Wednesday, March 24, 2010

About Bacon

Bacon is a wonderful product born out of the necessity to preserve meat before the advent of refrigeration. Salt curing and smoking both act as preservatives traditionally, though now they’re used as much for flavour as anything else.

The Pigs
Most commercial bacon comes from factory-farmed pigs. It’s a product designed to be fast and cheap to produce. Pigs that don’t walk too far, or need pasture, are typically cheaper to breed. Modern pig varieties are designed to be fast growing, to be relatively lean, and have longer rib cages for bacon. Older varieties were bred principally for flavour, and carry much more fat – which made them unfashionable for quite a while. Many older varieties are more suited to free ranging, including black pigs that are less likely to suffer sunburn under the Australian sun.

Bacon can be cured two ways, either dry cured in salt or a mix of salt and sugar, or in brine (salty water usually with sugar added). Brine acts much faster, and many brine-cured pork products, such as bacon and ham, are also injected with the brine to speed up the curing process. What happens in the process is that the meat absorbs water. This is a really good thing if you’re selling the product, because salty water is much cheaper to produce than meat. Often the brine or salt contains sodium nitrite, a naturally occurring preservative (now made in factories and necessary in some smallgoods) that keeps the bacon and pork’s pink colour, even when cooked.
More than 50% of some commercial bacon is water. You can tell watery bacon by the way it cooks; it will leach water and spatter as it cooks and it will shrink – some shrinks to 1/3 of its original weight. We dry cure our bacon.

Food in Australia can be smoked in the old fashioned way, over smouldering woodchips or sawdust, and it can also be flavoured with a smoke-scented syrup that you buy from a wholesaler.
Some ham and bacon is boiled rather than baked. It is cooked in water to minimise the amount it shrinks, then smoked to give it flavour, or possibly just rubbed or boiled in smoke scented chemicals. You know the stuff; wet, pale skinned and sad.
Good bacon, like Rare Food Berkshire Bacon, is smoked. Hot smoking cooks the bacon in the heat of the smouldering sawdust or woodchips. This cooking reduces the bacon’s weight in the same way roasting meat causes it to shrink. A smaller end result means it costs a lot more to make and buy. The good news is that hot smoked bacon only loses about 25% of its weight when cooked, compared to up to 65% for watery bacon. And what’s left should have a much more intense flavour.

Green Bacon
Some people produce raw bacon, called green bacon in the trade. It’s either cured and not smoked, or perhaps delicately cold smoked. You can expect more shrinkage with green bacon because it has yet to be cooked a first time. Rare Food currently sell a cold smoked product that we term green bacon to differentiate it from the dry cured, hot smoked version.

We stock two kinds of bacon, an old fashioned dry cured bacon and a green bacon both made from free-range pigs.

Old Fashioned Dry Cured Free-Range Bacon
Free-range pig bellies are dry cured in sea salt and sugar then hot smoked at Snug Butchery. We don’t use sodium nitrite or nitrate in this bacon, so it’s more likely to be the colour of cooked pork rather than pink. A thick band of fat is usual on our bacon, and renders down well. (We recommend you save it and use for other things, like fried bread, in warm potato salad, or to roast vegies.) Cut it thickly and cook your bacon slowly in a dry pan for best results.

Green Free-Range Bacon
Not a true unsmoked bacon in the English sense, but a cold smoked product that is naturally sweet, moist and rich. Sold sliced, it’s smoked in an old fashioned smoke room over local Tassie hardwood, by Cygnet Butchery.