There is nothing that can compare with the smell of fried bacon. It’s delicious when served with scrambled eggs or hashbrowns for breakfast. And it’s just as delicious on its own. If you like bacon, you must try making it at home. The first time I tried homemade bacon, it was a revelation. It tasted way better than any commercially made bacon I had ever tasted. The best part is that curing bacon at home takes minimal effort. There are no time-consuming steps here, like grinding or stuffing.
The difference between cured and uncured bacon
Curing is the food preservation and flavoring process that uses salt as the curing agent. Salt curing decreases bacon’s water activity, thereby making it less hospitable for the microbe growth that causes its spoilage. This doesn’t make it safe to eat raw though. You can increase bacon’s shelf life by drying it after curing.
Bacon curing process often involves smoking, spicing, cooking, or the addition of combinations of sugar and nitrite (found in Cure #1). Cure #2 (which contains nitrate) is not permitted for bacon curing.
When it comes to uncured bacon, you can think of it as being one of the two products: plain raw pork belly or bacon that was ‘manufactured without the use of nitrite’ as required by USDA Bacon Safety Regulations. USDA requires that such commercially produced bacon must be labeled “Uncured Bacon, No Nitrates or Nitrites added” and bear the statement “Not Preserved, Keep Refrigerated Below 40 °F At All Times”.
But wait a second, isn’t salt a curing agent itself and you don’t need nitrite for curing? That’s correct. However, labeling bacon cured without nitrite as ‘uncured bacon’ serves as a warning for consumers to treat it as raw meat that needs to be cooked and prevent them from getting sick.
The difference between salt pork and salt-cured bacon
Salt pork, also known as salt-cured pork, is pork belly, sometimes pork back fat, cured with salt and spices. Salt-cured bacon is, in fact, a kind of salt pork. Some butches sell them interchangeably. But not all salt pork is exactly like bacon. Often salt pork is much saltier and needs to be rinsed before using. Butches to make salt pork from the lowest part of pork belly, which is fattier, with less meat. Salt pork, since it contains no nitrites, is never smoked.
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 the 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 it’s rarely used 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 for up to 14 days. This method, while the most time consuming, produces the tastiest bacon which has a deeper, more robust flavor profile.
Basic dry cure mixture for dry-cured bacon
A basic mildly-flavored bacon dry-cure mixture that performs well under home curing conditions consists of 7 parts of salt to 4 parts of sugar (white or brown). The cure is applied at the rate of 1/2 ounce per pound of pork belly. Doing it this way, unlike covering bacon with salt and sugar liberally as some recipes recommend, ensures 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 won’t re-introduce any water back after spending weeks getting rid of it, and whatever seasonings way may add to the basic curing mix won’t get washed off.
While salt alone is enough to cure bacon, sugar is added to balance out the harshness of the salt. The basic dry cure mix provided above alone will make great bacon. That’s not to say that you can’t improve the taste or introduce interesting flavor notes to your home-cured bacon.
My favorite mix includes powdered garlic and onion, and some cayenne pepper (see the recipe below). 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 nitrite 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 only used for curing meats and sausages over long periods of time, weeks or months. Those include salami
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 cure with Cure #1 will have the reddish color that we are very familiar with.
It goes without saying, you want to pick a belly that has less fat and more meat. It’s a little harder to see when you buy a whole pork belly though. Many butchers will cut up bellies in smaller pieces, about 3-4 lbs each, those are easier to judge but come at a higher price.
The fresher the meat, the better, of course. Naturally raised, heritage pork would be ideal but regular pork won’t disappoint either.
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 in 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 each 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 14 days, flipping daily. If you have access to a vacuum sealer, go ahead use it instead. I find that vacuum-sealed pork belly cures more evenly.
- After 14 days the bacon is fully cured. You don’t need to rinse it. Simply slice, 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 recommend using a meat slicer for this task.
- You may also hang it to dry for a week or so, at the 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
This bacon keeps well in a fridge for a week or two. Much longer if you use Cure #1. However, if you don’t plan on using it soon, vacuum seal it, sliced or in whole pieces, and freeze for up to 6 months and even longer. When ready to use, defrost in a fridge or icy water.
How To Cure Bacon At HomePrint Pin Rate
- 1 lb pork belly
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt 9 g
- 1 tsp sugar 5 g
- 1/3 tsp Cure #1 1.45 g; optional (see notes in the post above)
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp onion powder
- 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
- Combine the salt, sugar, Cure #1 (if using), garlic powder, onion powder, and cayenne 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 14 days, flipping daily.
- After 14 days, remove from the bag, slice, cook and enjoy.
- You may also hang the bacon to dry for a week or so, at the temperatures below 40F.
- If you used Cure #1 to cure the bacon, you can smoke it at low temperatures (below 200F) to obtain smoky flavor.