Bacon is a type of cured meat which comes traditionally from the back, belly, or sides of a pig. When it is made from other animals, it is usually distinguished from “true” bacon with labeling indicating what species the meat came from, as is the case with turkey bacon. Curing the meat is not terribly challenging, and all chefs trained in charcuterie, the art of curing and handling meats, know how to make it. For home cooks who are interested in making their own, a degree from cooking school is not required, although access to a butcher and a smoker are.
When pigs are slaughtered, they are butchered into an assortment of cuts, depending on their end destination. Commercial processors usually butcher their pigs on site, turning the cuts into hams, chops, ribs, and so forth. A smaller slaughterhouse will focus on preparing whole or half pigs for sale to butchers, who will cut and cure their own meat. Home cooks and chefs typically source their cuts for bacon and other charcuterie from butchers. To make bacon, a large slab of the back, belly, or sides of the pig is cut off and subjected to a curing process. The best bacon comes from fresh meat, so if you are curing it at home, ask the butcher for pork which is less than 48 hours old.
If the bacon is dry cured, it is rubbed in a salt mixture to which spices may be added. Most modern cooks leave the meat under refrigeration to cure, to ensure that it does not become unhealthy. Other cooks use a cooled room, leaving the slab on a slotted table so that the liquid from the meat will drain away. After approximately one week, the meat is washed in warm water and hung in a smoke house to dry. Once dried, it is smoked, typically for around 36 hours. After smoking, it can be refrigerated or frozen. Wet cured bacon is brined instead of dry rubbed, although the rinsing and smoking process is the same.
After curing, bacon is still in slab form. If the meat is going to be frozen, it is left in slab form, although the rind may be trimmed. It can also be sliced for more immediate consumption. Depending on personal taste, the individual slices can be cut thick or thin. The meat is considered perishable after smoking, and it should be kept under refrigeration until eaten.
Numerous terms are used to refer to various types of bacon. Canadian bacon comes from the back of the pig, resulting in a leaner cut of meat. Pancetta is an Italian version that comes from the belly of the pig, and when it is cured and handled differently, it is called streaky bacon or belly bacon. Jowl bacon comes from the cheeks of the pig, and cottage bacon is made from cured pig shoulders.