Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Because. Bacon.

One of the best parts of paleo to the uninitiated has to be the focus on meat and cooking with animal fat.  The taste of duck fat, beef tallow or bacon drippings as the base for sauteed shallots and asparagus is unparalleled. Something about the richness that animal fats impart to food outpaces their vegetal oil counterparts. I most certainly jumped on the animal fat cooking bandwagon of paleo from the beginning. My mother always had a can of bacon grease under the sink in an old coffee can, back in the day when Maxwell House came in an aluminum can not plastic. She never used it to cook, but she got the practice from my grandmother, who I swear to gods is Paula Deen's long lost sister. She often asks for extra crackers to go with her butter.... Anyway, my old school Polish grandma drowns her pierogies in butter and fries her eggs in all the bacon fat she can get. I once attempted to put a paper towel on a plate to soak up the butter after frying the pierogies. I almost lost a hand.
But really, let's think about cured meat. Bacon. Side of pork or pork belly or whatever cut of pork you want to call it (you can truly make bacon out of any cut of pork, for instance Canadian bacon from a pork loin instead of side, or back bacon which is two cuts of pork cured together) cured in sugar and salt and usually smoked. Sure, cured meat doesn't require sugar to be considered cured, but you would be hard pressed (pun only slightly intended) to find a sugarless bacon. The bacon you find in stores is not traditionally cured, though.  That would take time and effort, and why do things the traditional way when you can create a machine of tiny needles to inject your pork with these very ingredients and liquid smoke then package it and sell it as "bacon"?

So if it's cured in salt, and more importantly sugar, can we really call bacon "paleo." There are varying opinions on what is and is not paleo: dairy, sugars like agave and honey, sprouted grains. But added sugar is almost always a no-no. I cannot find any kind of bacon cured with honey. I'm not sure I'd even want to eat it. Clover tasting bacon... does not sound appealing. Even if you make bacon yourself (like I do), you still cure it with brown sugar, which is just regular processed cane/beet/white sugar with some molasses thrown in for color and taste. So if we're looking at the paleo commandments, thou shalt not eat added sugar ranks fairly high on the list. Which would leave bacon out in the cold and definitely not in your paleo frying pan.

On the flip side, cured meat has enjoyed a long and valued history across the globe. This website claims the Romans ate a cured cut of pork called "petaso." I can't seem to verify that claim anywhere else, but the Romans were indeed into indulgence from time to time, and I'll bet cured pork goes great with an amphora of wine. This website claims even the Chinese in 1500 BCE ate salted pork. Smoked and cured meat remains a delicacy in so many countries, like the Nordic specialty gravlax (and a favorite of mine to make and eat). So, if we've been preserving our meat with smoke and salt and probably something sugary for a long time, that would fall in line with the general gist of the paleo/primal guidelines. I'm sure no one would argue that a side of bacon cured in boiled figs would be much more paleo than the stuff in a plastic package on the shelf, but then again the relative "recentness" of the Romans in the grand scheme of human history would probably not satisfy the paleo fundamentalists either...

Regardless, the focus on bacon as a paleo friendly meat is not nearly as clear cut as most paleo folks should believe. It's got added sugar, and not any happy substitute like agave nectar or honey. It's also incredibly fatty, and unless you're buying pastured and grass fed pork bacon (which is ridiculously expensive), the animal fats you're consuming come from an animal that eats the same junk that you wouldn't want to put in your body yourself (e.g. corn products, soy products, pieces of other humans...). Studies have shown that people who eat cured meats of any kind have higher rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as well as heart health issues and diabetes.  Most of these concerns are linked to things cured with sodium nitrate, which not all cured meats use, but still. The health concerns should make you think twice about buying a slab from the store without question.

Feel free to make up your own mind about bacon. I hate to be Debbie Downer to the bacon party. I myself make my own bacon out of pork from the local store which is most definitely not pastured or grass fed at all. We do what we can with the resources available to us, and if I win the lottery, I will buy my own pig farm and give them lots of organic grass and treats and give all of you bacon until your insides explode. But until then, I do what I can to avoid nitrates and bring home my own bacon.

This has been quite a long post full of things that are no doubt making you question your allegiance to all things paleo if it's remotely possible that BACON of all amazing things could be unpaleo... So let me give you my insanely quick recipe for making your own bacon.

Take 1.5 - 3 pounds of pork belly/pork side/pork loin (if you want a leaner cut). The pork could be one giant slab or inch thick slabs, it doesn't really matter. Put it into a large ziploc bag. Throw in about 3/4 c. brown sugar and 1/2 - 3/4 c. sea salt and mix it together to coat all the pork. Then add about a teaspoon of liquid smoke. My favorite is hickory. But really, use whatever you want. Then add two tablespoons of molasses. Something about the liquid smoke and the molasses makes this particular wet brine for bacon defreakinglicious. Put it on top of something like a plate or plastic container to make sure the bag doesn't leak all over your fridge. Now, leave the pork in the bag in the fridge for five to seven days. Flip the bag from side to side once each day to make sure both sides get equally brined and cured. After its time in the fridge is up, take it out and rinse it off in the sink. Then put it on a cookie sheet or in a casserole dish and bake it at 200 degrees F until the internal temp reads 150 degrees. DONE! BAM! You officially have bacon. Now cut it up in more manageable chunks for cutting and put it in a different bag in the freezer. Take it out as you need it to keep it fresh for a long time. If you have a super sharp and thin knife and your freezer doesn't keep things as cold as the arctic, you should be able to cut through it while frozen.

Hope that blows your mind with how easy it is to make your own nitrate free bacon... And if I've scared you away from bacon, I'm sorry. Well. No. I'm not. It just means more for me....


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