Sow Belly Bacon

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. Super nice lady – we will miss her and her beautiful pork as this is to be her last litter – she’s moving to sunnier pastures. We will be picking up our last side of pork from her next week.  It will be a bittersweet moment…

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.

these bellies are beautiful! At least 3 - 4 inches thick.

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.

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charcoal getting started in the chimney

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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:

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and the after shots:

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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!

Postscript

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…

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About La Femme Farmer

Starting up a small farm is the goal for the second half of my life. It's a late start I know, but better late than NEVER! Growing food, cooking and eating are my passions and now I get to do it full-time (and then some). and yes, that's a tomato from my garden!
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12 Responses to Sow Belly Bacon

  1. DM says:

    I am beyond jealous. this is one of my favorite blog posts food wise of anybody of all time. I LOVE bacon..those pictures are to die for….and as for saving the rendered fat. next time, pack it in dry ice and send it to me 😉 My grandpa on my dad’s side would cook everything in lard… lived to be 99 (he also chewed and had few other vices as well…anyway, would love to get my hands on some pasture raised sow belly, 😉

    • Howdy DM! M is a big bacon lover too. He is always saying “you know what would make this taste better?” and we always respond with lots of eye rolling “bacon”. Don’t get me wrong – we render the back fat and use it for cooking and the leaf lard for pie crusts. I’m not missing out on any pork fat, just drawing the line at saving bacon drippings!

  2. Ah, but wait until you use maple syrup in your sow belly bacon cure… As you said, beware that slippery slope.

    We just did two big sows. The meat was reserved by chefs long before they went to the butcher. Each side of bacon is about 18 lbs to 20 lbs so about 40 lbs of belly per pig. One was Tamworth and one was from our Mainline breeding.

    • Thanks for stopping by Walter! We have done a maple syrup cure on other bellies – not sure why I didn’t this time though – ding dang it! Oh well, we are picking up a side of Tamworth pork from the same farmer next weekend so we can do a maple batch then. The sow was a Tamworth as well.
      40lbs of bacon – oh my! Makes my heart skip a beat…

  3. I was just going to say that we do half of ours with maple syrup in the cure. 40 lbs of bacon – heaven! We are going to have to try the garlic/bay/pepper one, we’ve stuck to very basic cures these first few efforts.

    Those pictures of the slabs when they were smoked, oh. my goodness. I could practically swoon. I haven’t had sow belly as anything but sausage, don’t know if it will come my way anytime soon, but stand prepared, thanks to you!

    I will confess that I save my bacon dripping in a tin in the fridge, and use it to fry potato and onion, etc I learned to do it as a child, and just kept on. Sometimes bacon fat gets ahead of my fry ups and then I put it out for the birds, though only a bit at a time because of the rats.

    Wonderful post. I’m so glad M got home in time for such a breakfast!

    • Thanks SSF! As long as we are confessing truths… I really WANT to keep a can in the fridge with bacon drippings for just that same reason but M has been on a health kick (and for good reason) plus my best friend is a health educator and personal trainer and I just don’t think they’d let me get away with it. 😒
      Good idea about giving it to the birds – just don’t let DM hear you say that!

  4. OH MY!!! I think I am in Love… Do I see pigs in our future…….

  5. I just found the PERFECT justification for keeping a can of bacon drippings in the fridge: bacon-fat-fried pulled pork hoecake sandwich. Need I say more?
    http://www.americastestkitchenfeed.com/field-notes/2014/08/cooks-country-goes-south-part-2-a-preacher-and-his-pulled-pork/

  6. farmerkhaiti says:

    great post, but….I cannot believe you toss out the bacon fat?!?! We tried our hand at curing and cold smoking bacon from our huge gilt who never got bred, it was SO amazing, but I think I over smoked it, we just at it more like a condiment than a portion.

  7. Hey Farmer Khaiti – if you don’t tell anyone – especially my BFF – I’ll start keeping a can in the fridge.

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