Charcutepalooza Challenge #2: The Salt Cure

This month’s Charcutepalooza challenge was The Salt Cure. Using Charcuterie
as our reference guide, Cathy and Kim tasked us with making fresh bacon.

home cured bacon sliced

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned at some point that in my teenage years, I was a vegetarian. And that in my early twenties, I was vegan. I love animals, and honestly would prefer not to eat them. But health-wise, neither of these diets worked for me, so I’ve been eating animal foods for the last 15 years or so.

The amount of meat-y posts that you see on this blog is a pretty accurate reflection of how often I eat meat (not all that often). I am not afraid to admit that I enjoy bacon, though: I’m not obsessed with it (I don’t put it in cupcakes or anything) but I like to have a piece or two for breakfast every now and then. And sometimes I use it in my recipes. Because let’s face it: nothing tastes like bacon. I always buy bacon that is labeled as “uncured”/”nitrite-free” and always suggest my readers do the same when I use it in a recipe like this one because I have concerns about the connection between nitrites and cancer.

I had a lot of reasons for signing on for Charcutepalooza. Among them: I adore Cathy and Kim, I enjoy community blogging events, the grand prizes are great, and I am a big fan of DIY kitchen projects. But maybe the biggest reason is because I care about the food I eat. I care A LOT. And I am not talking about taste here.

I care about what’s in what I eat. This is why I use only real food ingredients when I cook. This is why I garden. And keep organic chickens. And shlep to buy raw milk. And it’s why I write this blog: to inspire others to care, as well.

So I found the idea of making homemade bacon without preservatives, with the best quality pork belly available, very appealing.

Then I looked over the bacon pages in Charcuterie. And I got a little worried. Turns out bacon gets it’s characteristic color and flavor from something called pink salt (aka “curing salt”…not Himalayan pink salt); pink salt is also helpful for discouraging the growth of bad bacteria, something you definitely don’t want in your homemade bacon. None of this would be a problem for me except for the fact that pink salt contains nitrites. Plus it is neon colored and needs to be handled with gloves: it’s not something I wanted to put into food I was going to eat and feed my family. Have we Abramsons ingested foods containing pink salt before? Yes, I am sure we have. But did I want to use it if I could avoid doing so? No.

Please be assured that I am not judging anyone else for using pink salt.
I just wanted to make my bacon without it.

So I re-read the bacon pages in Charcuterie and noted that Ruhlman says it’s ok to make bacon without pink salt. It’s just not going to taste like commercial bacon. I reasoned with myself: I wasn’t planning to smoke it so already it wasn’t going to taste like “normal” bacon, right? During the tweet-up with charcuterie expert Bob Degrasso, I asked a lot of questions: I was basically looking to confirm that I would not die if I didn’t use pink salt. Bob wasn’t entirely supportive about not using the pink salt (he believes the reasons to use it far outweigh the reasons not to) but he didn’t outright call me an idiot either. Which I appreciated ;) I did learn that I’d be an idiot to make rolled pancetta without pink salt, though. If you do that, you really could die of botulism…

If you want to read more about pink salt and other issues related to food safety and meat curing, Ruhlman recently published this post: his stance is clear: he doesn’t think pink salt poses any health threat whatsoever if you use it in the small amounts that his and other charcuterie recipes recommend. He also points out that when you are purchasing “nitrite-free” bacon in the store, you are purchasing bacon made with celery juice instead of pink salt, but that celery juice is, in truth, a natural source of nitrites. Hmmm….

Call me stubborn, but I still didn’t want to use pink salt.

I did some research online and found this recipe for home cured bacon from Saveur. It does not include pink salt, so this is the bacon I made.

I used a 5 pound piece of organic and grass-fed pork belly that I purchased at Fleishers. The folks there were entirely supportive of me making bacon without pink salt by the way. It’s how they make it in-house, because they understand that people who make the trek and spend the money to buy pastured meat for health and ethical reasons also want to be able to buy bacon made without pink salt.

