Monday, October 31, 2011
Sugar-free Canadian Bacon
Curing your own meat at home sounds intimidating to some people, but if it wasn’t a lazy activity, I promise I wouldn’t be doing it. Charcuterie is the fancy term for curing meat, and it is also the title of a FANTASTIC book by Michael Ruhlman. If you are at all interested in meat preservation, sausage making, and many other gourmet meat treats I can’t suggest this book highly enough!
Sweetener is a necessary part of many cured meat products because it balances the extreme saltiness needed for preservation of meat. I looked everywhere for sugar-free bacon and sugar-free Canadian bacon but couldn’t find it; so of course, I figured it out on my own. Stevia powder works great for this! I am wary of artificial sweeteners. There is a lot of research out there and it is conflicting, so we just avoid them when possible. Also, I was unsure if there would be any bizarre chemical reactions between the sodium nitrite essential to the curing process and the chemicals in the artificial sweeteners.
While sugar-free was my main concern, many more people flip their lids over nitrites and nitrates. There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to this subject. Nitrites are essential for making that cured meat flavor, pink color and keeping meat safely preserved (botulism is no fun!). Unfortunately, they have an undeserved bad reputation. “Spinach, beets, radishes, celery, and cabbages are among the vegetables that generally contain very high concentrations of nitrates (J. Food Sci., 52:1632). The nitrate content of vegetables is affected by maturity, soil conditions, fertilizer, variety, etc. It has been estimated that 10 percent of the human exposure to nitrite in the digestive tract comes from cured meats and 90 percent comes from vegetables and other sources.” Did you get that? Vegetables, not cured meat, are the main source of nitrates in our diet.
“Uncured” bacon that you see in the market falls into a marketing & USDA labeling gray zone. Because sodium nitrate/nitrite is not directly added to the process it cannot be labeled as a cured meat. The fact that naturally occurring nitrates in vegetables are used as the curing medium is quietly dismissed since it allows marketing folks to create an illusion of a healthier product and charge more. Applegate Farms is one of the companies that is more honest about the nitrite/nitrate issue and has an excellent FAQ explaining the differences.
Long before you could go to Amazon.com to order your sodium nitrite, saltpeter (AKA potassium nitrite) was used for the curing process. Saltpeter is also an ingredient in fireworks and gun powder and was traditionally created through a process that involves mixing urine (or manure), straw and wood ash. Even though I am very much a DIY gal, I don’t see myself harvesting urine to make saltpeter anytime soon.
Modern meat curing relies on sodium nitrite, which also goes by the names of Instacure #1, Prague Powder #1, DQ Cure #1, DC Curing Salt, Pink Salt and a few other names. It is dyed pink so as to avoid any accidental confusion with regular salt (it is the nitrite, not the dye that gives cured meat its recognizable pink color). It is mainly made up of salt as a carrier for the small amount of nitrite. It is available from many sources: Amazon, Butcher and Packer, The Meadow and a variety of other places. Prices are all over the board for the same product, shop smartly!
Much more can be written about curing meat and nitrates, but I’m more interested in getting to the actual simplicity of the recipe instead of the complexity of the science and health arguments. If you are interested, you can read more here:
Nitrite in Meat
Meat Curing Safety Issues
The No Nitrites Added Hoax
REPORT 9 OF THE COUNCIL ON SCIENTIFIC AFFAIRS (A-04), Labeling of Nitrite Content of Processed Foods
Sugar-free Canadian Bacon
8-10 pound whole pork loin
1 gallon of water
12 oz Salt
1.5 oz Prague Powder #1
1.5 tsp Pure Stevia Powder
8 Bay leaves
1/4 cup dried rubbed sage
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
Combine all but pork in a large pot over high heat until dissolved, and then chill completely. Submerge pork loin fully in brine for 48 hours. Remove from brine, rinse and dry thoroughly. Allow to rest on rack in fridge 12-24 hours, uncovered. Hot smoke and/or low roast in 200 to 250 degree oven until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Refrigerate completed pork up to 2 weeks, or portion as desired and freeze for future use.
Certainly you have questions!
Do I need to make 10 pounds!?
How many cups is 1 gallon of water?
16 cups is one gallon. When dissolving the salts in the water, you can speed the chilling process by using only 1/2 the water and adding in the remaining water (in the form of ice or cold water) once the salts are dissolved. It isn’t necessary to bring the brine to a full boil, just heat and stir until everything is dissolved. I start the brine in the morning and let it cool to room temperature by the afternoon. Once at room temperature, I stick it in the fridge to cool even further. The key is that you don’t want to be putting raw meat into hot brine. Once it is cool by evening, I then submerge the loin in the brine. This sets me up for the time schedule to take the pork out in a couple of nights for an overnight drying in the fridge and then to start smoking the next morning.
