After my first attempt at curing and smoking bacon at home, I came across some discussions that mentioned skipping the skinning process altogether. The main consensus was that it's just easier to take the skin off after smoking. However, there wasn't a definite answer on the whether or not the cure or flavor was affected. So I decided to do a side-by-side cure/cook. This instructable also outlines the process I have used to make bacon for a few years now and it has always come out great! It's also a great opportunity to make some delicious pork cracklings too!
Step 1: The Bellies and the Cure
I started with two whole bellies, about 18 lbs total. I cut both bellies in half, skinned two halves and left the other two untouched. I decided to use this opportunity to try out some other flavors: Plain, Coffee, BBQ, and Maple Brown Sugar. The four cure recipes I used are below. 1/4 of the Base Cure was used for the plain portion and the remaining 3 portions had spices or ingredients added. The different cures were mixed up, rubbed on, and refrigerated for 7 days (flipping once a day to redistribute the juices/cure).
Base Cure -- Split into 4 parts, 1 part used for Plain
- 1 TB Pink Curing Salt
- 1 Cup Kosher Salt
- 1/4 Cup Pepper
Flavor Additions (Added to 1 part of the base cure)
- 1/4 Cup Ground Coffee
- 1/2 TB Chili Powder
- 1/2 TB Paprika
- 1/2 TB Cumin
- 1/2 TB Garlic Powder
- Rubbed with Maple Syrup Before Cure is Applied and Right Before Smoking
- 1/2 TB Cinnamon
- 1/2 TB Nutmeg
- 2 TB Brown Sugar
Step 2: Smoking and Slicing
The day before the smoke, the cure was rinsed off and the bellies were soaked in water for 12 to 24 hours. I fired up my weber smokey mountain, patted the bellies dry, and smoked at 225F for 4 hours/internal temperature of 150F. The end result turned out great. The skin came off very easily with the "skin on" belly and the only difference that I could tell is that you don't have the nice looking smoky bark on half of the slab of bacon. Some BBQ Gloves help when it's time to take the bacon off the smoker and during the skin removal. After the skin was removed, I wrapped the bellies in parchment paper and allowed them to cool in the fridge. If the bacon is too hot, slicing is a mess. I used a large slicing knife to make thin cuts of bacon and vacuum sealed them in 1/2 LB portions.
I noticed no difference in the effectiveness of the cure or the overall flavor of the final product. It's much easier to just leave the skin on and remove it after cooking. I believe the initial skinning process can be skipped without any repercussions. The maple flavor came out the best and was my favorite. When it's fried up it smells and tastes just as you would imagine, smoked pork covered in maple syrup. Perfect with some pancakes or waffles. I saved a bit of skin and made cracklings.
Step 3: Trimmings and Pork Cracklings
After the bellies are smoked, you need to trim them to get good full slices of bacon. You will end up with quite a bit of trimmings and skin. I freeze the chunks of smoked pork belly, remove them from the freezer as needed, and add them to things like beans or greens. With the skin, I like to cut them into small pieces, freeze them, and use them in stocks and soups.
On the day of the smoke, I like to make cracklings. These are super simple to make and are absolutely delicious. I look for pieces of skin with some fat still on them, cut them into small 1 inch by 1 inch squares, throw them in a skillet, and cook them on medium heat until crunchy. When crispy, I remove them, place them on a paper towel to soak up excess grease, and sprinkle on some BBQ rub or just plain salt.