Monday, November 24, 2014

Making Berkshire Jowl Bacon: Part 1 of 2

Say “bacon” and most people think of crispy, smoky slices of pork belly sizzling away in the skillet.  But there’s a world of bacon beyond the belly, and jowl bacon is one of my favorites.  Also called “side bacon” or more recently “face bacon,” jowl bacon is perfect for autumn dishes, as it brings the fat and flavor of a smoked hock, but it can still be fried crisp like traditional belly bacon.  It’s also the cut I’d recommend if you’re considering doing some home curing for the first time.
North Woods Ranch Berkshire Jowl
Why?  The jowl has a thick layer of fat on top with the meat nestled gently inside.  When it comes to curing, fat is easy to cure because it is very dense and has little water in it.  You really can’t over-salt a slab of fat – it simply cannot absorb enough salt to taste over salted.  So if this is your first time curing bacon, the jowl is very forgiving in the curing process.  Plus, jowls cure very quickly: a slab of belly bacon takes 5-7 days to cure, but you can cure a jowl in 3-4 days.

To start, lay the jowl on your cutting board with the thick, fat side down.  Facing up should be a deep red oval of meat. This meat is the actual cheek muscle.  You don't want to use this muscle for the jowl bacon, so cut out the red circle of cheek meat and reserve it for braising in a nice stew.  Hiding all around the cheek is soft fat that feels like cottage cheese, and mixed into this fat are a ton of salivary glands.
Trimming a Full Jowl for Bacon
Next, slice parallel to the cutting board to remove all that smooshy fat and the salivary glands.  We want only the thick, firm fat for the jowl bacon, so slice all the soft fat away.  If need to, go back with the knife and scrape away any remaining soft fat to reveal the firm jowl fat below.  The jowl fat feels like cold clay, and it’s easy to differentiate it from the soft fat and salivary glands.

Now, prep your cure.  I like to keep it simple with salt, sugar, and lots of black pepper.  Because I use jowl bacon in savory dishes like sweet potato hash and sides of mustard greens, I usually don’t do a sweet cure.  If you like, feel free to add maple syrup or molasses. Alternatively, you could go with rosemary, garlic, red pepper, and bay for a more pronounced, herbal flavor.  Below is the basic dry rub for the jowl:

¼ Cup Kosher Sea Salt
¼ Cup Light Brown Sugar

2 Teaspoons Instacure #1 Sodium Nitrite
3 Tablespoons Coarsely Cracked Black Pepper

I add sodium nitrite to my cure to prevent botulism. When meat is smoked, it is placed in an oxygen-free environment, which increases the likelihood of botulism spores.  If you prefer, there are a number of plant-based alternatives, like celery powder, that can replace sodium nitrite.  The choice is up to you.
Berkshire Jowl Packed in Cure and Black Pepper
Allow the jowl to sit in a large bag in the fridge for three days. As time goes on, the salt cure causes the water to be pulled out from the jowl. This turns the dry cure into a runny paste.  While the jowl is in the fridge, be sure to turn the bag daily to help distribute the cure evenly. Once the jowl is done curing, its off to be smoked, which we'll cover in Part 2 of this post.