The woman we get our Tamworth pork from kindly gave us a tour of her farm and pig operation earlier this year. As an added bonus she sent us home with pork belly, a roast and a loads of lard from her freezer. The pork was from one her sows she culled after it started to get ornery. I think because we always ask for the offal, trotters, leaf lard and any of those other unwanted parts from other customers orders – coupled with the fact she knows we like to fiddle around with charcuterie - she thought we would enjoy experimenting with sow meat.
I found very little online or in the many meat and charcuterie books we have on our shelf about cooking or curing sow meat specifically, but had read on Sugar Mountain’s blog that meat from sows pastured and not fed conventional feed is considered to be very good. The meat is more flavorful as it has had longer than six months to develop. Apparently sow bellies are prized by chefs. Who knew? Yay for us! Not surprisingly, sows raised in Big Ag operations are quite fatty, not very edible and typically get ground in their entirety for sausage.
I slow cooked one of the roasts in the crock pot as added insurance because I was afraid it would be tough and chewy if I roasted it. That was before I read Sugar Mountain’s post. I finished it under the broiler to crispy up the fat layer on top. It was delicious. It took me awhile to get around to dealing with the sow bellies (crazy busy summer/fall), but I suppose the saying is true in this case - good things come to those who wait.
Aren’t those bellies beautiful?
It turned out to be sixteen pounds of pork belly! I divided them into six manageable portions and followed Ruhlman’s bacon curing recommendations from his book Charcuterie. I made three packages of sweet using his basic pork cure and adding in organic dark cane sugar, and three packages of savory – each bag a slight variation: basic cure plus one with cracked pepper, one with bay leaves and cracked pepper, and one with several cloves of fresh smashed garlic, bay leaves and cracked pepper.
Getting ready to pop them into the fridge for the cure
After about two weeks of flipping the bags every other day the bellies were ready for smoking. You know they are ready when the meat is firm to the touch. Regular pork belly takes only about a week to ten days but because these bellies were at least 4 inches thick they needed a little longer to cure completely. I sliced a couple of pieces to fry off to make sure they were ready. Too salty - soak in cold water for a day. Not salty enough – leave it for a couple more days of curing. Just right - pop those babies into the smoker and start planning breakfast!
M is the usually the Smoker King around here, but he had to head out to the farm to meet the well guy and tie up a few loose ends before our electrical inspection so I had to step up to the plate (pun intended). He texted me his tips and tricks so between that, the Brinkman Smoker instruction booklet and Cook’s Illustrated Meat Book – I managed.
charcoal getting started in the chimney
I soaked the hickory chips in water overnight
I put the sweet portions on the top rack and the savory ones on the bottom rack. A little sweet drippings on the savories sounded better than the savory drippings on the sweets. The book said about 1 1/2 – 2 hours or when the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees. Again, since these were a lot thicker than your typical belly, it took 3 hours. About mid-way through I tossed in more charcoal and chips.
The before shots:
and the after shots:
Looks pretty good…
Poor M – he’s out at the farm all by himself and although it isn’t raining (for once!) the temps have been way down in the teens. That’s pretty cold for us cool temperate types. He’s freezing his fingers and toes off while I’m here at home playing Domestic Goddess. The woodstove has been burning non-stop, the bacon’s been smoking, a loaf of bread baking in the oven and kombucha fermenting away. I texted him that if he can make it home sometime tonight there will be a lovely breakfast in bed for him tomorrow morning. Freshly laid eggs, homemade toasted bread and what will hopefully be some of the best bacon we’ve ever tasted!
M did make it home last night and enjoyed his breakfast this morning. We scarfed the bacon down before I had a chance to take a photo though. M offered to choke down another plate full if I wanted to cook one up, but for the sake of his arteries I passed.
As to how sow belly compares to regular pork belly – the meat has more depth of flavor for sure. It tastes, well, meatier. It’s richer – I almost want to say “more sophisiticated” but that sounds a little weird. (The saying “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” is running through my head!) I can see why they are prized by chefs. They have a unique flavor that is not to be missed.
But be careful – it’s a slippery slope. You start out loving store-bought bacon because that’s all you know. Then you raise your awareness and start seeking out pastured pork that eats a wide variety of forages and any feed it is given is the good stuff – not gmo, pesticide-laced, mono-cropped crap corn. Now you’re hooked. You can’t believe how good it is and that you’ve wasted all those years on Hormel. You try different breeds and each one is better than the one before. It’s like your taste buds have grown up. Your palate is now more developed. But then a friend offers you a sample of sow belly bacon, and now you’ve entered into a whole new world of porky goodness.
One other observation on the sow belly – there’s more fat, but most of that renders out into the pan. I confess there’s a part of me that always hesitates when tossing the rendered fat out. Having a father from Alabama and a step-father from Kentucky – the bacon fat always went into a coffee can and was kept in the fridge. We fried potatoes, eggs, cooked green beans, etc… using that fat and although fat from pastured pork is a whole helluva lot better for you than factory farmed pork fat – I have to force myself to draw a line there. and when I say force – I mean it.
The sow bacon definitely sealed the deal on our justification for getting a decent meat slicer. Slicing it thin is hard with just a knife. I’m not saying it’s chewier in a bad way – but it would be even better if we could slice it thinner, especially because of the thickness of the bellies – 4 inches wide is a pretty stout piece of bacon!
The bay leaf and black pepper is a delicious combination. If you aren’t growing your own bay – stop reading right this second and get one immediately! They grow well in pots for a few years if you don’t have space in your garden. The flavor of fresh bay leaf is a whole different experience than what you get dried up in a jar at the grocery store. I use fresh bay leaf in a lot more of my cooking now – the flavor is incredible and the aromatics are out of this world.
The garlic, bay and black pepper – AMAZING!!! Not particularly my first choice for breakfast though unless you are frying it up with potatoes and onions, but it will be great when you need to add a little pork flavor to other dishes.
The brown sugar is still my favorite – perfect for breakfast. The caramelized sugar and the crispy fat are a match made in heaven. Excuse me while I swoon…