Wednesday, April 28, 2010

DIY Bacon Part II: The Smoke

It's time! After a week or so of anxious waiting while your pork belly cures, the time has come to seal the deal and smoke your bacon!

Previously, I showed you how to cure fresh pork belly to begin making your own American-style bacon. What really separates American bacon from other types of cured pork belly, like Italian Pancetta, for example, is the smoking process. In this post I'll tell you how to smoke your cured pork belly to complete your bacon!

First, a little bit on smoke. Smoke is a collection of airborne solids, liquids, and gases that arise from incomplete combustion (burning) of a material. The composition of the smoke depends on what material you are burning. In the case of smoke used for food production, we are talking about wood smoke, specifically from burning hardwood, including oak, maple, or hickory wood.

(some smoke)

Human beings have been smoking meat for pretty much as long as they had meat to smoke. Dating back to prehistoric times, humans have used the smoking process as a means of preserving meat. This happens by a couple processes. First, chemicals that are present in wood smoke (including phenols) help to prevent fats from going rancid and others (including formaldehyde) prevent bacterial growth. However, since the smoke only gets at the outside of the meat (or whatever you're smoking), it doesn't completely prevent the food from going bad. Since smoking meat over a fire is often accompanied by heating and drying of the meat, this also helps the meat from going bad, as long as you've heated and dried it enough to prevent bacterial growth. Unfortunately, what you end up with in this case is something like beef jerkey. For a moister smoked meat, like the bacon we're making, curing the meat beforehand with salt and sodium nitrate will prevent bacterial growth within the meat, so we don't have to heat or dry it as much. However, because the meat is not thoroughly dried and salted, and because it is so available to us in our modern kitchens, bacon should always be stored in the refrigerator.

After the fold, Materials and Methods for smoking your bacon, with pics...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What you don't know about OJ

At the Smithsonian Magazine website, there's an interesting article about where your year-round supply of "fresh" orange juice comes from, including some surprising facts. For example, the article, based on Alissa Hamilton’s book "Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice," claims that most orange juice is not at all "fresh" or "natural"- it can be stored for up to a year before anyone drinks it, and contains basically unregulated flavor additives.

(via BoingBoing)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

DIY Bacon Part I: The Cure

It's that time of year again - the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the farmers' market has the very first things that actually grew this year (hooray ramps!), and those of us with access to one are itching to use our outdoor grills. The rental Gods have bestowed upon me and my apartment a "backyard" (actually more like an alley with two spindly trees in it) in which I can grill things to my heart's content. As a kickoff to this grilling season, I decided to do a DIY food project I have tried once before (with much success): curing and smoking my own bacon.

It may seem a like a lot of work, but actually making your own bacon is very manageable (and, I think, fun and rather satisfying). I have found the most difficult part of the whole process has been to find the primary ingredient: raw, uncured pork belly. I was recently delighted to find this at my local Fairway Market, but it can also be found at Asian or Latin markets or ordered from your friendly local butcher.

The next steps to make American-style bacon are to 1) cure the meat and 2) smoke it. The first part, the cure, is the subject of today's post. Curing meat is a process that preserves meat by treating it with salt, sugar, and a preservative like sodium nitrate. Salt is of primary importance when curing meat, since high levels of salt are the primary method of preservation here. Salt inhibits the growth of microorganisms by absorbing all available water by osmosis, preventing spoilage. Sugar and other ingredients in the cure add flavor to the meat.

The use of sodium nitrate (or nitrite) serves several purposes, including inhibiting bacterial growth (including the growth of toxic botulinum bacteria, the cause of botulism) and giving cured meat its characteristic flavor and pink color.  Sodium nitrate or nitrite causes this color by breaking down into nitric oxide (NO) within the meat and binding to the heme group within myoglobin, an oxygen-binding protein present in muscle tissue. This prevents oxidation of the iron-containing heme and causes it to appear a red color. We will add sodium nitrate to our cure in the form of pink salt or curing salt, which is 93.75% table salt combined with 6.25% sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite and dyed pink for identification. It's available for purchase here.
(pink salt)
Materials and Methods for curing the pork belly, as well as pics, after the fold:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hexane in Veggie Burgers


Here's an interesting story about how non-organic soy protein isolate (commonly used in foods like vegetarian burgers) is made using a neurotoxic solvent called hexane (somewhat ironically, hexane is an organic solvent - in this case "organic" means carbon-based instead of the food production designation). The FDA does not monitor or regulate hexane levels in food.

I think it's time to stop assuming that anything made with soy protein is automatically healthy - stories like this, information about how soy monoculture is harming the environment as well as the farming industry, and questions about the biological activity of soy isoflavones (chemicals present in soy and soy products) make me think that soy is not a panacea for our health problems, but just another food that should be eaten in moderation as part of a varied diet.

(via BoingBoing)

Update: There have been some rumors going around that this study was funded by the Weston A. Price Foundation, a pro-meat anti-vegetarian group, but this turns out not to be the case. For an update and interesting FAQ on hexane and veggie burgers, check out More on Veggie Burgers and Neurotoxins (from Mother Jones) and also take a look at  Hexane and Soyburgers: A retraction (from BoingBoing) for info on the rumors. Also, several other news sources have picked up the story.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Urban foraging

Over at BoingBoing, a neat post about urban vegetable foraging. Now that the weather has (finally!) warmed up here in the northeast, all sorts of greenery is poking its head out of the soil. If you're in NYC and interested in urban foraging, you can take an inexpensive walk with "Wildman" Steve Brill in an NYC park to forage for edible plants.