fourth grader on a field trip
I’m Amy Carroll. I suppose I should start by telling you that I am not concise. I ramble. A lot.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, and I’ve been up front about what you’re getting yourself into, I graduated from high school with Cody Lane, President of Pederson’s Natural Farms, and Neil Dudley, Vice President. I am the scatter brained creative type… and that’s probably why I’m not the president or vice president of a successful business.
I’m creative, passionate, emotional, unambitious (sounds awful, right? I can explain what that means!), compassionate, indecisive, crunchy, and a whole slew of other things. I’m a writer, a procrastinator, a photographer, a perfectionist, an idealist, and again… a slew…
I earned a bachelor’s in English and Public Relations. (I know most of my rules of grammar, and I break all of them. And, that’s the way I like it.) I thrive on new experiences… they get me all jazzed up! And… making bacon is a new experience for me!
How We Make Our Fully Cooked Bacon
Y’all, I may have one of the coolest jobs ever. I’m the girl they send to the bacon factory to photograph and subsequently write about the Fully Cooked Bacon makin’ process. Me. How awesome is that?
Growing up, my second favorite movie was Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (My first favorite was The Goonies in case you were wondering.) Anyhow, my imagination just ran wild watching that movie. Ah, to be in that chocolatey wonderland… Plus, one of my favorite quotes ever came from that movie. “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” (Why do I admit such things?)
Anyhow, touring a bacon wonderland is possibly the next best thing to touring that chocolate factory. Or maybe it’s better? I finally got my golden ticket! Bacon and sausage and hams, oh my! (Wait… that’s a different movie, right?)
The first time I visited the bacon factory was actually a few years ago. I got to watch, photograph, and write about the bacon making process, sausage making process, and ham making process. But, that’s been a while. I need another bacon factory fix! Fortunately for me, Pederson’s just launched a fully cooked bacon. New process means new blog! The fully cooked bacon process actually starts the same as the regular ol’ bacon process. Here’s what I wrote about that a few years ago:
Okay… have you ever seen that show How It’s Made on the Science Channel? That is a great show. Maybe I’m a total geek, but I find it totally enthralling. From lamps to baseballs to bacon, they’ve covered it all… start to finish. And, it’s not until I watch that show that I get all contemplative on where “things” come from. All I know is that “things” are just there. I go to the store and buy what I need. Granted, I buy responsibly. I am all about sustainability and responsibility. Most often, I let the third party certifications give their stamp of approval, and I take that as truth, though. But, where exactly does it come from?
All that to say… I was asked to tour and photograph the Pederson’s Natural Farms plant. The day I toured, they were making bacon (which of course is what made them famous). Now, keep in mind as you read this that I am a regular ol’ girl. I don’t work in bacon. Or meat. Or the grocery industry in any capacity. I am a relatively scatter brained creative type. Basically… what I’m saying is that I don’t know a dang thing about making bacon. I don’t know any of the technical terms for what I witnessed and photographed. What I DO know is that I loved the experience… so much so that I felt inspired to write a little something to go along with the photos I took.
I’m a consumer. That’s about the extent of my relationship with bacon. (I mean… I’m in LOVE with the stuff, of course. Technically, though, I’m just a consumer.) But, folks, I’m telling you… this was SO super cool. I felt like a fourth grader on a field trip… my eyes filled with wonder, my mind filled with questions. So, here’s how it works at Pederson’s Natural Farms in Hamilton, Texas.
They start with a 2000 pound shipment of fresh pork bellies. Inside of that big ol’ 2000 pound box, there are an average of 200 pork bellies. Two pork bellies are obtained per pig. This is where it starts. And, I don’t know if this is what he bargained for, but here’s Cody Lane, President of Pederson’s Natural Farms, in an attempt to move one of those 2000 pound boxes.
I don’t know where the fresh pork bellies go from this box while they await the next step. Somewhere cold, I’m sure. (That whole place was freezing!) Anyway, when it’s time, the fresh bellies and the seasonings are put into tumblers. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the seasonings room. (Recipes, people. Secret recipes.) But, here are the tumblers which I assume just… well… tumble the meat and seasonings together.
These little guys can handle up to 800 pounds.
And, these big daddies can handle 2000 pounds! (That’s one whole box of pork bellies. WHOA!)
