2 pounds pork belly, trimmed and rinsed
2 dried chiles, such as pasilla
2 tablespoons sea salt
¼ teaspoon Instacure #1 (optional, but do not omit if smoking)
¼ cup maple sugar
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
Prepare the pork belly. Rinse and pat dry. Toast the dried chiles until they are fragrant. Remove the stems and crumble them into a small bowl. Add the salt, Instacure #1, sugar and spices to the bowl and mix very well. Lay the pork belly out on a working surface, and rub the salt mixture evenly over all sides. Slip the pork belly into a 1 gallon Ziploc bag, and press out the excess air.
Place the bag flat in the refrigerator. Every day, flip the bag over to redistribute the moisture that will begin to seep from the cure. Rub the belly through the bag, to incorporate all the seasonings deep into the meat. This step makes a big difference, so don’t skip it. After 7 days, remove the pork belly from the bag. It should feel firm all over, like a well-cooked steak. If parts still feel too squishy, massage it well all over and place it back in the fridge for another day until it feels firm all over.
Rinse the meat well and pat it dry. If you have not used a curing agent in the recipe, the bacon can be chilled and sliced at this time, and stored in the fridge or freezer, as directed below.
To smoke the bacon, place on a rack set over a baking sheet and put it back in the fridge, uncovered, for one more day. This will allow the salts to equalize and cause a pellicle to form, so that the bacon does not dry out while smoking. Heat a smoker to 175° or 200° F. If you do not have a smoker, a barbecue kept at a low smoldering heat will suffice; periodically sprinkle damp apple or hickory sawdust over a bed of hot coals to create a fragrant smoke, and keep the vents open just enough to keep the coals barely alive. In all cases, monitor the temperature carefully make sure that it remains below 200°; the goal is not to cook, but to dry, cure and flavor the meat.
Place the cured pork belly on a rack in the smoker, fat side up, or hang it from a hook in a larger smoker. Hot-smoke the meat for about 2 hours, until the internal temperature registers as 150° F. Test the bacon in several places to ensure that the internal temperature has reached the right temperature, but do not let it get hotter than that. If the internal temperature of the meat does not rise to this level, smoke the meat for 2 hours and finish heating in an oven.
Remove the bacon from the smoker and allow it to cool. Place it in a fresh Ziploc bag and refrigerate. Allow the bacon to chill for 4 hours or overnight, so that the meat firms up and it is easier to slice. You can also slip it into the freezer for a short time to make it extra firm for even slicing. Slice the bacon to the desired thickness. Seal it in individual portions with a vacuum sealer, and store the excess in the freezer. Sealed bacon will keep in the refrigerator for up to 10 days and in the freezer for 6 months.
Jessica Tunis lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains and spends her time tending gardens, telling stories, and cultivating adventure and good food in wild places.