Rebecca Schofield

Chapter 3

Curing Bacon

There are times when I find myself listening very carefully to what my husband is saying, usually around his birthday or Christmas time, in order to glean any clue as to what I can buy for him as a gift.  He is very reticent to come forward with ideas, and often mutters that he doesn't need anything, so I was very pleased with myself when I spotted an advert for butchery courses.

I must explain that early in my husband's career he was in the wine trade and with that came an interest in cooking.  Although his career path later followed a different route, he has never lost his interest in food and wine, so much so that when he retired, he decided to take over the daily catering for the pair of us.

Having spent my life lecturing and teaching cookery, I was, as you may appreciate, rather taken aback.  It didn't take me long, however, to appreciate the advantages, and I embraced it, especially as he is a very good cook.

I admit, reluctantly, that when men cook, they often do the job rather well.  From experience, having taught mixed classes of boys and girls, I found that the boys who had a natural gift and flair were a delight to watch.  They had a nonchalance about them, were not precious or phased by the processes involved, and turned out fabulous imaginative dishes with steady firm hands.  I hope that over the years the simplicity has not been overtaken, however, by the example set by cheffy chefs on the television who present dishes where a conserved petal, a battered pea or a thrice-pickled bean is placed 'just so' and food becomes a work of art or a stage set.  There is a place for cooking and serving food to the highest standard of skill and finesse, but not in the everyday lives of mere mortals.

I do rather marvel at the skill of these chefs and wonder at their expertise though, so I bought the course and sent my delighted husband away for a day.  He returned in the evening with sausage, bacon and honed knife skills for boning out meat.  This has added a new dimension to our lives and we now always have dry cured bacon in our freezer.

From November until late January, there are usually 'foires de porc' in the supermarkets in France and it is possible to buy pork in bulk very reasonably priced, so this is the time to buy a large piece of poitrine for streaky bacon, or in fact rolled shoulder or leg joints for gammon.  It does require preparation, about an hour in total, although I'm sure the butcher would bone out the poitrine for you if asked nicely, but once you have done it and compared the taste to the bacon you generally buy, which isn't easily sourced in France, you will be hooked.

 Buy a lean poitrine and trim off any excess fat and skin.

With a sharp knife, ease away the meat from the bone as shown above and below.

Weigh the meat and calculate 5% of the weight.  This is the amount of salting product you should use.

(e.g. For 1 kilo of meat, use 50 gm of curing salt).

Rub the salt over both sides.  Place in the refrigerator for a week, turning it over each day.

After a week, wash the salt away and dry with kitchen roll, or leave in the refrigerator for a few hours to dry and cut into slices ready to use.

We have a bacon slicer, but as the course tutor said to my husband, you don't  need one, just perfect you knife skills!  You can of course slice it quite thickly to serve as gammon slices if you wish.  The resulting bacon is dry cured as opposed to the wet cured process used by most  manufacturers, which means that the flavour is enhanced.  When fried it is crisp, it doesn't spit in the pan, and there isn't a milky residue left behind.

Below is an article written by Joe Schwarz PhD on the 20th March 2017 in order to allay any doubts as to the safety of curing meat with nitrites, and a couple of ideas which you may like to try using bacon.

Nitrates and nitrites are used to 'cure' meat.  Their role was likely discovered by accident and can be traced to the use of salt that happened to be contaminated with potassium or sodium nitrate, commonly known as 'saltpeter'.  Meat treated with these chemicals retains a red colour, acquires a characteristic taste, and most importantly, is less amenable to contamination with disease-causing bacteria, particularly the very dangerous Clostridium botulinum.

By the 1980s it became apparent that certain bacteria were capable of converting nitrates into nitrites and that nitrites were the actual active species.  Consequently, nitrites are now added directly to processed meat instead of relying on bacteria to produce them from nitrates.  This allows for better control of nitrite concentrations, a critical aspect of processed meat production.  Why critical?  Because it is well known that nitrites can react with amines, naturally-occurring compounds present in meat as well as in human tissues to form nitrosamines.

And that is the fly in the hot dog.  Nitrosamines can trigger cancer!  Of course, demonstrating that nitrosamines can produce mutations in a Petri dish, or that animals treated with high doses develop cancer, does not mean that these compounds are responsible for cancers in humans.  In any case, changes in manufacturing methods and a reduction in the amount of added nitrite have essentially solved the problem of nitrosamine formation in cured meat.

In spite of the epidemiological evidence linking nitrites to cancer being weak and the established fact that 95% of all the nitrite we ingest comes from bacterial conversion of nitrates naturally found in vegetables, many consumers have a lingering concern about eating nitrite-cured processed meats.  But one person’s concern is another’s business opportunity.  In this case, producers have responded with an array of 'natural' and 'organic' processed meats sporting catchy phrases such as 'no synthetic preservatives' or 'no nitrites added.'

But given the crucial role nitrites play in processed meats, how do you replace them?  Well, you don't.  You just replace the source of the nitrite.  Celery has a very high concentration of natural nitrate, and treating celery juice with a bacterial culture produces nitrite.  The concentrated juice can then be used to produce 'no nitrite added' processed meat.

Curiously, regulations stipulate that the traditional curing process requires the addition of nitrite and thus 'organic' processed meats that are treated with celery juice have to be labeled as 'uncured'.  Such terminology is confusing because most consumers look to 'organic' processed meats in order to avoid nitrites, but the fact is that these do contain nitrites, sometimes in lesser, sometimes in greater amounts than found in conventional products.  That's because the amount of nitrite that forms from nitrate in celery juice is hard to monitor, while in conventionally-cured processed meats, the addition of nitrite is strictly controlled by regulations designed to minimize nitrosamine formation and maximize protection against botulism.  This means any risk due to nitrosamine formation or bacterial contamination in the 'organic' version is more challenging to evaluate.

So what does all of this mean?  Basically, that buying 'organic' hot dogs or bacon with a view towards living longer by avoiding nitrites makes no sense.  Limiting such foods because of their high fat and salt content, whether organic or conventional, makes very good sense.  Cutting them out totally, as the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine would have us do, no thanks.  Remember that it is unrealistic to evaluate every bite of food as being 'healthy' or 'unhealthy'.  It is the overall diet that matters.  It is possible to avoid cured meats completely and still have a terrible diet while one can have a healthy diet by occasionally indulging in these tasty morsels.  Emphasize a mostly plant-based diet by all means, but dogmatic tirades against hot dogs?  That's ideology, not science.

You will need a cooked piece of ham/gammon and about 14 rashers of bacon according to the size of the joint to be covered.  Weave the topping as shown, then turn the board.  It is on over onto the ham.  Carefully drop the woven mat onto the joint and tuck in the edges.  You may like to try glazing the bacon with honey or maple syrup before cooking at 325 F/160C/Gas 3 for 30 minutes a kilo.

The bacon wrap imparts a wonderful juiciness to the gammon inside.  There will be quite a lot of trimmings produced during the process of slicing the bacon and these can be used as lardons in quiches, stir fries, risottos, etc.   When the poitrine is boned out, you are left with the rib bones and they can be marinaded or glazed, then barbecued or cooked in the oven.  Absolutely delicious!

© 2018 Sylvia Teale