Monday, April 16, 2012

Questions about Nitrites & Home-Cured Bacon

Concerns about nitrites and nitrates in cured meats - bacon, hot dogs, etc. - are big in the real food world and have been for several years. Mainstream brands are including options that do not list sodium nitrite on the label, and you get to pay slightly more to get somewhat less bacon.

I am hard-core about eating nutritious foods. I do various and sundry weird things to increase the nutritional value of the foods we eat and I spend devote a lot of time to it. I pay extra to get far healthier versions of many ingredients, most notably pasture-based animal products. And I never did the "nitrite-free" thing.

Wait - aren't nitrites converted into nitrates and supposed to cause diseases? They're additives and so they're, like, bad and stuff, like, right?

I think it's smart to be anti-additive as a general rule of thumb, but that it's a bit quacky to be anti-additive in certain cases. This is one of those cases.

For purposes of discussion, I'm lumping nitrites and nitrates together a lot, because they interconvert by bacterial action in the body, so stay with me. The first and biggest reason I didn't "upgrade" to the "all-natural" stuff in this case is that those products almost always contain nitrates under the guise of celery powder or a similar additive. What's the point of avoiding nitrites by eating nitrates?

That leads me into my second reason. Cured meats contain negligible amounts of nitrites/nitrates in the context of the foods you eat and what is in your body. Not only do various vegetables, such as beets, lettuce, and the aforementioned celery, contain hundreds of times as much nitrite/nitrate, but your saliva is an even bigger source! According to nutrition researcher Chris Kresser, whose blog I highly recommend, you get 70-90% of your nitrite/nitrate exposure from saliva and about 93% of the rest from vegetables.

My third reason developed when I ate bacon that actually was uncured and nitrite-free. This means it wasn't bacon at all but sliced pork belly, and it tasted like...pork. It was like eating a thin slice of fatty pork chop. There's nothing in the world wrong with that, but when you're expecting bacon, it's a really lame experience. Trust me.

As it turns out, purported benefits of nitrites/nitrates are coming into the news cycle, and to be honest I never quite understood what the evils of them were. They can be converted into nitrosamines, which are a bit mutagenic and carcinogenic, but that's par for the course. You know all those antioxidants in fruits and vegetables? There's also evidence that eating the actual fruits and vegetables causes net oxidative damage, but I bet you're smart enough to know that's not a sufficient reason by itself to avoid produce. There are plenty of isolated compounds you can find in foods that show benefits or detriments, but that's not how we eat. What matters is the effect of the food itself and that's a topic for another post.

So what do I do for our bacon? I make our meat purchases from a pasture-based farm. Eating pigs that have spent time outdoors in the sun, eating decent food and allowed to behave naturally, is much more nutritious than eating abused pigs in confinement fed food they are not adapted to eating. The fatty acid profile is excellent in pastured pigs and pastured pig fat is second only to cod liver oil as a source of vitamin D. However, pastured bacon can easily run $9/lb.! That is crazy talk.

Then one day I saw pork bellies for sale at a much more decent price per pound. Bingo. Once I had some of that evil sodium nitrite in my hands, it was time to do it myself. You can do various flavors and with the next pork belly I get I'll probably slice it into several pieces and do each a different way.

Real Home-Cured Bacon!
Recipe closely adapted from here.
pastured pork belly
for each pound of pork belly, include:
1 T. coarse salt
1/2 t. pink curing salt - do not mix this up with regular salt as it does have safety precautions you should follow, since nitrites/nitrates are dangerous if you accidentally ingest a ton at once
1 T. maple syrup (or brown sugar, white sugar, honey, etc. if it goes with your seasonings)

add additional seasonings as desired - suggestions given in amounts per pound:

  • 1 T. ground black pepper, 1 crumbled bay leaf, 1-2 smashed cloves garlic, and 1-2 sprigs thyme
  • 1/2 t. ground nutmeg, 1 t. ground cinnamon, 1/4 t. ground cloves, 1 t. molasses, 1/4 t. allspice
  • 1 t. coriander seeds, 1 t. fennel seeds, 1 t. caraway seeds, 1 smashed clove garlic

Skin the pork belly if it isn't skinned already and you don't want to eat pig skin. I imagine you don't.

Put the pork belly in a 2-gallon sealable plastic bag or a wide, shallow nonmetal container that has an airtight lid. Mix all of your curing and seasoning ingredients together and rub them all over your pork belly. Seal your container of choice and put it in the refrigerator for a full week. Yes, sadly, bacon requires patience.

After the week, take out the pork belly, rinse off the seasonings, and pat it dry. If you are blessed with access to a smoker, smoke it! If not, put it on a baking sheet in the oven at 200°F for 90 minutes or to an internal temperature of 150°F.

Now it is ready to slice or dice, fry, and eat. However, it is very difficult to slice when warm, so it is advised that you refrigerate it again for several hours. If you don't have a meat slicer to get it nice and thin, my preferred method is to slice the belly into chunks the width of my food processor opening, freeze them somewhat, and slice in the food processor.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop and Pennywise Platter at the Nourishing Gourmet.

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