I don’t recall the official moment when it happened, but at some point in the summer Josh and I settled on attempting to make bacon as soon as I came to Israel. Needless to say, I have never followed through with anything so quickly and thoroughly in my life as with this project. For a once treif eating, food culture obsessed observant Jew, the pervasiveness of bacon in the foodie scene is close to painful. Bacon ice cream, bacon wrapped everything, show after show dedicated to what was once was my special breakfast treat is now everybody’s favorite ironic ingredient. And what of the Jew? He stands by, making do with the children of a lesser hog.
After months of reading up on curing, smoking, and slicing techniques, Josh and I bring you the record of our labor of love. Here is kosher lamb bacon as five easy pieces.
Step #1: Purchasing
Josh and I spent an afternoon looking around Machane Yehudah in Jerusalem for the cut of meat that makes it all possible: lamb belly. As you can see from the diagram,
the lamb essentially breaks down into eight cuts. The belly, also known as the breast or flap, is part of the forequarter and contains ribs. It is oblong-shaped with layers of fat and lean, with fat usually covering one of the sides. Aside from the pig, the lamb is the only other mammal that possesses this cut from which traditional bacon, fried strips of beautifully coalesced fat and meat, is created.
Unlike pork belly, which is THE posh cut of meat in America these days, lamb belly is virtually uneaten and thought of as a throw away cut due to its high fat content (this does seem to be changing, however).
Not surprisingly, this is not the case in Israel or the rest of the Middle East where lamb fat is valued for its ability to keep slow turning spits of schwarma lusciously moist, as delicious filler in hamburgers, and as the fat of choice in most Lebanese and Syrian dishes. Hot lamb fat instantly dissolves in your mouth–it’s as easy as that.
Hoping to experience different flavors and qualities of meat, we settled on buying two bellies from two different butchers. Inexplicably, the smaller piece was the more expensive between the two (and Josh might say was tastier in the end). After making our purchases, we headed back to Josh’s to prepare the cure in which the bellies would sit in for a week.
Step #2: Curing
Simply, curing is a process whereby food is preserved and flavored by sitting in salt and sometimes sugar from anywhere to a few days to a few months, depending on what you are curing. For our cure, we used the recipe found in the oft-praised “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing” by Michael Ruhlman.
Roughly one part kosher salt to one part white sugar to one eighth a part of pink salt, we made enough cure to last us several batches. Since the recipe called for a quarter cup of cure for one five to six pound pork belly, we used an eighth of a cup for our slightly smaller lamb bellies.
Curing a belly means deeply working the cure into every nook and cranny of the belly–some recipes call for completing covering the belly in the cure to ensure evenness of flavoring and food preservation. In a fit of genius, Josh had the good idea to include brown sugar and maple syrup into the cure in order that we have one savory and one sweet. This would prove to be the smartest thing that Josh had ever come up with. I mean, just look at the picture. Don’t you want to lick the screen?
With the two bellies sufficiently covered in cure, we sealed them up in separate bags and put them in the fridge for a week. During that time, each ingredient in the cure performs a special task. The kosher salt causes fat and meat cells to break down by stimulating self-produced enzymes and oxidation. The sugar imparts its sweetness while encouraging the growth of Lactobacillus bacteria, and the pink salt gives the meat its characteristic color and prevents botulism. In two ziploc bags, we captured thousands of years of food culture passed down to us from our Gentile brothers and sisters, waiting for the moment when we could make the forbidden delicious.
In a week’s time, the bellies would undergo an amazing transformation, drawing closer and closer to smoke that awaited them.