The Eating Life: Making bacon means learning language of salt, smoke and time

Monday, February 4, 2013 at 9:05pm
By Nicki Pendleton Wood, City Paper correspondent
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Bacon from Porter Road Butcher (Michael W. Bunch/SouthComm)

 

Tuesdays and Thursdays at Porter Road Butcher are bacon days. It starts with the obvious — pig parts, specifically the belly, a hunk of porcine real estate so valuable that it was traded by lots of 40,000 pounds on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for 50 years until 2011.

The next step is obvious too — salt. Not delicious by itself, but with the power to make other food delicious.

And then time. A few days into the process, the pork has a completely different consistency and flavor.

There you have it — the basic elements of bacon. Some use pink curing salt. Some add sugar and seasonings to the meat. Some, Porter Road Butcher included, smoke it. But it all begins with pork, salt and time.

Bacon’s story is simple, but this isn’t just a story about bacon. It’s the story of a chemical reaction, a love affair, an unexpected hero, and reclaiming heritage.

 

 

For centuries of American history, the advent of cold weather meant hog-killing time. A big hog provided too much fresh meat to eat or store for very long, even after the introduction of refrigeration in the late 19th century. Stashing the pork in fat or salt protected it from spoilage, and the salt, in particular, changed the meat’s physical character.

Salt draws water out of the muscle tissue, which starts out about 70 percent water. As food scientist Dwight Loveday of the University of Tennessee explained, “When you change the salt concentration like that, the ionics change, and that causes the release of water, which in meat is bound by chemistry.” When the pork emerges from the salt, it’s firmer and drier. It’s bacon.

In Tennessee, the word “meat” historically meant bacon. It was breakfast, it was dinner. It provided the seasoning that transformed meager fare like greens and cornmeal into a substantial meal for generations of Middle Tennesseans. Its rind was thrown into bean pots, its fat used for cooking. If the state had an animal spirit, bacon would be it.

And then bacon processing changed, moving from home or neighboring farms to larger and larger commercial operations. “Wet-curing” sped up the process by injecting the meat with cure solution. That made it possible to cure bacon in a day, with the meat ready for smoking the following day. Different process, different result, still delicious, still the staple of Southern breakfast.

And it’s a favorite on the Nashville menus: bacon cheeseburgers at McCabe Pub; spinach salad at Noshville, The Picnic and everywhere else; the bacon Bloody Mary at Cabana, and the bacon old-fashioned at Patterson House; the unashamedly naked bacon sampler at [Pub]licity in Bellevue, and the bacon chocolate chip cookies with maple glaze at The Turnip Truck.

Bacon’s most glorious moment may be late summer, when it’s paired with local tomatoes for the BLT, each celestial bite bringing fireworks of salty, chewy, sweet, soft and acidic. Eating summer’s last BLT is a poignant moment, but like break-up sex, knowing it’s the end makes the moment more savory.

 

 

The future is never what it looks like from here, and that includes the next history-making event in Tennessee bacon-ography: In the early 1970s, a young school guidance counselor named Allan Benton took over a ham and bacon curing business in a little town in East Tennessee, producing traditional hams and bacon the way his grandparents had.

He struggled at first — it was a small business in a small town surrounded by even smaller towns. Competing with inexpensively produced wet-cured bacon wasn’t easy. He persevered, though, and asked for advice along the way, consulting with UT professor of food science and technology Dwight Loveday. In the early 1990s, the luxury resort Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., began buying bacon from Benton. Chef John Fleer asked Benton if he could use the name on his menu. There it was: Benton’s Bacon.

Gradually, Benton’s product became a sort of fairy dust that chefs worked into dishes for a whiff of wood smoke and the salty caress of pork that transforms ordinary food or drink into something deeply Southern. Sean Brock, the former Nashville chef who opened the celebrated Husk restaurant in Charleston, S.C., helped popularize it nationally, as did David Chang, proprietor of Manhattan’s Momofuku restaurants — which use hundreds of pounds of Benton’s products each month.

In Nashville, you don’t have to hunt for the storied Benton’s bacon in restaurants — it finds you. A little Benton’s bacon fat tops the chicken liver pate at Lockeland Table. Lazzaroli Pasta uses it to stuff ravioli. Mitchell Deli builds BLTs and turkey-bacon-avocado sandwiches from it. Sunset Grill’s love of Benton’s extends to spinach salad, collard greens, pizza and butterbean confit.