You need one that will hold all your brine and all your pork loin. I use an 8 quart stock pot which is just about perfect. Depending on the size of the pork loin, I might need to pour off a small amount of the brine, just so it isn’t filled to the brim and spilling as I move it to the fridge. Make sure to use a non-reactive container, glass or stainless steel is best, cast iron and aluminum are not for this project.
Do I have to weigh the salt?
Yes. Different grinds of salt, when measured by volume, have different weights, i.e. light and fluffy kosher salt vs super-fine salt. The only way to assure that you have a safe amount of salt in your brine is to weigh it. You can use whatever salt you would like, provided it has no fillers or anti-caking agents or other additives. Diamond brand Kosher Flake Salt or Morton’s Canning and Pickling Salt are two that I have used with great results. The key is that the only ingredient should be salt. Save your fancy sea salts and finishing salts for another project.
I don’t like sage, can I use another herb?
Sure, you can use whatever seasonings you like. The part you can’t mess around with is the water, salt and curing salt ratio. Here’s a version of Canadian Bacon from Michael Ruhlman’s blog. The sweetener and flavorings are adjustable to personal preferences. Maybe you want to throw in some hot peppers or orange zest, go crazy, it’s your project!
I don’t care if it is sugar-free, how much sugar would I use?
If the stevia powder isn’t for you, feel free to use whatever sweetener you would like to the equivalent of 1 cup sugar. Brown sugar, white sugar, demura sugar, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup... totally up to you! I use Kal Brand Pure Stevia Powder, but I’m sure there are others out there. Be cautious with some of the supermarket stevia blends, many have ingredients that might not work well in a brine. Sweetener, whatever you use, balances the large amount of salt in cured meats. Since it isn’t essential to the chemical preservation, which comes from the salt and curing salt, you can adjust this to personal taste.
I put my pot of brine in the sink before adding the pork loin, just to avoid any potential overflows on the kitchen counter. To keep the meat submerged, I place a salad plate on top which offers enough weight to keep the meat under. Depending on the size of the loin and how it is arranged in the pot, I might adjust the position of the pork pieces half way through the soaking process. It probably isn’t necessary, but it makes me content to play with my project and assure that all parts get a good exposure to the brine.
Why do I rinse and dry and let sit in the fridge uncovered?
The time scheduling is confusing me, how do I calculate it?
Day 1 morning: make brine and allow to cool at room temperature
Day 1 afternoon: move room temperature brine to fridge to chill
Day 1 evening: submerge pork loin in brine
Day 2: patience and dreams of porky goodness
Day 3 evening: remove from brine and place on rack to develop pellicle
Day 4 morning, afternoon or evening: smoke and/or roast
If you want to finish on a Saturday, begin on Wednesday morning. Yes, this takes many days, but the steps themselves take about 5 minutes each and the rest of your time can be spent napping.
How long does the smoking/roasting process take?
Several hours. It is hard to say beyond that because all smokers and ovens are different. In my smoker it takes about 2-3 hours for a pan of chips and then another 2-3 hours in the oven (200 to 250 degrees) for the meat to reach 145 degrees internally. If you aren’t smoking and are just roasting in the oven, I would think 3-4 hours. Start checking your temperature when you pull from the smoker, or about 2 hours into roasting.
That’s a personal preference. The first time I made this recipe I used 2 pans of apple wood chips and it was a bit too smoky, closer in flavor to streaky bacon than Canadian bacon. I now use one pan of chips, which goes for about 2-3 hours in the smoker, and then finish in the oven. Apple wood is my preferred wood chip since it is sweet and mild. Mesquite is a really hearty and strong smoke and I find it over powering for bacon, better suited for a grilled steak. Hickory is a favorite smoke for bacon, and cherry or other fruit woods are good, too.
What kind of smoker?
I use a Little Chief smoker. I created an insulation blanket out of HVAC insulation to boost the heat a bit because it never really gets warm enough for me to completely finish my meat to temperature. Because of this, I first smoke my meats and then finish them in a low oven. If you don’t have a smoker, you’ll miss out on a bit of the flavor, but the oven works just fine and you still have a great cured meat to enjoy. A Google search can provide many ideas on how you can smoke meat in your oven, which might work if you have really great ventilation in your kitchen.
Now go get busy Makin' Bacon!