There is no secret recipe for the best home-cured bacon. It's all about the meat. Go buy the best, the freshest pork belly, sprinkle some salt and seasonings on it, vacuum seal and refrigerate. Two-three weeks later, you will have the best bacon you've ever had.
Bacon curing methods
There are three methods of curing bacon: pumping, dry curing, and immersion curing.
Commercial bacon producers use pumping as it's the cheapest and the fastest method. Bacon is injected with a curing liquid and is rested for 6 to 24 hours before being heated and/or smoked. The injected liquid also adds weight to bacon, but it impacts the texture and taste.
Immersion curing is very similar to pumping, except bacon is left to cure in liquid for 2-3 days, then hung to dry. This method is much slower than pumping, so rarely anyone uses it nowadays.
Dry curing is the method where salt, Cure #1, and spices are applied to pork belly pieces. The meat is then left to cure. This method, while the most time-consuming, produces the tastiest bacon which has a deeper, more robust flavor profile. This is the best method for curing bacon at home.
Basic dry curing mix
The biggest challenge that I experienced when attempting my first cured bacon was deciding on the amount of salt to use. You want enough salt for bacon to cure properly and be safe to eat. But you also don't want it to be overly salty. After trying a dozen of recipes from trusted sources I settled on Hector Kent's formula from his Dry-Curing Pork: Make Your Own Salami, Pancetta, Coppa, Prosciutto, and More book. It uses 2.5% salt, which is a very reasonable amount. On top, it adds 2% maple syrup which adds the sweetness that makes the bacon taste even less salty. Overall, I found these proportions very good for my taste, except that I bumped the maple syrup to 2.5%. I think many will find the combination of salt and maple syrup very tasty. Actually, after some additional testing, I found that doubling the amount of maple syrup makes even tastier bacon.
By weighing out salt as a percentage of pork belly's weight, unlike by covering bacon with salt and sugar liberally as some recipes recommend, you will ensure that you will never over-salt your bacon and that you won't have to rinse off the curing mix at the end of curing.
Rinsing bacon at the end of curing is bad for two reasons: you will be re-introducing water back whereas you should be getting rid of it, and whatever seasonings you add to the curing mix will all wash away. If there are too many seasonings for your taste, simply scrape some off with a knife but no washing.
While salt alone is enough to cure bacon, you can add sugar or other sweeteners like maple syrup to balance out the harshness of the salt. You may also add black pepper, powdered garlic, onion, cayenne pepper, or red pepper flakes. Some recipes I've seen add bay leaf, thyme, crushed juniper berries, black pepper, nutmeg, and other spices. The variations here are limitless.
Use of nitrites to cure bacon
Given how much conflicting and incorrect information is floating out there on the Internet about the use of nitrites and nitrates, I had to do some thorough research on this topic.
As was mentioned above, nitrates (Cure #2) are not allowed for curing bacon. Nitrates are suitable for curing meats and sausages over long periods of time, many weeks or months. They include salami, pancetta, soppressata, speck, guanciale, etc.
Nitrites (Cure #1) are permitted but the amount of added sodium nitrite cannot exceed 200 parts per million (ppm). What does it mean, really? It means that you may add 1.45 grams or 0.05 ounces of Cure #1 per pound of pork belly (source: Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages). That's about 1/3 teaspoon.
Do you need to use nitrite to cure bacon?
No, if you intend on keeping the bacon below 40F and cook it at above 200F. This includes pan-frying, baking, smoking at, say, 225F, etc.
Yes, if you plan on keeping it in a temperature range between 40F and 140F (also know as 'danger zone') for longer than 3 hours. For example, if you plan to cold smoke (below 80F) or low heat (130F-140F) smoke the bacon.
That said, Cure #1 also improves bacon's color and flavor. Fried bacon that was cured with salt only, will have a greyish color, while the one cured with Cure #1 will have the reddish color that we are very familiar with. Personally, I always use Cure #1.
The fresher the meat, the better the bacon will be. Leaner bacon is always better in my book but harder to find. Asian stores seem to always have leaner, meatier pork belly slabs at great prices.
If possible, use pasture-raised heritage pork. Heritage pork has richer color and better flavor than bacon made with commodity pork.
