- Photos by Darius Brotman
Here's something to gladden the hearts of my fellow food nerds: You can easily make smoked lamb bacon at home, and it's delicious! Lamb is a local product from our own Humboldt fields of green, and in fact the local connection is the only way to get the required cut. Especially if you wish to avoid pork for whatever reason, lamb makes a great bacon.
I first learned about this from my daughter Jada (of "Table Talk" fame). She sells cheese at a swell grocery in Brooklyn, and her friend and co-worker Brian made lamb bacon and got a rave review in the New York Times online food blog. The store was swamped with requests for it.
Brian, it seems, used lamb pieces that have usually been discarded -- fatty "flaps" that hang from the saddle. Not being a butcher, I haven't actually seen these. But I found a local producer willing to provide me with actual lamb belly -- the proper cut, I would think, for bacon. Jill Hackett of Ferndale Farms (email@example.com), who sells beef and lamb Saturdays at the Arcata Farmers' Market, offered to provide me with lamb belly, a cut that's not normally available. But since every lamb has a belly, it seems that, if requested, it can be gotten.
Bacon is by definition cured, and generally smoked. Both these processes are fraught with age-old controversies -- what follows is just one method. I started with a three-pound piece of lamb belly, which came frozen and wrapped; I thawed it in the refrigerator overnight, and then unwrapped it. It was a rectangle about 8" x 12" x 1-1/2". Just like pork, it's fat streaked with lean; some areas of it were quite meaty, and others mostly fat. I trimmed off a few loose bits and some particularly tough skin, wrapped the slab in a cotton dishtowel and left it in the fridge for another day to age slightly -- basically, to dry out a bit. Incidentally, any piece of red meat, lamb or beef, can be advantageously "aged" this way in the fridge, for as long as you dare. Just don't leave it in plastic wrap or a Styrofoam tray.
For the "dry cure" mix 1-1/3 cup of salt -- pure salt, such as bulk sea salt or kosher salt -- and 1/2 cup of white sugar. Old recipes call for the addition of saltpeter, or sodium nitrate; this is completely unnecessary. French recipes call for various herbs (pepper, bay, thyme); that's up to you. I didn't add anything. Rub the cure all over the meat (the rubbing is not important, but the meat should be completely covered) and lay it in a dish, such as a rectangular baking dish, and cover closely with a sheet of plastic wrap. Leave in the fridge for 48 hours. A mysterious process occurs (I've never been particularly interested in chemical details) and a good deal of liquid is expelled, but there will still be an excess of undissolved salt and sugar.
The cured meat, which becomes very firm, is too salty to eat. (You can taste it at any point; most people are squeamish about raw pork, but lamb is no problem.) So the next step is to remove some of the salt and sugar by soaking in plenty of fresh cool water; soak for about an hour and a quarter. The bacon will still be pretty salty, but reasonable; you can soak it longer if desired. If you want to delay smoking the meat for scheduling reasons, you can keep the cured meat, before soaking, for a considerable time in the refrigerator. The cure acts to preserve the meat.
Ready to smoke? There are all kinds of setups for smoking, but if you have a kettle barbecue in decent condition you're all set. Clear the bottom of the barbecue and set in something like a throwaway aluminum baking pan to catch drips from the lamb (there won't be very much). Make a tiny fire of charcoal, preferably natural mesquite charcoal, using 3 or 4 chunks, way over to one side. My preferred starter: a propane torch. When the charcoal is lit, add a few pieces of smoking wood. I used little rounds of Asian pear wood from a tree we'd trimmed; any fruit wood or hardwood (such as maple, oak or alder) is just fine. It is really not necessary to soak the wood; plenty of smoke comes from simply cutting down the air supply -- close down the air intake openings at the bottom to about a quarter open.
Put in the grill rack and place the lamb over the drip pan. Place an ordinary oven thermometer by the meat, but not over the fire. Cover the barbecue and close down the air holes on the lid also, to a quarter open -- they should be on the opposite side from the fire. Smoke will soon pour out. Don't uncover too often, but check the thermometer periodically; it should range from 110º to 150º -- 120º is ideal. Replenish the coals and the smoking wood as required. You might have to fiddle with the air supply. You don't need to be neurotic about it; it's okay if it smokes in fits and starts. Turn the meat over every couple hours. Keep it up all day, or even for two days -- in that case, take the meat out and refrigerate overnight.
This temperature range is technically smoke-cooking; true smoking is cold, no more than 80º. But even 150º is not enough to melt the lamb fat, which you want to avoid.
You're done! To fry, slice the bacon thinly with a good knife. Because of the sugar content, fry it slowly, over a low flame, watching closely and turning often for fear of burning. (You may have noticed that some brands of regular bacon are sweet and burn very easily. Like the salt, the sugar content is regulated by your soaking time.) A great deal of fat will render out; fry until nicely crisp all through. Yum! The kitchen will smell quite lamby, but the fried bacon doesn't taste at all gamy.
This smoking method also works superbly for raw fish, such as trout. Because of its delicacy, put the fish on a separate fine rack. Keep the temperature to 115-120º. The fish should cook and smoke nicely in about two hours.
It's also a great way to cook pork ribs. Sprinkle them generously with salt and smoke-cook them at 150-160º for five or six hours. To get the higher temperature, use a few more coals and open the air intake a little more. They will be improved with a final searing at a much hotter temperature, giving them a little crackle.