 

 

 

Benton himself told City Paper reporter Ken Whitehouse that making bacon “isn’t rocket science. If it was, I couldn’t do it.”

Nashvillian Alan Good read a lot about Benton and his methods before he decided to try making bacon at home.

The first delivery of pork belly surprised him — it was huge. And then the farmer produced the other half. Good used the cure popularized in Michael Ruhlman’s 2005 book Charcuterie: brown sugar, salt, pink curing salt.

A week or 10 days curing in Pyrex, and the pork puts out a lot of liquid, which Good says infuses flavor further into the meat. After a rinse, the meat dries on a rack in the fridge a few days until it develops pellicle — the shiny, dry exterior that holds smoke well.

About that smoking, he’s tried a couple of things. The electric smoker was iffy, and not really a success. Instead, cold-smoking, which involved shooting the smoke six feet through hoses into a big Styrofoam cooler holding the bacon — that worked.

The result, Good says, “doesn’t taste like what you buy in the store. You taste the cure a lot more, and it retains more of the salty character. It doesn’t shrivel like regular bacon, and crisps up in a different way. It remains meaty, and the smoke is very prominent.” Good says that when he uses his super-smoky bacon in a pasta sauce, “it’s all you taste.”

Part-time chicken and goat farmer Hannah Coffey starts from scratch: She kills and dresses the hogs herself, then takes them to the meat processor for cutting. “It’s responsible. It’s humane, ethical and fiscally responsible. If you’re going to eat something dead, you should know where it came from.” Coffey was born on a farm and raised off the grid, so curing was a process familiar to her.

She does something rare — in fact unseen — in Tennessee: She takes meat from the ribs to use for bacon. Tennesseans love their ribs, and usually the meat is left on the bones, but Coffey likes the texture that rib meat brings to bacon.

Her rub choice is a 3-to-1 mixture of salt and sugar, plus a fillip of molasses. It’s a high ratio because she wants “to err on the side of safety. “And safety is salty.

“Some people want it a little sweeter,” she says, “but I want my bacon to last forever.”

The molasses serves as “a good substitute for nitrites and nitrates, and it seals out the air and makes an anaerobic finish” she says.

Coffey doesn’t smoke the meat, preferring not to overwhelm the pork’s delicate taste. The cure is rinsed off, and she adds one last layer of flavor — either a sweet finish or sage, then vacuum-packs and freezes the bacon in 3- or 4-pound pieces. To cook it, Coffey cuts the meat against the grain, slicing across the fasciae for a more tender result.

It’s hard to overestimate the role of food blogs in inspiring ordinary people to make and utilize bacon. If the Internet is about anything besides porn and cat videos, it’s about bacon, with pictures, recipes, step-by-steps and whole threads devoted to plumbing its mysteries.

That’s sort of how local food blogger Rob Marlow (you may know him by his blog handle, Ulika BBQ) came to it. Marlow had been smoking meats for years before he met legendary Nolensville barbecue joint owner Pat Martin, read his blog, talked to chefs, read more blogs and was captivated by the idea that he’d make bacon at home.

He began by using Martin’s cure, then developed his own. “I like a combination of salty and sweet,” he explains, to complement the Berkshire pork bellies he gets from Eden Farms. He stacks 40 pounds of rubbed pork in big plastic tubs for several days, then smokes for two to four days over hickory wood for a not-excessively-smoky finish.

He invested in a slicer because homemade bacon is harder to slice than you might imagine. He vacuum-seals it in 1-pound packages and freezes it and shares with select friends.

Twenty years ago, it seemed a generation of young people was being raised on convenience products and fast food, with little exposure to from-scratch home cooking, much less the traditional crafts of pickling, salting and smoking. But there it is again: The future is never going to be what it looks like from here.

 

 

Back at Porter Road Butcher, the meat hits the smoker grates, and smoke from the charcoal — handmade in Pegram of white oak, cherry and hickory — courses across the slabs. Chris Carter adjusts the slabs — he knows his smoker’s quirks very well. Once the meat’s on, there’s nothing to do for the next six hours but wait for salt, smoke and time to work their alchemical wizardry.

“We do it because we really like making bacon,” shrugs Carter, gently closing the smoker lid, as if tucking it into a warm bed.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the cost of pork belly from Porter Road Butcher. The cost is difficult to estimate because the shop gets their product from whole hogs, not individually.