By Timothy D Fowler - @timothydfowler
Bacon is beautiful. Bacon is glorious––without bacon, where would we be? Bacon is simply salt, sweet and smoke. Bear bacon is simple to make and a special treat for you and your guests.
You certainly know bacon and eggs, bacon bits, bacon burgers and bacon pizza. You may know bacon pie, (quiche Lorraine) bacon lollypops, chocolate-dipped bacon, maple syrup-soaked bacon, and spaghetti (bacon) carbonara––but have you had bear bacon? How about bear bacon you made yourself?
Pursuit of Self-reliance
Sheltering at home this spring and into early summer has me menu planning out four weeks. Making the best of what we have on hand has me digging in our freezer for vacuum-packaged nuggets that keep getting pushed out, either because it was being saved for a special occasion (mule deer and elk tenderloin) or because it was a pile of work and required dedicated time to deal with (cut up black bear femurs for demi-glace, a season’s worth of duck-goose-pheasant-grouse hearts and gizzards for slow-cooked curry or dirty rice). There are various parts and pieces that are a pleasurable and sometimes entertaining challenge to make something innovative and delicious. Now we have the time to explore those things we have been meaning to try, and time to become more self-reliant.
Recently, I found a couple of packets of bear bacon that had slipped through to the bottom of the freezer. Making (and eating) eggs Benedict with homemade sourdough English muffins topped with bear bacon, a jiggly poached egg and a bit of hollandaise has me thinking it's time to put a spring bear in the freezer. Maybe we will get another in the fall too. Residents of Alberta can take two bears: one regular general tag, and a supplemental tag for high-population areas where increased harvest is desired.
Both Spring and Fall bears are delicious
Two years ago, my youngest son and I harvested four bears, one each in the spring and one each in the fall. We made a point of testing our meat-cutting, sausage-making and bacon-curing skills. We were satisfied with the results and so was the rest of the family that we now plan an annual spring and fall bear curing and smoking session. Each season has something different to offer. Bears fresh out of the den have pristine fur and meat that hasn’t been flavoured by anything for months. Spring bears where we hunt are full of dandelions, fresh clover and cottonwood buds the first weeks of May. Fall bears are fatter, the meat flavoured with whatever is on the menu, hopefully, berries and fall clover. (And not belly-up salmon or suckers.) The fur is new and in good shape.
We found good results curing and smoking meat from both spring and fall bears. Smoked bear bacon is good on its own and is a wonderful addition to gumbo, paella and jambalaya––or try a baked mac and cheese with nuggets of bear bacon.
At a minimum, making bacon requires the addition of salt(s) and sugar, but can be further enhanced with the addition of herbs and spices. The simplest and easiest way to cure bear bacon is the saltbox method. Bury a piece of bear belly or loin in a precise blend of salts and sugar, push the salt blend well into the meat, shake off the excess, seal in a vacuum pack or zipper-lock plastic bag, cover, refrigerate and let cure for seven days turning the meat over every day. After seven days, rinse the salt from the meat, let dry overnight in the fridge to form a pellicle to better absorb the smoke flavor. Smoke at 225 F until the internal temperature reaches 160 F. A more involved method is to accurately mix scrupulously measured salt(s) and sugars based on the weight of the meat to be cured. This requires a gram scale. Weigh the meat to be cured, measure the salts and sugar, rub well into the meat, seal in a bag and follow the same schedule as above.
Before you start, buy a gram scale.
Using curing salts is a precise science that requires exact measurement. At a minimum, buy and use an electronic kilogram scale that measures in grams. While you’re at it buy a 15 kg manual scale in 100-gram increments too. Together these two scales will help you get the measures right. Metric might make you crazy, but the math on these critical measurements becomes much simpler and safer using grams. Your first batch or two of bacon will pay for the scales. Salt is great stuff; it can save you from unseen beasties that will grow in your food that can kill you. But miss a decimal point on a Nitricure measurement and that can be toxic too. Use the right tools and measure accurately.
Simple Salt box method
Mix up 450 grams of coarse salt, 56 grams Nitricure #1, and 225 sugar for the simple saltbox method. Dredge meat to be cured in this mixture, shake off the excess, and either vacuum pack or zip-lock for seven days in the refrigerator. Rinse, dry and smoke to 160F and you have cured smoked meat.
Ratio of salt, Nitricure #1 and sugar to meat
The guideline for curing meats is 3 grams of Nitricure #1 per kilogram of meat. To take the ratios further, regular (sodium chloride) salt should be 17 grams per kilogram, and for a sweet cure 10 grams of sugar to a kilogram of meat is a good place to start. This ratio gives you the complete flexibility to take the flavor of the cure in any direction you like by adding your choice of herbs and spices to suit your taste. Common herbs added to bear bacon range from garlic, bay leaves, allspice, black pepper to juniper berries, thyme and rosemary. Change up the sweetness by adding some maple syrup or light molasses. My recommendation is to make a batch with just salt, sugar and Nitricure #1 and see how it goes. Switch up the second batch once you are satisfied with the results.
The math goes like this:
Nitricure #1: 1,000 grams of meat x .003 = 3 grams
Coarse salt (sodium chloride) 1,000 grams of meat x .017 = 17 grams
Sugar 1,000 grams of meat x .010 = 10 grams
Note: I recommend checking with your local butcher’s supply store to confirm the correct ratios for their version of Nitrite––just to be on the safe side.
Sodium Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate by other names
Sodium Nitrite is the salt that gives bacon the pink color and ham-like flavor. Nitricure is a brand of pure Sodium Nitrite diluted with regular salt. Sometimes it’s called Instacure, Prague Powder Number 1, or Pink Salt (not to be confused with Himalayan pink salt).
Sodium Nitrate is the salt used to cure meats that requires a long time to cure in an anaerobic environment. (Think airdried salami and months-long-cured meats.) This salt is marketed at Nitricure #2.
Keep detailed accurate records
Curing meat, making sausage or smoking something wild, is a learning process. Keeping a careful record of ingredient weights by gram and the method used for every batch of cured bacon, pastrami and sausage made, means you have a starting place the next time you want to do the same kind of thing. Making notes about how the product tastes and allows you to make educated adjustments based on objective data next time around. Over time you will collect an invaluable resource to use yourself to enhance your culinary results, or to share your expertise and experience with family and friends.