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What's more fun than learning how to make bacon at home?
To get just the right balance of salty-sweet for our bacon we used a 2:1 ratio of maple sugar to salt. Cooking low-and-slow for nearly 2 hours over pungent hickory chunks imparted just the right amount of smoke flavor without overwhelming the pork. Finally, while not critical to the recipe, a touch of pink salt lent that characteristic "cured" taste to our bacon and helped preserve it for weeks in the refrigerator.
Start today, enjoy in 1 week.
1. Combine sugar, salt, peppercorns, thyme, pink salt, and bay leaf in small bowl. Place pork belly in 13 by 9-inch baking dish and rub all sides and edges of pork belly with dry cure mixture. Cover dish tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until pork feels firm yet still pliable, 7 to 10 days, flipping meat every other day.
2. Thoroughly rinse pork with cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
3. Open bottom vent of smoker completely. Arrange 25 unlit charcoal briquettes (1 1/2 quarts) in center of smoker in even layer. Light large chimney starter three-quarters filled with charcoal briquettes (4 1/2 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over unlit coals. Place wood chunks on coals. Assemble smoker and fill water pan with water according to manufacturer's instructions. Cover smoker and open lid vent completely. Heat smoker until hot and wood chunks are smoking, about 5 minutes.
4. Clean and oil smoker grate. Place pork belly meat side down in center of grate. Cover (positioning lid vent over pork) and smoke until pork registers 150 degrees, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
5. Remove bacon from smoker and let cool completely before slicing. (Bacon can be wrapped tightly in plastic and refrigerated for up to 1 month or frozen for up to 2 months.)
FOR BACON ON A CHARCOAL GRILL: In step 3, open bottom vent of charcoal grill halfway and place large disposable roasting pan filled with 2 cups water on 1 side of grill. Arrange 16 unlit charcoal briquettes (1 quart)evenly over half of grill opposite roasting pan. Light large chimney starter one-third filled with charcoal briquettes (2 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over unlit coals. Place wood chunks on coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot and wood chunks are smoking, about 5 minutes. Clean and oil cooking grate. Place pork belly meat side down on cooler side of grill over water-filled pan and smoke as directed in step 4.
PINK SALT: Curing salt goes by many names, including DQ Curing Salt and Insta Cure #1, but it's most commonly labeled pink salt, so that's the term we use in the test kitchen. Curing salt is important for curing meats because it contains nitrites, which prevent bacterial growth, boost the meaty flavor, and preserve the red color. You can find curing salt in specialty food stores or through online retailers such as Butcher & Packer. (Do not substitute Morton's Tender Quick or Insta Cure #2.)
MAPLE SUGAR: Maple sugar, which is made from maple syrup, is available in many grocery stores and online from King Arthur Flour and various Vermont maple farms.