With the Christmas season approaching everyone is busy baking cookies and treats. Me? I have been gearing up towards the holidays with, what else but curing and smoking meats. This is a project that takes anywhere between 10 days to two weeks so, if you would like to serve something truly homemade for the holidays, you can get started now and it’ll be ready with ample time for your Christmas breakfast (or lunch or dinner or snacking…).
North Americans (mostly from the North of the US and Canadians) have developed a unique flavor in their bacon by curing the meat with a very local ingredient: maple syrup. Of course I can find maple syrup all over The Netherlands but that wouldn’t be part of our cultural heritage and I wanted to try to infuse my bacon with a more local taste, something that is distinctly Dutch and would go well with the types of foods we eat here. So, appelstroop bacon was born. Appelstroop, known as apple butter in English is one of the staples of Dutch cuisine. It is used as a topping on cheese, bread, pancakes and pastries. Apple butter was produced as far back as the Middle Ages in Dutch monasteries of the Limburg region and became a very popular form of fruit preservation eventually spreading to the Americas via immigration. This is the one I use (in The Netherlands, it is sold by Marqt among other retailers), however, any apple butter will do for this recipe. I prefer the kind that is usually used as toppings for pancakes because they tend to be sweeter than the kind that people use to cook with. However, this is a matter of personal taste. Any good quality apple butter will work well.
Now, making your own bacon is a very simple and straightforward process. Of all forms of charcuterie, it is among the easiest and most approachable for a novice. However, it does require caution and attention to detail because you will be dabbling with chemicals that can, if used improperly, cause sickness. Curing meats is one of the oldest forms of food preservation known to humans however, it comes with its own set of issues if not done properly. To begin with, you will be using a curing salt (more of that later). There are people who measure this salt in spoonfuls and cups. I prefer to be as exact as I can be and measure with a scale, in grams. Scales are not unaffordable and if you are going to take on projects like curing your own meats, I would say they are essential. A difference of a few grams, which would be irrelevant on most cooking projects can mean digestive distress, hospitalization or worse. Precision matters in this type of cooking. I am not trying to instill fear or put people off from trying. I am just stressing the importance of food safety and proper measurements.
In The Netherlands, as in the rest of the European Union, there is a limitation in the percentage of nitrites that can be used when curing meat. Nitrite is essential to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria such as botulism which is why it is required in recipes like this one. However, the vast majority of online recipes for homemade bacon use a curing salt known as Instacure #1 or Pink Salt which leaves us Euro based cooks quite lost. This is the cure used in the US and Canada. However, this salt is banned in most of the EU because it is 6% nitrite and the legal limit for nitrite in the EU is 0.6%. Not to despair, though as there is a local, European curing salt that can be found in almost every speciality shop and is widely used by butchers and hobby charcutiers alike. This salt is known in Dutch as “colorozozout” or just “curing salt”. If you are curious about these technicalities, it is designated by the European food number of E250 (check your EU produced food packagings for cured meats and you are likely to find this E-number there). As I mentioned above, this salt prevents the growth of harmful bacteria but it is also the ingredient that makes bacon look like bacon. It enhances the meat color and makes it look desirable (rather than grayish and unappetizing).
I am offering this recipe with the quantities for both EU curing salt and Instacure #1 (which is available for purchase from the UK where it is legal to use). I am also including the percentages of each curing salt per 2 kgs of meat so that they can be adjusted to any weight.
What you need to make apple butter bacon:
2000 grams (2 kilos) of pork belly
If using EU salt with 0.6% nitrite
2.5% of the weight of the pork belly in curing salt – 50 grams
0.75% of the weight of the pork belly in regular salt – 15 grams
1% of the weight of the pork belly in sugar – 20 grams
If using Instacure #1 with 6% nitrite
3% of the weight of the pork belly in regular salt – 60 grams
0.25% of the weight of the pork belly in Instacure #1 – 5 grams
1% of the weight of the pork belly in sugar – 20 grams
Flavoring regardless of the type of curing salt used
0.5 cup appelstroop / apple butter
1 tablespoon sweet paprika powder
3 juniper berries crushed
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
Carefully trim the skin of the pork belly, working with a very sharp knife as close to the skin as possible to prevent removing fat (you want ALL the fat in your belly because it turns into delicious bacon!). Now, I know some charcutiers like Michael Ruhlman leave the skin on and remove it after the bacon has been smoked but removing it prior works better for me. I prefer the way the flavors and smoke penetrate the meat without the skin. This, of course, is a matter of personal taste.
Place your pork belly in a ziplock bag big enough to accommodate it without having to fold the meat. You want the belly to be flat throughout the entire curing time. If you cannot find a ziplock bag big enough (lord knows they are impossible to find in The Netherlands), use a tight glass dish or food storing container with a lid. The container has to fit the belly snuggly, no space between the walls of the dish and the meat. I use a foodsaver bag but I realize not everyone has a foodsaver at home.
Pour the contents of the bowl with the cure into the bag, massaging the meat so that the cure spreads across the surface of the meat evenly. Massage on both sides of the belly so that everything is well soaked with the cure.
Close the bag and place in the fridge. Every day turn the belly upside down so that the cure distributes evenly on both sides. Let the belly cure for a minimum of one week to ten days. It is ready when you squeeze the meat and it feels firm to the touch.
After the curing time is over, take the belly out of the bag and rinse it thoroughly with cold water. You want to rinse REALLY thoroughly so that your finished bacon does not taste like a lump of salt.
Dry the belly well. In the photo above you can see the red color I mentioned earlier. This is already looking like bacon.
Now comes the part where cooks differ: some people will say you should let the belly dry in the fridge for 24 hours before smoking it. Meathead, from Amazing Ribs who knows more about this stuff than almost anyone else, says to smoke immediately because the meat will take on the smoke better. Me? I have done both and the difference is hardly noticeable. My advice would be: if you have the time, smoke immediately. If you are busy and can only smoke the next day, feel free to do so as well.
I smoke at a temperature between 100 degrees Celsius to 115 Celsius until I reach an internal temperature of 65 degrees Celsius using apple wood to enhanced the apple flavor from the cure. If you do not have apple wood, hickory will do as well.
Out of the smoker. Let it cool off completely. After it has cooled off completely, place in the fridge overnight so that the meat firms up.
I usually divide the finished bacon into a big chunk to slice and a few small pieces that I use in stews or soups.
Using a very sharp knife or a meat slicer, cut the bacon into thin strips.
A close up of the finished bacon in strips
If you want to freeze bacon already sliced, you can do so using parchment paper between the slices. It keeps very well in the freezer for up to six months. I usually freeze breakfast portions already prepackaged.
Fry and enjoy. I promise you’ve never tasted bacon like homemade bacon.