already in your pantry. You can add additional flavor with sliced or chopped jalapeños or other spices, but for first-timers, I don’t recommend straying from Polcyn’s recipe.

Polcyn’s method takes seven days in the refrigerator, flipping the bagged belly every other day for proper salt distribution throughout the meat. It should be firm to the touch through the bag.

“If you get anxious and don’t give it a full week, it won’t fully cure. And if you go much beyond 10 days, the meat will get too salty,” Polcyn said. “One week is also an easy time frame to remember. Make Saturdays or whatever your bacon day.”

Another benefit to bacon is that it’s a great way to put your smoker to use. The belly needs to cook to an internal temperature of 150 degrees, which takes about three hours in a smoker set from 200 to 225 degrees. Fruit woods and Texas favorites such as oak and pecan work well.

“I’m a big fan of using whatever is free,” Saenz said. “Any hardwood is going to give off that good smoky flavor. I think people can put too much thought into that (with bacon).”

Once the pork belly is finished in the smoker, it’s time to get your hands dirty. Slide a knife over the skin of the belly to remove it, cutting as little into the layer of fat as possible.

Then, it’s up to you about how you choose to proceed. Finished belly bacon can be sliced while hot, but you can get cleaner slices if you allow it to cool for 30 minutes or so first. If you own a meat slicer, there is no better time to use it.

A 5-pound slab will cook down to about 4 pounds when finished, and that’s a lot. Bagged bacon can be frozen, but since it has gone through a curing process, it will remain good stored in the fridge for about two weeks.