Credit: “Excerpted from The Meat Hook Meat Book by Tom Mylan (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell.”
Step 1: Mix the salt, sugar, and pink salt, if using, together in a large bowl, making sure to break up the brown sugar so it has no clumps. Do this quickly before the salt starts to make the brown sugar hard.
Step 2: Next, put the pork belly in a large nonreactive food-safe container and coat it thoroughly on all sides with the sugar-and-salt cure. Do one coat on all sides, shake off the excess, and let the belly sit for 5 minutes. Then reapply the cure and either wrap the belly tightly in plastic wrap or cover the container with plastic wrap.
Step 3: Place the container on the bottom shelf of your fridge. This next part is important: you must flip the bacon once a day for the next 7 days. This is somewhat less important if you have tightly wrapped the belly in plastic wrap, but it must be done every day if you didn’t—failing to do so will lead to lopsidedly cured bacon.
Step 4: After 7 days, rinse the belly lightly under cold water and pat it dry with paper towels. Place it in a smoker, meat side down, and set the smoker for 170°F, without any wood, chips, or other stuff that causes smoke. (If you have an old-school log-fed smoker, just open the flue all the way to allow the smoke to get out of the smoking chamber.) Run the smoker for about 1 hour, until the exterior of the meat has a dry, somewhat shiny look that says, “Hey, I’m ready to smoke!” This shiny exterior is called the pellicle.
Most anything you smoke will not take on that beautiful mahogany color from the smoke until the moisture in the outer layer of the meat has evaporated and the proteins on the surface are slightly denatured, or cooked. As this happens, the pellicle will form and the meat will become “sticky,” in a molecular sense, enabling the smoke to bond with the pellicle. Failure to achieve a pellicle before you hit it with the smoke will result in a sooty, gray-brown color. Your bacon might taste OK, but it will look like hell.
Step 5: Now add chips, wood—you know, smoke—to the smoker and lower the temperature to 160°F. If you’re trying to flex bold flavors all over the place, feel free to use the magnum-strength smoking woods like hickory, mesquite, or oak, but add them a little later in the process (after 4 hours or so) to prevent the bacon from getting bitter.
Step 6: Smoke the belly for 5 to 6 hours, making sure to give it a turn every hour. The bacon is done when it is firm, not rubbery, with an internal temperature of 155°F. Immediately rinse the belly under hot water to remove any rendered fat, which would make it look less pretty when chilled, and place it in an ice-water bath for 15 minutes.
Step 7: Drain the belly, pat it dry, and wrap it in heavy, breathable paper, such as a large grocery bag. Refrigerate it until it’s time to slice and fry. If you’re not going to eat all of it over the course of the next 2 weeks, you can wrap chunks of it in wax-lined butcher paper (you can get this from your butcher when you buy the belly) and freeze it for up to a year.
I use cherrywood for our bacon at the shop because it imparts a sweet but not wimpy smokiness.