So. When I got it home, I noticed that the layer of skin with the nipples was still attached to the belly. It made me a little uncomfortable. And a little sad. This was the belly of an animal. A real live animal- one with nipples. I don’t mean to sound corny but this was kind of a “big” moment for me. I mean, how easy is it to walk into the store and pick up a package of bacon or meat or whatever, take it home and cook it, and be completely disconnected from the fact that it was once a whole live animal? In this day and age, even if you are accustomed to buying your meats from a farmer, I think it is still easy to disconnect yourself from the real live animal that provided that meat. It reminded me that it’s so important to be grateful for the animal foods, for all the foods, really, that we get to eat. Again, not meaning to be corny here- just letting you know what came up for me when I was making bacon.

But I digress. Back to the recipe. Besides doubling all of the rub ingredients to accommodate the larger piece of pork belly, I made a few substitutions in the Saveur recipe: I used dark muscovado sugar in place of white sugar, I used a mix of four peppercorns including pink peppercorns, and I used dried sage instead of dried rosemary.

I massaged that belly, nipples and all, with the spice rub. Then, for seven days, I kept the belly in a zip lock bag in the refrigerator, and massaged it some more each and every day. After the week, I rinsed off the rub (which had developed into a brine at that point). Make sure to rinse it really well, or your bacon runs the risk of being too salty.

This is what it looked like after the brining/rinsing:

home cured bacon

After it was rinsed and thoroughly dried, I roasted the bacon at a very low temperature as instructed in the recipe. Then, with a very sharp knife, I cut off the skin (along with the nipples), and sliced it (thick is best for homemade bacon). I put my bacon in the freezer for storage because this is the safest place to keep it if you make it without pink salt.

I haven’t yet mentioned that I had a mini freak out when I bought my pork belly because it was really expensive. Like $76 for the 5 pounds expensive. It was honestly a gorgeous piece of belly, though (nipples and all). Thick and fatty like pork belly should be. If you are making bacon at home, I personally don’t see the point of purchasing a cheap piece of belly to do it with. It’s just my opinion and if you don’t want to spend big bucks on pork belly that’s your business…I just feel like you might as well “go big or go home” when it comes to stuff like this: invest in the best ingredients you can afford, then savor and be grateful for each and every bite.

If you have a nice and fatty pork belly, there’s probably an area that’s pretty much all fat. You can cube this part up and make lardons. I’ve actually never had lardons before this challenge, but fried some up and put them on top of soup. I can’t remember the exact words I used on twitter, but it was something to the tune of: “they are morsels of salty, fatty deliciousness”. Seriously…I have a stash of these in the freezer now and look forward to using them in other dishes.

I found that when I fried my homemade bacon, it tended to burn easily. So I tried baking it instead, and was much happier with the results. My favorite way to cook it is to take a couple of slices out of the freezer to defrost, rub them generously with ground cinnamon and pure maple syrup, then place them on a rack over a baking pan in a 375 degree F. oven until they are beautifully browned. It takes about 20 minutes. Here is the cinnamon maple bacon over a fried egg (from my chickens) with gluten-free toast:

bacon sandwich

I will definitely be making bacon again. And I will definitely continue to do so with pricey nipple-on pork belly, without pink salt. If a future Charcutepalooza challenge asks us to make something where it’s truly not safe to substitute regular salt for the pink salt, I will consider making a different decision. I love Charcutepalooza, but don’t want to die for it.

