Miso Bacon

You know how Coldplay sounds like diet Radiohead? That’s how regular bacon tastes compared to the miso-cured version; miso bacon is deeper, tangier, creamier, and has much more umami. The enzymes in the miso soften the meat while the salt and sugar firm it up; the result has a different density and is more sensual. The profound flavors of the miso add overtones to the meat, giving it a haunting complexity. It’s so very good.

I touched on the absurdity of food trends as exemplified by pork belly here, and I don’t have much more to add on that subject right now. I’ve been making bacon for a few years now, and the current version is the result of various tinkering and refinements made to successive efforts. The most important part of my technique is using miso as the basis for the cure. I find traditional cures of salt and sugar to be fine, but miso gives a more interesting result, both in flavor and texture. The osmotic pressure that salt and sugar exert on muscle cells is pretty extreme, which is great for dehydrating (the point of curing, after all) and transporting flavor into the tissues, but it also toughens the meat. Miso coddles the belly in unctuous protein full of live cultures that add a wonderful fermented tang and depth of flavor. The resulting bacon has a lovely softness.

In past iterations I’ve combined miso variously with umeboshi paste, maple syrup, coffee, herbs and spices of all sorts (I made a Thai-flavored batch once with lemongrass, lime leaves, ginger, galangal, and hot peppers) to good effect. This time around the cure was simple: locally-produced miso and even more locally made maple syrup. My focus with this batch was to lighten my touch a little bit; previous efforts have been seriously good, but this time I was looking for something that could do a little bit more and be eaten more like belly. There are many fabulous uses for the feral intensity of my last bacon, but eating a hunk of it as the center of a dish is not among them, and I wanted that option. I augmented this paste with some sea salt–just plain miso needs much more time, and the pork never quite firms up the same way–and lasciviously slathered it all over the two pieces of belly (which I bought from a farm across the river) putting each one into a pyrex baking dish once covered. The dishes went in the fridge, where they stayed for two weeks, each taking turns weighing the other down.

On a recent day of most welcome mildness, I fired up the smoker with maple branches from the tree in back and set the meat in there until it reached just shy of 150˚ in the center. I brought it back into the kitchen, let it rest for a bit, then cut it into roughly one-pound blocks for vacuum-sealing and freezing. I like to slice it thick, and crosswise into smallish squares, so that instead of long thin slices that get brittle too quickly, the result is more like big lardons that can crisp on the outside and stay tender and chewy within. It’s excellent in all regular bacon applications, from breakfast to frisée aux lardons to lentil soup and cassoulet, and this new batch also allows for more main-coursey uses as well.

Like pork belly tartes tatin with maple/cider vinegar caramel, for example. I left one of those hunks out of the freezer and poached it in a quart of phở that I pulled out of the same. I love phở, and try to always have some form of it on hand. Duck, lamb, turkey, beef–I find it to be one of the very most versatile stocks there is. It blends seamlessly with cuisines from Morocco to India to Asia (obviously) to good old American barbecue. And for braising a pork belly? Holy shit. It cooked at a bare simmer for five hours until it would have fallen apart if I turned up the radio.

Then I cut it into pieces and tucked it into ramekins that I had lined with a generous drool of a thick caramel made from the phở, apple cider, maple syrup, brown sugar, and homemade cider vinegar. I used scraps and trimmings to fill in around the edges, and then crimped in rounds of tart crust. They baked in a pyrex dish to catch all the blorps of porky caramel until the tops were well browned, then rested to cool a bit and bring the caramel back to a viscosity that wouldn’t gush all over when plated. And then I inverted them on plates, and we had at them.

The vinegar kept the caramel from getting too sweet, though there was a sweetness. The phở spices made deep and tender love to the smoky pork, and the crust–my Grandmother’s, of course, which is the best ever–provided a substrate with crunch and character enough to not be overwhelmed by the hedonistic superlatives that it bore heroically to our mouths. That it was also Valentine’s day I chalk up to good fortune, and good planning.

This here is part of that Charcutepalooza thing I mentioned recently. There are some good people involved, and demystifying the subject of meat-curing is a topic I can fully get behind.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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