All of the bacon we have

Everything you wanted to know — and more — about the bacon offerings in central Arkansas.

Everything you wanted to know — and more — about the bacon offerings in central Arkansas.
Jan 29
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Everything you wanted to know — and more — about the bacon offerings in central Arkansas.

Feel like bacon love?

That cured meat delicacy isn’t relegated to breakfast anymore. It’s everywhere. These days bacon is in your Facebook feed and feeding your face. It’s a vodka flavor. It’s an image on duct tape — right next to the mustache duct tape. I recently lost a bet when I gambled that bacon-flavored condoms didn’t exist. (I was apparently having a particularly naive day.)

But is bacon a well-respected, A-list celebrity like Brad Pitt or has it been typecast into the same-old John Cusack roles?

The answer is probably both.

In some circles, bacon’s popularity does translate into a higher quality product, though the artisans behind the process say making bacon doesn’t require too much actual skill. It’s a labor-intensive process that Brandon Brown at Hillcrest Artisan Meats has been perfecting for going on six years, and he says anyone can accomplish it with a few days of dedication.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Ooh, bacon’ but it’s so easy to make. If you have a smoker, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be making their own bacon at home. It’s cheaper, and for someone who’s never done it or the home cook, it’s something cool to do. If you’re gonna make a small piece, you know it’s for you. But when you’re making 100 pounds at a time …” he trails off, implying that the process can be somewhat tedious.

The bacon at his shop takes roughly a week to go from plain pork belly to the smoked, peppered and house-cured slices retailing for $10.99 per pound.

“We sell probably 50 pounds of bacon a week. We run out a lot. You gotta make sure you keep on top of it and always have something going, so you don’t run out,” he said.

He has sold out on a few occasions, but he’s increasing production so that doesn’t happen again.

“The last time we got pork bellies, I bought a ton of them, and our New Year’s resolution is to not run out of bacon anymore,” he said with a laugh. “If you run out, and you don’t have pork bellies, it’s gonna be a week before you have it again.”

Bacon is typically made from the “belly” of the pig, but Brown says that’s something of a misnomer. It’s technically the side of the pig.

“The spare ribs are connected to the belly, and you cut the spare ribs off of the belly. … It’s the outermost fatty layer of the pig’s side. I guess if you really wanted to call it what it should be called, it’s the pork side,” he explained.

He buys pork sides from Freckle Face Farm in Arkansas because he leaves the skin on during the salting and curing process.

“That’s the most important thing when you make bacon, to have the skin on. If you have the skin off, both sides are exposed and when you cure the bacon, you cure it for a few days, and it’ll have too much salt. That skin layer helps protect the bacon so it’s not too salty,” he said.

The curing process is flexible, depending on what flavors the bacon should have.

“You can cure it with anything, with maple syrup. You can put maple syrup in there, and then when you cure it, you’re imparting that flavor,” he said.

At H.A.M., the bacon-making process includes a rub with salt, brown sugar, bay leaf, juniper berries and sodium nitrite — a preservative that Brown says keeps away food-borne illnesses during the smoking process and also gives the bacon that traditional red hue.

The process includes salting the bacon and flipping it every day for four days. Then it’s rinsed and soaked in water overnight.

“What that does is, if you didn’t soak it in water again, it would just be so salty you wouldn’t be able to eat it,” he said. Then the bacon hangs in the fridge to dry because Brown wants the surface of the pork to feel tacky. That allows the flavor to adhere to the meat as it’s smoked — not cooked — at a very low temperature for a few hours.

“This is about a weeklong process, from start to finish,” he said.

Over at the Capital Hotel, sous chef Travis McConnell oversees the bacon-making in the kitchen. He says the hotel has been curing its own bacon from day one.

“The Capital wanted to make our own bacon because it only makes sense for the overall mentality. We take pride in making everything in house,” he said. He says the secret to good bacon is to “buy only the best pork and dry cure, not brine.”

No matter the method, bacon’s popularity is hard to match in the food world. It’s likely due to famous chefs incorporating pork belly and bacon into their cooking and others following suit around the country, Brown said. Other than that, he can’t explain bacon’s rise. He primarily writes it off as a passing fad.

“I think it’s always been popular. I think things just come and go like that. No one’s gonna ever stop eating it, but it’s just the fad. You know foie gras was the big fad for awhile,” he said.

“It’s like the mustache of the food world.”

THE NITRATE DEBATE

Cured meats usually have an added preservative, and often sodium nitrate or nitrite is used. The jury is out on whether or not nitrates are harmful to humans, but the awareness is there. Brandon Brown of Hillcrest Artisan Meats is a firm believer in using them.

“It’s a big issue and everyone’s like, ‘Oh it’ll make you sick, it’ll give you cancer,’ but it helps prevent botulism. It’s a safety thing. We use a lot of it here. We’ve had people ask us to make bacon for them without it, and we’ve done it, but it just doesn’t taste the same.”

Many products without “nitrates” use celery juice instead as it has naturally occurring nitrates, but Brown says that approach leaves too much room for error.

“Any green vegetable has nitrates in it. If you’re using that, you don’t have as much control. Every plant’s gonna have amounts of it, but it’s going to be different in every plant, but if you’re just using the pink salt, you can know exactly how much you’re putting in it,” he said.

In the end, it’s really up to the customer to decide. However, for those who’d rather avoid nitrates, it’s possible to find bacon with nitrate substitutes at specialty shops in the area like Whole Foods.

BRINGING HOME THE BACON

In Store

  • Hillcrest Artisan Meats
  • $10.99/ pound
  • 2807 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
  • (501) 671-6328
  • Made with Arkansas-raised pork.

  • Burge’s
  • $28.99+ for two one-pound packages
  • 5620 R St., Little Rock
  • (501) 666-1660
  • Bacon not local to Arkansas.

  • Whole Foods
  • $7/ pound
  • 10700 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock
  • (501) 221-2331
  • Wellshire Farms uncured bacon behind the counter. Not local to Arkansas.

  • Fresh Market
  • $5.99-$9.99/ pound
  • 11525 Cantrell Road, Little Rock
  • (501) 225-7700
  • Bacon not local to Arkansas.

  • Petit Jean Meats
  • $40/ four pounds through www.petitjeanmeats.com
  • Based in Morrilton, Ark.
  • (501) 354-2474 for stockists



Farmers Markets

  • Hillcrest Farmers Market
  • 2200 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
  • Open Saturdays 8 a.m. to noon
  • Freckle Face Farm, $7.50/ pound
  • Note: No bacon until mid-February

  • Argenta Farmers Market
  • Sixth and Main streets, North Little Rock
  • Open Saturdays 7 a.m. to noon beginning in April
  • Falling Sky Farm, $7-$8/ pound

  • Arkansas Local Food Network weekly market
  • 509 Scott St. (Christ Church), Little Rock
  • Order online at littlerock.locallygrown.net Sunday through Wednesday. Pick up Saturday morning or Monday evening.
  • Falling Sky Farm, $7-$8/ pound
  • Youngblood Grassfed Farm, approx $8/ pound

  • Conway Locally Grown weekly market
  • 925 Mitchell St. (Saint Peter’s), Conway
  • Order online at conway.locallygrown.net Sunday through Tuesday. Pick up Friday evening.
  • Falling Sky Farm, $7-$8/ pound
  • Coming soon: Freckle Face Farm, $7.50/ pound



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