British invasion of Baker's bacon

by Steve Dittmer
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 Baker
Back bacon is cut with the loin portion still attached to the belly.
 

When Tony Baker was a kid, on the drive to his grandparents’ house in southwest England, his parents would often stop at a butcher shop along the way. One of the things he remembered them buying was back bacon. This was not an unusual type of bacon to find in England decades ago. Back then, it was usually not a smoked product. Today, it’s not as common to find back bacon in England, and if you do find it, it is usually an injected product.

Years later, Baker dreamed of bringing this favorite food from his youth to America, to his adopted home in California.

When he grew up, Baker went to culinary school in England and worked as a chef in fine dining establishments. They were great places to practice your craft but kept one to a grueling pace, Baker found, working from 8:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night, six days a week, and not making any real money.

In 1994, he came to America for a vacation and visited his uncle in the Carmel Valley of California. His uncle’s favorite restaurant was called the “Rio Grill.” In California today, Baker is part owner of sister restaurant Montrio Bistro. And now, he has been able to bring to fruition his other dream – dry-cured back bacon.

Bringing back Bacon

Baker met Steve Sacks of Prime Smoked Meats in Oakland, California, at a Culinary Institute of America event years ago. Touring Sacks’ plant, he asked him if he had ever made back bacon. He hadn’t. Back bacon is cut with the loin portion still attached to the belly section.

Years later, they met again and the back bacon idea came up again. This time they decided to see what they could develop. What followed was months of testing. From the chef’s perspective, Baker was looking at taste, color and presentation first. Then came work on yields and costs.

From the processing perspective, Sacks said dry cure is tricky, working out the curing ingredients and spices. A wet cure is traditionally done in 600-gallon tanks. Bellies then hung for half a day and then went into the smokehouse. For a dry cure, they had to work out how many days for the cure and then test smoking techniques. It took a while to get color and flavor figured out.

Sacks’ smokehouse is a one-of-a-kind unit built 60 years ago. The smoke generator was built to his specifications, using maple and applewood. It uses a real fire and generates lots of smoke, he says. When working out the smoking, time is only one factor. His smoke is heavy enough it takes three stages of air cleaning to get it ready to leave the facility.

Sacks said lots of processors double smoke bacon these days but only a few use dry cure methods. “Almost no one does both,” he says. Baker’s Bacon single smokes the back bacon but double smokes its regular cut bacon.

Baker’s is a low sodium product (160 mg.), because that was the amount of sodium needed to get the color right. Color was the first target, the driver in the process. Then they adjusted the spices to get the cooked flavor right. Ten to 12 slices per pound is about right for dry curing, he says. While wet cure bacon comes back to green weight or a little less, the dry cure bacon shrinks to about 78 percent of the initial weight. Too thin a slice and the dry cure tends to overcook too easily, Baker says. From the time the pork comes in until it is ready to ship takes two weeks. The double smoked regular cut is smoked with applewood the first time and then gets a cold maplewood the second time. It gets a full 12 hours in the smokehouse.

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