Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bacon bit bonanza

We love bacon, but the kind we really like runs about $6 per lb these days. When I saw the ends and pieces of the good stuff at Safeway, I could not resist. In this post I will illustrate one way to preserve bacon for short term storage (probably less than 1 year) while making it available for immediate use in case of emergency.

I am not yet a canner. I did put up preserves years ago when I had the time and wild fruit was available for the picking, but not lately. I make jams using the recipes that could be canned, but instead I use the Ball freezer containers and thaw when I am ready to use. This bacon preparation will yield a similar product. It will be cooked and ready to use or to add to other food you are cooking. There is a great post on about canning bacon and other things if you want to go that route.

This time, I used the Wright's ends and pieces, 3 lb package, which cost me $4.49 at Safeway. The product is carefully packed so that you see some real bacon slices on the outside. There were about 8 of these in this package, along with another 10 or 12 thinly sliced pieces with a nice mix of lean and fat. These are the sacrificial slices. I cook them first so that my husband and I will not be tortured by the smell of bacon cooking. We eat them within a day or two of this extravaganza.
While the first bacon slices cook, the hard work starts. Separate the lean chunks from the bacon-like pieces from the fatty chunks. You should have three 'piles.' As mentioned, I cook the pieces that are similar to regular bacon first. This will generate enough fat to cook the lean pieces. I experimented with cooking the lean stuff as large pieces. Bad idea. They end up like shoe leather. The flavor is great, but they are tough and string because it takes so long to cook them through. So, I strongly recommend cutting them into bits about half an inch on the longest dimension so they can be cooked yet stay moist. Kitchen shears work great for cutting into this size. The fatty pieces can be about twice that size, as they will be tender and will also lose much of their size and weight in cooking. I strongly recommend keeping and cooking the fatty materials. When rendered, they have a reasonable protein content and bring a lot of flavor to whatever you are cooking.

I cook the lean pieces over medium heat in batches of about 3/4 cup per. In the 10 inch pan I used, this makes one layer with room to stir. When they are looking cooked, I use a slotted spoon to help corral the bits on a spatula and then put them right into the plastic container. Make sure you remove all the bits in each batch. If they burn, subsequent bits will taste burned. I do not drain the cooked bits on a paper towel, for reasons that will make sense later.
When all the bacon-like strips and the lean are cooked, I strain what is in the pan to remove the tiny flakes and bits that will burn. Now I cook the fatty parts, but on lower temp. These will give up lots of bacon fat, which gets hotter over time. Low heat prevents a sudden burning of the product. You will still see the bits suddenly turn golden brown -- seems like they are barely simmering for about 5 minutes and then in about a minute they are all golden brown. Remove them shortly after, using the same method as the other bits. I segregate the lean from the fatty because of the different cooking times. The lean will be too dry of cooked with the fatty bits. Once cooked, you can mix or segragate as you please. This time, I kept one container of just lean and one of the mixed bits. Mixed will be great for salads or vegies, lean ould be better for mac and cheese or a pasta use.

When all are cooked and in the containers, I strain the oil into a glass container -- coffee mugs are great for this. Let the fat cool for about half an hour. For a container that you want to freeze, pack the bits in and then cover with the fat. If you plan to refrigerate some and use within 10 days, covering with fat will not be needed.

Why cover with fat? Two reasons: 1. makes the product more versatile. You can take a spoonful and use it to saute onions for you favorite greens or beans. If you want to use the bacon for a fettuccine carbonara, warm the byproduct and pour the bacon fat back into the container, put it on the dog's kibble (they will love you for that!!) or toss it. Your choice. 2. The real reason for the fat is to reduce the potential for freezer burn. For years, I just repackaged the raw bacon. About half of it was lost due to freezer burn. This will retard that process. If the fat on top looks questionable when you take from the freezer, scrape it off and toss it. The rest will be fine.

Why is this a preparedness item? If the power goes out, much of what is in your freezer will be unusable if you do not have an alternative way to cook it. Your bacon will be available to either use as is, add to freeze-dried eggs or mac and cheese for variety, or to top the salad greens you are trying to wolf down before they spoil. If you have an alternative cooking method (which you should!) you can use them to cook some of those fridge goods before they go south -- again, eggs or add a smidgen to oil or butter for a rib-sticking grill on a cheese sandwich.

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