In addition to making homemade bacon, I also decided to make two other recipes that illustrate the concept of the salt cure. So I made a big jar of preserved Meyer lemons. I used the super easy recipe from Charcuterie. All you need is lots and lots of salt…

and lemons. Lots of those, too. I was lucky enough to have Meyer lemons sent to me by the lovely Kim of Rustic Garden Bistro, but you can use regular lemons, too (organic are best, though, since you are going to be ingesting the peels). You shake your jar daily for a month, then you’ve got preserved lemons to last, well, these are going to last me a very long time.

preserved meyer lemons

Finally, I made salt cod, using sustainable Alaskan cod from Vital Choice. Salt cod (aka Baccala) is something I have never had before but I had the cod in my freezer and it’s easy to make. All you need is- you guessed it- cod and salt (Matt Wright did an excellent post about salt cod here).

salt cod

Salt cod is a traditional food popular in areas of Europe including Italy and Portugal. Originally prepared because of practical reasons (it was a way to keep fish preserved for a long time back when there was no refrigeration), it is still enjoyed in those parts of the world for reasons of taste. I plan to use it in a soup in the very near future, and will share the recipe when I do.

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63 thoughts on “Charcutepalooza Challenge #2: The Salt Cure”

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  9. Really interesting post Winnie. We have kept pigs for the last few years but our local butcher cures all the meat for us. I have had a lot of pork belly in the past (nipples and all!) so will have to try this some time. Our pigs have a pretty good life the time they are with us. They get to roam around in an open field and eat all the apples that fall from the trees. I guess it does make me feel better about eating them because I know where they are from. I also ate salt cod when we were in Portugal a few yrs ago although I have to say it wasn’t my favourite. Again, thanks for sharing this!

  10. Now I think this is a great post, Winnie – you should always stick to your guns and if you have to be stubborn about it, be stubborn about it! Especially when it’s something as important to you as healthy living! I think your bacon turned out beautifully – and nitrite-free!

    I also totally understand the animal epiphany moment – I had one of those myself recently and it’s changing how I’m considering what I eat and where I buy it from.

    Jax x

  11. Great post, and great looking bacon, Winnie! Mine had nipples too, and it was a little odd, to say the least. It was expensive, but totally worth it. Mine was the best I’ve ever made/had. Now, what I’m intrigued by is that salt cod. Cool!!

  12. You are a woman after my own heart. I’ve cured bacon myself before, also without nitrates and would like to try it again. I understood that the bacon is supposed to release water during the process and you pour it off so I did that but then it then there was no more water the next couple days. I thought I needed more of the salt rub. I added more and then my bacon was too salty. It was tasty but I only use it for things that also need lots of salt. This is my first time visiting this blog and I can’t believe that the first post contains bacon, cured lemons, and salt cod. Three things I love. I also can’t eat gluten so the free-range egg on gluten-free toast with bacon on top is right up my alley. Thanks for you’re wonderful blog. I look forward to reading more!
    – Sara

  13. Winnie, what a beautiful blog entry — so thoughtful, honest & well written. I’m a fan of your recipes on Food52 & am now a fan of your blog as well. Thanks for sharing your love of food, the planet & our health.

  14. Hi Winnie! I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated this post. So thoughtful, so well done. From your struggles with pink salt and the realization that the animal you were about to cure was, actually, real…well, I really understood! I think that I first experienced a similar feeling of disconnect and wanting to produce a good, wholesome product when I made my sausages last fall. Something about starting from absolute scratch does that, and I think it’s wonderful that this charcutepalooza is inspiring so many people to reconnect with our food roots! Beautifully done!

  15. Wonderful post. Thank you.

    Two comments: first as a chemist, I’d like to add to matt’s comment that celery juice/powder/extract is supplying the curing power to so-called “uncured” bacon and is much harder to predict as well. Better to have precise control over the addition, or to not add it in either celery or pink salt form at all. Second, better watch the veggie intake, since many veggies contain large amounts of nitrates which are converted by gut bacteria into nitrites, spinach and celery especially. Context and perspective are important. Worry when it’s necessary but not when it’s not.

    Lovely photos.

