Brine the pork belly:
Pour 1 gallon of cold water into a 12-quart nonreactive container, such as a plastic storage tub or stainless-steel pot or bowl. Add the salt and sugar and stir until dissolved.
Put the pork pieces in the brine, weighting them down with a plate if necessary to keep them completely submerged. Cover the container and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Remove the pork from the brine, stir the brine a few times, and then return the pork to the brine. Refrigerate for another 24 hours.
Drain the pork and discard the brine. Rinse the pork in cold water and pat dry. If using the black pepper, evenly sprinkle it all over the pork.
Cold-smoke the pork belly:
If using a charcoal grill, open all the vents. Remove the grill grate and put a 4x8-inch disposable foil loaf pan on the charcoal grate. Put 5 cups of the sawdust in the loaf pan. If using a gas grill, disconnect the propane and put the pan on a back corner of the grill grate. (You won’t be lighting the burners—you’re essentially using the grill as a smoker.)
Light 5 charcoal briquettes in a chimney starter. When the briquettes are glowing and completely covered with gray ash, transfer them with tongs to the sawdust, spacing them evenly in the pan. If using a charcoal grill, replace the grill grate.
When the sawdust begins to smolder, arrange the pork pieces fat side up on the grill grate to the side of the loaf pan. Space the pieces at least 1 inch apart to allow the smoke to circulate around them. Cover the grill and insert a metal instant-read thermometer into a vent hole in the lid or lay it on the grate to monitor the grill temperature—it should be between 80°F and 120°F. If the temperature rises above 120°F, remove 1 or more briquettes or partially uncover the grill until the temperature falls.
Stir the sawdust with tongs every 1-1/2 hours to ignite any that’s unburned, and add more sawdust, 1 cup at a time, to the loaf pan as the sawdust turns to ash. You want a good amount of smoke rising out of the vents.
After 3 hours, rotate the position of the pork to ensure even smoking. As long as you monitor the sawdust and the day is not too humid or wet, you probably won’t need to add more briquettes. If your sawdust does stop burning, however, light more briquettes in the chimney on a flameproof surface and reignite the sawdust.
The total smoking time will be 5 to 6 hours. Depending on the breed of pork and the duration of smoking, the bacon may become a brownish-yellow color. It will still be raw, however. The bacon will look dry on the meaty side, and the fat may be glistening with moisture. Pat the moisture off with paper towels and cool the bacon completely at room temperature. Refrigerate until firm before slicing.
Store the bacon:
You can store the bacon either in slices or large pieces (slabs). To store sliced bacon, shingle the slices in small, individually wrapped batches. Tightly wrapped in plastic, bacon will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 2 months. If you’ve frozen the bacon in slabs, let it defrost in the refrigerator for a couple of hours until it’s soft enough to slice with a sharp knife. (It’s easier to slice thinly when partially frozen.) Slice off what you need and then refreeze the rest, tightly wrapped. Either way, thaw completely before cooking.
Cook the bacon:
If cooking no more than 8 slices of bacon, fry them in a 12-inch skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat, turning frequently, until browned and as crisp as you like.
If cooking more than 8 slices, arrange the bacon in a single layer on a wire rack set over a large rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 350°F oven, turning once with tongs, until done to your liking.
Either way, drain the bacon on paper towels and serve hot.
Barley malt syrup and bourbon add an earthy sweetness to this twist on the master recipe: Substitute 2/3 cup (6 oz.) packed dark brown sugar for the light brown
sugar. Add 1 cup barley malt syrup and 1 cup bourbon (such as Maker’s
Mark) once the salt and sugar are dissolved. Add the pork belly and
brine as instructed above. Try smoking this bacon over oak sawdust because bourbon is aged in oak barrels, so the flavors go well together.
Maple variation Fenugreek enhances the flavor of the maple sugar and syrup in this brine: Substitute 1 cup (about 6 oz.) maple sugar for the brown sugar. Add 1
cup maple syrup, 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract, and 2 tsp. ground
fenugreek once the salt and maple sugar are dissolved. Add the pork
belly and brine as instructed above. Maple sawdust is a natural fit here, but cherry would work, too.
nutrition information (per serving):
Photo: Scott Phillips