Brining and Smoking, Ham, Bacon, and Fat Back

Now we’re really experimenting.  We’re going to brine and smoke our own ham, bacon, and fat back using homemade brine.  People have done this for ages and not everyone died from it.  And yet I find myself googling “will ‘ropy’ brine kill you?”

Back a week or two ago, before our bacon turned into a bucket of slime, I looked up how to make your own brine.  This led to more research about exactly how much pink curing salt it takes to kill a person, does it matter how big the person is, and is this jar of yellow stuff in the back of the pantry pink curing salt whose pink passed away over the years, or is it some other mystery?

To give you the summary, the pink salt can kill you but you probably won’t do it on accident.  It’s pink is completely inconsequential to the function of the salt, it’s just a warning color so you don’t economize and try to use it as table salt.  And yes, according the my amazon purchase history, the yellow salt in a jar was somewhat pinker three years ago when I ordered it.

The basic recipe for our 15 pound ham is, 

  • 4 1/2 cups non-iodized salt
  • 4 cups brown sugar
  • 4 1/2 tablespoons curing salt
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 3 gallons water
  • Pickling Spice

I don’t know what pickling spice is so I made it up.  My pickling spice is mustard seed, chili powder, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper and cinnamon.  I mixed it up until it smelled good and used a small handful.  I can’t say we really tasted any of it the final product.

For the bacon and fatback I used,

  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 2 cups salt
  • 2 teaspoons curing salt
  • 2 gallons of water.

You mix all these things and maybe you heat the water or maybe you don’t, depends on what you read. Then you just put the meat in a bucket, cover it with the brine and put it in the fridge for two weeks.  The important thing is to make sure no air can get to the meat, I did this by setting a plate on top of the meat and weighing it down with a bag of water.

Two weeks later I just pulled the bacon out of a bucket of slime.  Thick, heavy, viscous slime.  It’s not slimy, it’s literally slime.  An entity whole and complete to itself.  The slime has no smell, and not much color.  The meat has no bad smell, it looks right.  It’s just dripping long slugs of slime.  The dog drank the slime.  He hasn’t died yet, and all our research suggested we should just go for it.  There’s actually an intersting history to ropy brine, probably a history the USDA keeps from happing today, but maybe it’s just one of those things you’re not supposed to talk about.  We washed the slime of and are pretending it didn’t happen now, that seems to be working for us.

Ropy brine

Moving on to smoking!  This won’t surprise you by now, but we don’t have a smoker.  We do have an old wood stove, some scrap metal, a swing frame, and a canvas tarp.  The structure is pretty simple.  The tarp is wrapped around the swing frame with the shelf/trailer/old something part leaning up against it.  That’s all wired together with some fencing wire and then the tarp is wrapped around it and secured with more fencing wire.  There’s a hole left open in the upper corner for the smoke to escape from and we’ve fitted a thermometer there to keep an eye on the temperature.  

We hung the ham in the highest section of the smoke where it is hottest.  We’re actually aiming for a fully cooked ham at the end of this.  The bacon is lower down on a grill.  It should be left in a slab for smoking, not cut in strips yet.  You don’t want the bacon to actually cook because it will fall apart, the smoke is mostly just for flavor.  The fat back is in a sandwich style grill and again is just being smoked for flavor, not to cook.

We left the ham in all night but then baked it in the oven in order to have a fully cooked smoked ham.  The ropy bacon looked and tasted completely fine so we’re just going to forget the slime ever happened.

A helpful hints:

  • Put the bacon slab in the freezer for a little while and it will be much easier to cut in thin, even slices.
  • If you find your ham or bacon is too salty it can be soaked in cold water prior to freezing to draw out some of the salt.  
  • Be mindful about what wood you use for smoking.  We used a combination of oak and hickory.  High resin woods like pine can leave the meat with an unfortunate flavor.
Finished Ham
Cured and sliced bacon

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