They use these tumblers to season the bellies because they never ever inject the meat with anything. Straight from the tumblers, they get hung on metal hangers called combs so they can be hung on racks. From there, they are wheeled in to smokers where they are left to smoke for six hours. I think this is exceptionally cool. Most run of the mill cured bacon is injected with curing solutions and liquid smoke to give it it’s flavor. Here at Pederson’s, it’s the real deal! It’s actually smoked!
Cody Lane, President, showing me a handful of the applewood chips used to give the bacon it’s smoky flavor.
And, here’s Neil Dudley, Vice President of Pederson’s Natural Farms, inside the largest smoker.
From the smoker, the bellies are blast chilled to 35° to get the temperature down quickly. But, after that, they are temper chilled to 18° to prepare them for the next step in the process.
And, if you were wondering, this is what pork bellies temper chillin’ on their combs look like:
Okay… from here… this is where things got really exciting for me! (And, these folks at the Pederson’s plant may think I’m nuts for my sheer excitement over this, but it was WAY cool. They see it every day. I see it, oh… never.) Anyway, on this Friday that I visited, all the action was in the packaging room. They had those machines cranked up. They were bacon makin’ fools that day!
Here’s what was happening (as best I could tell). They’d take those racks of seasoned, tumbled, smoked & chilled bellies, and they’d wheel ’em on in to the packaging room. From there, there was a fella putting each belly, one by one, in to a machine that pressed them. And, what exactly that machine does and why… I don’t know. I’m going with the context clues and assuming it literally pressed the bellies, thus compacting them. (I asked questions… I promise. It’s just that it was loud in there, and there were a lot of steps involved. I’m scatter brained, remember? And feeling like a fourth grader on a field trip.)
Here’s the man “manning” the pressing machine:
And, the results:
Now, from here, I’m told that the bellies have to be chilled from 18° to 20° for the next step. (But, is it called “chilling” if it’s actually an increase in temperature by 2°? Oh… the juvenile questions that pop into my head.) I hear they have to be a very specific temperature for each step in the process, which I find quite interesting since it’s as little as a 2° difference. I’d love to know the reasons for all of that.
Now, here is where the Fully Cooked Bacon process deviates from the regular ol’ bacon process. Instead of taking the pressed bellies to the regular ol’ bacon room to be sliced and packaged, they haul those bellies over to the Fully Cooked Bacon room. Once there, a gentleman takes the bellies and places them on a little conveyer belt type of thing.
The conveyor belt feeds it into a machine that slices the bellies into perfectly consistent slices of bacon, and then the machine kicks the slices out to another little conveyor belt.
That conveyor belt carries it into this massive machine called a spiral oven. Basically, the conveyor belt just goes ’round & ’round spiraling up higher and higher throughout that oven. It takes about 25 minutes to reach the top at which point it is fully cooked.
BUT! We’re not done yet! I mean, the bacon is piping hot and way up high. Obviously, we cannot be done yet, right?
Now, the bacon is still on that same conveyor belt, and it just feeds straight into an equally massive machine called a spiral freezer. It’s like the exact same thing in reverse. It’s like ol’ Willy Wonka says, “Strike that. Reverse it.” Hehe.
Anyway, so, now it is descending through this spiral freezer going ’round & ’round just as before. This time, though, as the name spiral freezer implies, it is actually cooling the fully cooked bacon (duh). This process takes about 20 minutes. When it reaches the bottom, it finally gets to leave its little conveyor belt home but only to be kicked out to a different conveyor belt. This one is much shorter and simply carries the fully cooked slices to the folks who will now package it.
The day I was there, they were packaging the larger, retail size. So, the packaging folks would get the perfect amount of slices, place it into the film, and then the form seal machine seals it right up! But, we are STILL not done! Each of those packages has to be hand labeled. Yeah… hand labeled. Y’all, I can’t put one single sticker on straight on anything and yet this gal is labeling like a billion packages of Fully Cooked Bacon a day??? (It drives me bonkers when I have to put a new registration sticker on my car. I will inevitably have to deal with a crooked sticker on my front windshield for an entire year. <eyeroll> But, that’s neither here nor there.)
Okay, after she labels each of these packages, another person counts out the right number of packages to be put in the case. Throw the little cardboard lid on it, and it’s ready to ship! And, that, my friends, is the Fully Cooked Bacon makin’ process.