  16. Hi Winnie,
    I had a similiar unexpected meeting of the meat when I went to pick up my goat bellies for pancetta and had to look at the skinned head of the animal while I waited for the farmer to answer her door. I’ve deduced that while I want to generally know where my meat comes from, I don’t really want to face it quite that directly again. I too wrote about lardons! And I paid a TON for my bellies. Cathy called the price “shocking”! So many similiarities in our challenge this month. That said I am so pleased to have your trick for sweet bacon up my sleeve. Yum!

  17. I loved this post. You did a great job of capturing the concerns that hundreds of thousands have about nitrates without descending into melodrama. And your bacon looks fabulous. A very, very mentschy post. Kudos! Bob dG

  18. hi winnie. I would hope that you might give nitrates a second chance. I understand your concern with them, and I recently spent a lot of time researching nitrates, health concerns, and why they are used in meat curing.

    Long story short – you will eat FAR more nitrates if you ate a small spinach salad, or had potatoes for dinner than you would if you ate about half a salami in one sitting (which, even for me is impossible).

    Nitrates are the only way we have to protect against deadly botulism. You cannot smell it, see it, or know it is there. If you plan of curing for any length of time, or smoking, generally they are a must.

    Also – that bacon that buy that says “uncured/nitrate free”? yep, it is a lie. Companies use that as a marketing ploy (and it is allowed by the USDA) to sucker us more natural food eaters (I am one) in. What you will see in the ingredients list is either “celery powder” or “natural spices”. (celery powder is often listed under natural spices). Celery powder is a strong source of nitrates, and is used to make “uncured” bacon. Is it uncured? NO. the nitrate in celery powder works exactly the same was as nitrates in cure.

    What is more, it is really hard to determine the amount of nitrate in a batch of celery powder. It depends a lot on what the celery was grown in, how long it was grown for, and so on. What this means is that you could actually be consuming FAR more nitrate from products cured using celery powder than those cured from cure (which has an always constant amount of nitrate in).

    Finally, recently studies in Europe have actually shown that nitrate can be good for hearth health.

    The one thing I do agree with is that nitrATE when cooked at 500F or more, can form carcinogens. That is why nitrATE is banned in the production of bacon. NitrITE can be used (and is), in the correct amounts, and this gives off no carcinogens.

    Anyhow – lovely post. Great to see you doing the charcutpalooza competition. How did the salt cod turn out? that was one of my favorites.

  19. I’ve learned tons here, Winnie, and am so impressed that you took the step of making your own bacon. I’ve recently been researching home made corned beef and pastrami (my family used to make it when I was younger) but couldn’t get what I considered a satisfactory answer on the safety of leaving out the potassium nitrate. Thanks for sharing your own valuable research on that whole issue.

  20. Winnie, lovely post! I too spent a great amount of $ on my pork belly (not as much as your per lb tho) but I figured that I wanted the best quality I could afford for a project like this. It is amazing when you get that big slab of pork belly, and suddenly it hits you: this was a live animal not very long ago and now it’s sitting on you kitchen counter. Really puts things in perspective.

    I also made salt cod, but have not made anything with it yet. Your Meyer lemons look wonderful!

  21. I’m a bacalhau eater and love it! Being from Portugal I grew up enjoying the “salt cod” in its 1001 ways to cook it. It’s really a very appreciate dish around Europe and it’s a classy one too. Bacalhau. as we call in Portuguese is always a king in the table! Thanks for your post :)

  22. Goodness…what a great post. I don’t even know where to begin! I can say that I’m so intrigued by the return to so many traditional practices. I feel as the speed of our world increases, we long for the simpler days. I know that cooking and baking has allowed me to slow down, and I imagine that meat preserving is the same. This bacon looks delicious. I wish I could have sampled a bite. Thanks for sharing, sweet thing. Many blessing to you as the week unfolds.

  23. Beautiful post! I opted to not use pink salt also (and posted my reasons in my write up) but ours turned out too salty for our liking. And, our belly was not as beautiful (or meaty) as yours. But, I learned a lot and am going to try it again. I am interested in trying it using celery powder as I feel ok about using more natural sources of nitrites.
    Loved your vulnerability around the pig skin feelings. Thanks!

