Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bacon, business and boobs star at Ignite Chicago

Photo by Bridget Houlihan (aka @Wheelygrl)
Last night's Ignite Chicago--a series of short yet inspirational presentations--was a success. In addition to Head BDJ Lab Tech Jenni S. discussing how one can make one's one bacon at home, other speakers addressed the pleasure of driving, the science of successful startups, pleasurable driving and the evolution of American attitudes toward the female form.

Since Jenni only had 5 minutes to present her presentation, she thought she'd expound upon it here and share her entire talk, with some added notes. Please keep in mind that while speaking, she interjected many funny, insightful comments, so you should laugh out loud periodically to best duplicate the experience of being there in person.

1. Intro: Making bacon at home is time-consuming, but fairly easy. You just need a few common household items to do it, and materials you can get at your friendly neighborhood supermarket. In addition, smoking your own bacon gives you the added benefit of making whatever clothes you wear smell like the inside of an old-time smokehouse. My cell phone even smells like hickory smoke--even four days after I did the bacon smoking.

2. Why make it yourself: In addition to being crazy simple:
* patronizing local butchers or groceries and making the bacon yourself, rather than procuring from a big corporate meat processor far, far away is good for the environment, and good for your local economy.
* it can be cheaper than store brands
* you can make your own flavors--you're not stuck with the small selection in grocery stories
* DIYing meat is fun

3. Pork belly: This is the star of the show. It's a long, thin cut of meat that looks a lot like a slab of ribs. Order it without the pig skin (or pork rind), if you can--however, if you can't or don't get it without the skin (sometimes you can encounter language barriers at grocery stores), don't worry about it--leave it on and we'll remove when we're done smoking the meat. Start with 5 lbs of meat.

4. Where to get belly: You can get belly at local butchers, ethnic grocery stores, or even farmers' markets. I get mine at HarvesTime on Lawrence. Some grocers sell belly in individual strips, but you want one large hunk to start with.

5. Curing salt: This is a mixture of salt and preservative, also known as "prague powder," and it's not on every supermarket shelf, but it's not very hard to find. Look at The Spice House, Paulina Meat Market, or meat-minded sites like Use 1/2 tsp of this.

6. Regular salt: Your salt could be sea salt, regular, iodized or not--just as long as it's salty. Mix 1/2 C of this with the curing salt.

7. Wood chips: You can really use any kind of natural wood chips, but they have to be soaked in wood (or beer, if you like) for at least three hours before you start smoking. If they're dry, they'll just burn right up without adding flavor to your meat. If they're wet, they provide the smoke that helps make bacon special. If you throw about 3-4 decent-size handfuls of chips in the water, you'll be okay.

8. The fire: You need a big charcoal grill, not just a weenie dinner-plate-size grill you'd take to the beach. Because you're cooking with indirect heat, you need a grill big enough for you to put the coals on one side, and the meat on the other side. Weber kettle grills work well. Also, briquettes.

9. Waiting: The process takes about three hours, not including the time it takes to start the grill, and you can't leave the grill unattended, so you'll need something to amuse yourself. I recommend a good book, and a good beer (or several).

10. Two days out: You'll start curing the meat by rubbing with the mixture of salts, then slipping into Ziplocs. If you need to cut the belly up to fit it into two or more bags, that's fine. Flip the slabs of meat over once a day to ensure even curing. You can also add...

11. Optional flavors: When you're putting on the salt, you can add flavorings--jalapenos, garlic, orange peel, spice blends or any number of tasty additions. A good rule of thumb is if you like it on pork, you'll probably like it on bacon. Feel free to get crazy with it. Each flavor should go in its own separate Ziploc, obviously.

12. Start the grill: Fire up those charcoal briquettes. Once they start getting less flamey and more glowy, you're going to push them all the way to one side of the grill.

13. Add the chips: Take a small handful and toss them right on top of the coals. They'll start smoking in a few seconds. I recommend standing downwind, if you can, to avoid irritating your eyes.

14. Get cooking: Cover your grate with foil, poke some holes in the half of the grate that's over the coals, and throw the pork on the other side

15. Total time: From the time you throw the pork on until the time it's done will take about three hours--you can go one hour more, or less, depending on how smoky you like it. If the smoke dissipates, add a handful of chips. If the heat's dying down, add a few coals. Look at the meat--if the fat is melting, your fire is too hot and you should get rid of a few coals, or remove the meat until the coals are a bit cooler.

16. You've got bacon: After three hours, you'll have a not-very-pretty looking hunk of meat. It'll be dark, brown, dirty, maybe even look burned on the edges. Don't worry--as with many other things in life, it's what's on the inside that counts. At this point, if your butcher didn't remove the rind, you can do that yourself--it works best when the meat is still warm. You can use two forks--one to hold the meat, the other to pierce and peel the rind. Discard the rind, or, if you're so inclined, use it to make your own smoky pork rinds.

17. Cutting it up: Use a sharp, long knife to cut about 1/4 inch thick. Thickness really affects flavor and texture--thick bacon cooks crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, and is just overall more fun to eat than super-skinny strips.

18. Cooking it: There are two best ways to cook it. One, do it stovetop with a skillet (cast-iron works best) over medium heat until it's browned on both sides. Or, you could cook on a cookie sheet (with sides, to catch the grease) in a 350-degree oven--it'll take around 15 minutes, maybe more or less depending on the thickness of the bacon and your personal taste. Do not cook in the microwave, or the Bacon Police will come and take your pork strips away, because you don't deserve them.

19. Storing it: You can store your bacon in Ziplocs or other airtight containers. It lasts in the fridge about two weeks, or in the freezer for about two months. Store either sliced or whole, it doesn't matter.

20. Wrapping it up: If you  have any questions about how to make your own bacon, feel free to hit my blog (you're here right now) or drop me a line on Twitter: JenniSpinner.

Bonus post-Ignite tip: You can take this exact process, end to end, and smoke nearly any other kind of meat. Get fresh ham from your butcher to make homemade ham for Easter. Smoke your own Memphis-style ribs. Smoke your Thanksgiving turkey. You'll need to adjust cooking times, depending on the type, size and thickness of meat, but it'll work great.

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