Wood smoking is a time-tested way to preserve meat. Properly cured meat will keep for years; smoking it imparts flavor and some additional protection from pests and spoilage. In this article I’ll describe how I made salt-cured pork side meat and show you how I smoked it to make homemade bacon. The results far exceeded my expectations, which were already quite high.
There are other methods of food preservation, and you should use them all for redundancy. These include canning, freezing, and jerking. One of the great advantages of smoke curing is that it can be done very easily with very little in the way of materials or technology.
What you’ll need to salt-cure the bacon
I slaughtered a 380-lb hog and had about 130 lbs of hams, shoulders, and side meat to cure, so I mixed up a large batch of seasoning. You’ll need to adjust your quantities depending on how much meat you’re curing. For every 100 lbs of meat I used:
- 8 lbs salt
- 2 oz saltpeter (potassium nitrate) — some recipes call for up to 3.5 oz per 100 lbs, so you should confirm this.
That’s it. I didn’t use any sugar, but if you choose to, it will help counter the harshness of the salt. Just add 3 lbs of sugar to the cure. Rub the cure thoroughly on all exposed surfaces of your side meat. To make bacon I cure the side meat for 7 days per inch of thickness. I turn them over and give them a second rub with a little more salt halfway through. These are approximate times; the warmer it is, the quicker the salt permeates the meat, and for every day the temperature drops below freezing I add a day to the cure, unless the highs were above, say 50 degrees or so.
I know this sounds sort of nebulous, but I don’t have a controlled environment in which to do my cures, like a meat locker. I have to live with the weather and adjust the times based on my experience. We had a ridiculously warm period right after I slaughtered the hog. Butchering day was well into the 60s, which made for some hectic preparation. We had to work with ice, coolers, and many trips between the freezer and the prep table outside. I would much rather have had temperatures in the 30s.
Be warned that you’re not supposed to cure your product in temperatures above 40 degrees. Our exceeded that every day and turned out fine, but you really need a meat locker.
After the meat is cured, rub off the salt under running water, let it dry, and then optionally give it a heavy coat of pepper.
Trivia: For hams I figure a day-and-a-half per pound. For a corned shoulder I figure half of that, and then I freeze them.
Smoking the bacon
I like a light smoke, if any. I use salt pork for a number of things in addition to making fried bacon strips. These include seasoning beans, chili, and stews, and for these I prefer cured pork that hasn’t been smoke. I even like the breakfast bacon to have a very mild smoke; every one I’ve ever bought was too smoky for my taste. So for me, smoking my own salt pork is the way to go.
Keep it very simple. I have an old block well house on the property, and I stripped out the equipment to make room for smoking. To hang the meat, I drove nails in the rafters. The smoke is provided quite simply by building a small fire on the floor, building up a small bed of coals, and slowly feeding green aromatic smokewoods to the fire.
This is a cold-smoke process; it will not cook the meat. In fact, when I started this we were hit with the coldest weather of the season and the temperature in the smokehouse never exceeded about 50 degrees.
Ideally, you should keep the smoke going constantly and get it over with, but if it goes out, just restart it. For a light smoke like mine, give it about 10-20 hours of smoke, depending how thick a smoke you’re able to contain in the smokehouse.
Woods for smoking meat
The following woods are all acceptable choices:
- Fruit woods such as apple, cherry, pear, and crabapple are my favorite choices. I’ve never tried citrus.
- Oak is a tolerable choice, but it can be very tannic and impart an acrid taste. I used oak as the fire base and it turned out fine, but again, I did a light smoke. If you prefer a richer smoke you would have doubled the smoke time that I used, and it might have turned out harsh.
Woods to avoid when smoking meat
I’m sure there are many others you should avoid, but these are some that I know are especially nasty:
- All conifers
- Crape Myrtle
What to expect
It’s easy to check the meat — use the nose. Just take a piece off the nail and smell it. You should do this outside the smokehouse, though, so you’re sure to smell the smokiness of the meat itself, and not of the environment.
This takes practice, but it’s a valuable survival skill. It’s the kind of thing that can greatly improve your quality of life in the Zombie Apocalypse.