Making bacon from Berkshire pork was an eye-opener for me. The most apparent difference was in the texture. It's not as stringy as store-bought bacon and is less chewy. Bacon made with Berkshire pork had a kind of brittle texture that practically began to disintegrate and melt away as soon as you put it in your mouth.
Uncooked fat was pure white, dry and firm, as opposed to soft, slightly mushy, and wet on the store-bought one.
There was more fat in heritage pork than I would have liked, but the cooked fatty part was tasty. Very tasty. I baked the bacon and served with eggs and sourdough biscuits. It was outstanding.
I purchased the pork belly from Murray’s Farm, a local farm that raises happy heritage piggies. You may want to check out pig farms in your area, it's amazing what kind of goodies you can find there. It's worth it!
Bacon dry-curing process
Bacon curing process itself is extremely easy as well. There is no need to control temperature or humidity, so no need for a dedicated dry curing chamber. Simply use a regular fridge, as long as it has enough space.
- Start with cutting a pork belly into manageable pieces. I cut mine into 8" x 8" squares and/or 8-inch long rectangles. This way I get the standard length bacon slices. Feel free to make them longer or shorter, to satisfy your needs and preferences.
- Apply the dry cure mix evenly on all sides of each pork belly piece. I like to measure out the amount of rub per piece to make sure each one gets the right amount of salt and other ingredients.
- Place the belly pieces in individual Ziploc bags and refrigerate them for at the very least 7 days and up to 14 days for regular thickness pieces and up to 21 days for thicker (3" or more) bacon pieces, flipping occasionally. I personally like curing bacon a little longer to make sure that every piece of meat is cured properly. You can't really 'over-cure' bacon but keep in mind that a very long (over 3 weeks) curing time will result in slightly saltier bacon and eventually the meat will begin to spoil.
- If you have access to a vacuum sealer, go ahead and use it instead. I find that vacuum-sealed pork belly cures more evenly, and flipping becomes less critical.
- After 14-21 days the bacon is fully cured. I never rinse bacon after curing but I like to pat bacon slabs dry with paper towels and remove some excess seasonings with the back of a knife.
- Next, slice the bacon, cook, and enjoy. Keep in mind, that you need to try and slice the bacon equally thin. Otherwise, some slices will cook faster than the others. I highly recommend using a meat slicer for this task.
- You may also hang cured bacon to dry for a week or so, at temperatures below 40F (if not using Cure #1) or at 55F or below if using Cure #1. This will result in a richer taste and longer shelf life.
Storing home-cured bacon
Plain salt-cured bacon will keep well in a fridge for a week or so. If you used Cure #1, the shelf life will be much longer - several weeks. Even longer if dried for a week or two and vacuum-sealed right away.
However, if you don't plan on using the bacon soon, vacuum seal it, sliced or whole pieces, and freeze for up to 6 months and even longer. When ready to use, defrost in a fridge (overnight) or ice water (1-2 hours).
Cooking home-cured bacon
There are many, many ways to cook bacon but by far the best, the easiest and least messy way for me is to cook bacon in the oven.
- 1000 g pork belly 2.2 lbs; skinless
- 22.5 g kosher salt 1 1/4 Tbsp
- 2.5 g Cure #1 1/2 tsp (see notes)
- 10 g black pepper coarsely ground; about 4.5 teaspoons
- 25 g maple syrup 1 Tbsp; see notes.
- Weigh the pork belly in grams. Divide by 1000, then multiply each ingredient by that number. For example, if your belly weighs 2650 g, you need to multiply the ingredients specified above by 2.65.
- Rub the belly with maple syrup.
- Combine the salt, Cure #1, and black pepper in a small bowl.
- Apply the dry cure mix evenly on all sides of the pork belly.
- Place the pork into a Ziploc bag, or vacuum-seal, and refrigerate for at least 7 days and up to 14 days for regular thickness pieces (less than 3") and up to 21 days for thicker bacon pieces (3" or thicker), flipping occasionally.
- Remove from the bag, pat dry with paper towels, scrape off excess seasonings with the back of a knife if you desire, slice, cook and enjoy.
- You may also hang the bacon to dry for a week or so, at temperatures below 40F if not using Cure #1 or at 55F or below if using Cure #1. This will improve shelf life and intensify flavor.
- If you used Cure #1 to cure the bacon, you can smoke it at low temperatures (below 200F) to obtain smoky flavor.