Why It Works
- Soaking the bacon for several hours allows the meat to get soft without sacrificing flavor.
- Baking the bacon with brown sugar makes it extra-crispy and sweet.
Like a lot of bacon from around the world, Chinese bacon is made from pork belly and less frequently, from shoulder. It is either air-cured with soy sauce, brown sugar, and spices (like star anise and cinnamon) until it's very hard, or it's cured for a shorter period of time before being smoked.
Call me biased, but Chinese bacon is one of my favorite types of bacon for a few reasons. First, it usually comes with the rind (i.e., skin) still attached, which means you have an extra element of piggy goodness built into your bacon. Second, the spices of Chinese are beguiling much in the same way as red-braised meats—that combination of cinnamon, star anise, and cloves infusing the meat, perfuming the fat so that every bite has a deep, complex flavor.
Chinese bacon can be easily found at most Asian markets. There'll be a variety available: some smoked, some unsmoked, some cured with a "signature" blend of spices and flavors such as wine and fish sauce. I'm partial to the very sweet or very smoky and well-spiced types, though I've never eaten a piece of Chinese bacon that I didn't like. And, since Chinese bacon keeps indefinitely, sometimes without refrigeration (check your packaging), you should buy a variety to taste the differences.
Chinese bacon is sometimes misunderstood by cooks who take home rock-hard pieces of it and assume they should cook with it right away. All Chinese bacon benefits from a long soaking in water, so the meat gets tender without losing any flavor.
Though most packages of Chinese bacon recommend steaming the bacon, I find that doing so renders the fat but doesn't soften the meat enough. To soak meat, simply immerse the pieces of bacon in cold water for at least five hours and up to a day, then proceed with your recipe.
My favorite new way to make Chinese bacon is also the simplest. After getting a soak in water, bite-sized pieces of bacon are coated in brown sugar and baked. The best part is that the fat rendered from the bacon mixes with the melted brown sugar and produces a kind of caramel that coats the bits of the belly and makes them extra crispy and delicious.
Adapted from The Bacon Cookbook by James Villas.
- 1 pound of Chinese bacon, soaked in water for at least 6 hours
- 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Cut meat crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick pieces.
Place sugar in a wide dish and dredge both sides of each bacon piece in sugar, pressing sugar firmly onto pieces with your fingers.
Arrange slices on a pan or skillet and bake, turning once, until bacon is cooked and browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.