    • Which recipe did you use? Mine is indeed salty, but not too salty. I read it the Saveur recipe comments that you need to rinse it really well, so I did. I wonder how the celery juice/powder would work…?

  24. Winnie – I think this is a wonderfully thought out post. I debated the pink salt, really hated using it in my kitchen especially around the dogs, but I did it mostly for fear of me screwing up somehow and bacteria sneaking in.

    I absolutely adored the part of how the pig skin really made you think about where everything was coming from. I feel like that is such a huge part of this challenge, truly thinking about where you get the food that ends up on your table.

  25. Winnie, thank you for such a thorough and honest post about making this bacon. Now you’ve taught me about pink salt and white balance. I believe I see a trend in the making.

  26. This is such a great meditation on meat. I totally agree: one of the most appalling things I’ve ever heard anyone say was, “I only eat chicken breast because I don’t like to think about the fact that I’m eating an animal – the drumsticks freak me out.” If we’re going to eat animals, we owe it to them to respect them enough to deal with that freak out and recognize what we’re taking and what we’re eating. Thanks for sharing such an eloquent take on the issue!

  27. Thank you for showing respect for the pig and, frankly, for bacon. If I ever find a source of good tasting pastured pork nearby, I’ll be trying this recipe, too.

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  29. Beautifully thoughtful writing about your bacon, Winnie! I’ve enjoyed your gentle but persistent voice on twitter regarding nitrites as well; I’m a big fan of having more information to work with, and you’ve offered a thorough exploration of the nitrite issue. And your pictures are beautiful –especially those lemons. Mmm!

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I don’t get outspoken too often but I did feel strongly about avoiding the pink salt if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

  30. Cathy used the word “thoughtful” and that’s exactly what I was thinking as I read your post, along with considerate, kind and humane. Thanks for sharing your excitement and apprehension with us. If I didn’t already know before, there is a lot of TLC in Dr. Winnie’s Kitchen. And of course, as a by-product of all this, your bacon, lemons and cod all sound and look heavenly!

    • Lynn, I do not at all begrudge anyone using pink salt. I may even end up using it in a future challenge…who knows. The salt cod is super easy :)

  31. Your bacon looks great! I have had the nitrite talk with a lot of people and it amazes me how half the people have no idea what they are ingesting or what it even means. My boss buys “nitrite-free” bacon but has no idea that it does in fact contain natural nitrites.

    I’m also really jealous about all those meyer lemons. I need to make more meyer lemon growing blogger friends…haha.

    • I need to do more research to find out whether natural nitrites are as potentially harmful as the synthetic ones…haven’t found that info yet…
      I bought a Meyer lemon tree last year- in our area you need to keep it indoors in the winter and I don’t know if it will ever fruit- but if it does, I will share my lemons with you :)

  32. Great post Winnie and wonderful photographs. I too cured my bacon without pink salt. I also took the plunge and rolled some belly up and cured it for pancetta without pink salt. I made sure there were no air spaces inside and tied it up very tightly. I put some in white beans and had them for dinner last night. Delicious and no ill effects. I can smell the lardons frying to be added to the last of the beans as soon as I finish this comment.

    I will be curing some lemons soon. Interesting that you did salt cod. We had a vendor at our market week before last who has a fishing fleet in Alaska. He sold salmon at the market. Now he is back in Alaska fishing for cod. I want to get some from him and make salt cod too.

    • Thanks Duane for being my “partner in crime” in terms of not using pink salt. I am impressed you went for the rolled pancetta, too…living dangerously!

  33. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece about the meat we eat. You’ve such a nice job articulating exactly my feelings about the best meat, in small amounts, prepared with love and care. And your bacon egg and toast made my mouth water. For real. xoCathy