When you’re curing your own pork belly, are you supposed to leave the bacon skin on or off? This is a question that’s plagued many beginners, and even experienced chefs continue to debate the topic.
There are arguments to be made for both sides. In the end, it’s a matter of preference, but that doesn’t mean the topic isn’t worthy of discussion. Let’s find out whether it’s better to leave bacon skin on or take it off.
Bacon Skin On Or Off
You can leave the bacon skin on or off when you smoke the pork belly, depending on preference. It’s easier to remove once the meat has been cured and smoked, but some experts prefer to trim off the skin beforehand and use it to make pork cracklings.
What Is Bacon Made Of?
Some of you might be wondering what we mean by skin on bacon, since the kind you buy in the store doesn’t have anything that you would refer to as “skin.” In order to understand what we’re talking about, you need to know where bacon comes from.
Bacon is a form of salt-cured pork, usually made from the belly (or side) of the hog. It’s possible to make bacon from the back or even the jowls, but the most popular version (at least in the US) is made of pork belly.
Although you can have the butcher remove the skin for you (see below), pork belly is usually sold with the skin on. When it’s cooked correctly, the skin crisps up and gives the resulting dish a wonderful crunchy texture.
What Supplies Will You Need To Make My Own Bacon?
First of all, purchase a supply of high-quality pork belly. A whole belly sold with the skin on should weigh about 10-12 pounds. This should yield 6 to 8 pounds of delicious bacon.
You’ll also need a good curing salt. Pink curing salt, also known as Prague powder, is standard. You can buy this at specialty food stores or order it from an online retailer if you can’t find it at your local supermarket. In the recipe section below, we’ll discuss other seasonings you can experiment with to get the flavor you want.
Note that you need to use Prague powder sparingly. If you put too much of it in the curing mixture, the bacon will taste overly salty.
A pellet smoker is the ideal tool for cured bacon, but you can use any type of smoker as long as it’s reliable. Try using a fruit wood like cherry or apple, or boost the smoke flavor by adding hickory pellets. Maple is another excellent choice.
The last tool you’ll need in your arsenal is a reliable instant-read meat thermometer. It’s important for the smoker temperature to remain consistent, without climbing too high. Otherwise, you’ll be cooking the pork belly instead of making smoked bacon.
Should You Cure Bacon With The Skin On Or Off?
As we pointed out, most butchers will sell the pork belly with the skin still attached. That’s because it’s delicious when it’s allowed to crisp up. Even if you opt to remove it before cooking, you can use it to make pork cracklings.
If you leave the skin on the pork belly during the curing and smoking process, it will be easier to remove. When the pork is raw, you’ll need to use a sharp knife and some elbow grease to take the skin off. Once the meat is cured, it will peel off more easily.
Some purists insist that the seasoning and smoke flavor have a hard time penetrating the skin. That’s why they decide to remove it beforehand.
While we believe there’s a solid case to be made for both arguments, we haven’t noticed any real difference in flavor when the skin is left on during the smoke. Since it’s so much easier to take it off after the bacon is cured, we think it’s better to wait until then to remove it.
Possible Flavor Combinations
First of all, you’ll need a base cure of 2 teaspoons pink curing salt, 1/2 cup kosher salt, and 2 tablespoons of black pepper. This should be enough to season a 10- to 12-pound pork belly.
For maple-brown sugar-cured bacon, rub the pork belly all over with maple syrup. Add 1 tablespoon cinnamon, 1 tablespoon nutmeg, and 1/4 cup brown sugar to the base cure. Pat this mixture all over the pork belly before setting it in the refrigerator to cure.
You can also try a spicy-sweet combo by adding 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup honey, 2 tablespoons crushed red pepper, and 2 tablespoons paprika to the base cure. Rub the paste over the surface of the pork belly, place it in a large resealable plastic bag, and set it in the fridge for 7-10 days.
How To Make Homemade Bacon
Start with a whole pork belly and one of the curing blends suggested above. For best results, cut the pork into two halves. This will make it easier for them to fit inside the fridge, which is crucial since they’ll need to cure for at least a week.
After treating the pork belly halves with the cure, seal them tightly in plastic bags and refrigerate for 7 to 10 days. Try to rotate the meat in the bag once per day to allow the cure to redistribute, along with the pork’s natural juices.
The day before you smoke the bacon, rinse off the cure. Pat the pork belly dry with paper towels and return it to the refrigerator. Let it rest uncovered overnight.
Set the smoker to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. When it reaches the right temp, add the pork belly and let it smoke until it cooks to 150 degrees. This should take 3 to 4 hours.
When the bacon has reached the optimal temperature, take it out of the smoker and set it aside to cool. Now is the time to remove the skin. Wear a set of heatproof gloves, if necessary, and save or discard the skin as desired.
Once you’ve removed the skin from the pork belly, place it back in the refrigerator so that the fat will have a chance to re-solidify. The bacon will also slice more easily if it’s chilled.
Carve the bacon into slices. One of the best things about homemade bacon is that you can slice the meat as thick or as thin as you prefer.
Store the slices in tightly sealed plastic bags and cook as desired. The bacon should keep in the fridge for up to 1 week, and will maintain its integrity for up to 2 months in the freezer.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve purchased pork belly from the butcher and they’ve already taken the skin off, it shouldn’t affect the flavor of your smoked bacon.
On the other hand, there’s no reason to remove the skin until after you’ve smoked the pork belly. You’ll have an easier time taking it off at that point, and the bacon should still taste amazing.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!