Monday, July 21, 2014

Apple #679: Pork Bellies and Bacon

Not long ago, I tried pork belly for the first time. 

The first -- and for many years the only -- time I heard of pork bellies was in the Dan Aykroyd/Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places (1983) -- which still holds up, by the way.

Never heard a whisper about pork bellies after that. But all of a sudden in the past five or six years, it seems every other Food Network show has some chef who makes pork belly at least once per episode and gets all excited and drooly-mouthed about it as if it's some incredible delicacy.  Especially on Top Chef.

Top Chef season 6 contestant Kevin Gillespie (the guy with red hair & beard who made pork about 90 ways)'s smoked pork belly with pickled apples and pureed peanut sauce.
(Photo from Food Gal)

In spite of all their enthusiasm,pork belly has never looked that appetizing to me because there's usually a big hunk of fat on top.

Pork belly, with the fat on top crispy.
(Photo from Simple Comfort Food)

But recently I was at a restaurant that had pork belly on the menu so I thought, what the heck, I'll try it and see what all the fuss is about.

It tasted like a pork chop with a lot of fat on top.

But I did suspect that pork bellies and bacon have something to do with each other, and that if you cut a pork belly vertically, you'd get a strip of bacon.  Was I correct?  What exactly is the relationship between pork bellies and bacon?

  • The short answer is yes, my guess was correct.  Bacon is sliced from the pork belly.  But let me back up a second and give you the whole low-down.
  • As you would suspect, the pork belly is cut from the belly of the pig.

Chart of cuts of pork from the pig.  The section marked Side is where the belly and the bacon come from.  Even though this chart calls it the "side," most people say the pork belly comes from -- you guessed it -- the belly.
(Chart from Sugar Mountain Farm)

Raw pork belly with the skin still on.  The Food Network described pork belly as "a fatty slab of meat."  Yup.
(Photo from A Knife's Work)

  • Once you've got a slab of pork belly, you can go in either of two directions.  You can either roast or fry the belly or otherwise make that your dish of choice.  Or you can transform the pork belly into none other than our good friend bacon!
  • Bacon is pork belly that has been cured so it won't go bad, smoked, and then sliced into the familiar slices we all know and love.
  • Curing means you coat it in a ton of salt.  This is true of any meat, but with the pork belly you need an especially large boatload of salt.  This is because pork belly tends to go bad in a hurry.  Unsalted, pork belly would turn rancid in about 5 days.  So for the amount that's cut off the end there, you'd probably need around 3 cups of salt.
  • Plus you would add some sugar.  This is to help combat the saltiness and to add flavor. One guy recommends brown sugar.  Someone else recommends maple syrup.  Still another says to use honey.
  • You'd also want to add any other kinds of spices or flavors -- black pepper, garlic, rosemary, bay leaves, whatever strikes your fancy.
  • Another guy recommends adding just a touch of a preservation called saltpeter.  People are afraid of it because it's in things like gunpowder, but lots of green vegetable naturally contain more saltpeter than you'd be adding to your pork belly/bacon.  
  • If you don't use the saltpeter, you might use pink curing salt, which is sodium nitrite.  This ingredient helps to prevent botulism, and the pink helps turn the meat the nice red color we associate with deliciousness, and it also does improve the flavor to give you that deliciousness that the color promises.  
  • Yes, people have health concerns about sodium nitrite (or its precursor, sodium nitrate).  
In general, the American Medical Association has found that the concentrations of nitrites in normal quantities of preserved meats aren't sufficient to cause cancer. However, they also report that nitrites lead to formation of modified hemoglobin proteins, [which] can lead to cellular oxygen deficiencies. [from Livestrong]

Pork belly rubbed with the cure -- in this case, curing salt, kosher salt, dark brown sugar, black pepper
(Photo from Pork Drunk)
  • Once you've got your pork belly all salted & flavored up, wrap it snugly in plastic and put it in your refrigerator for about 7 days.
  • When you take it out and unwrap it, you will discover it will have formed a flabby soggy looking whitish layer on top.  This is called the pellicle and, yucky-looking though it may be, its appearance means you've done everything properly do this point, and it also helps seal in flavor and acts as a protective layer during the smoking.  Which comes next.
  • Some people buy or own a smoker and they stick their cured pork belly/almost bacon in there.  Or if you have one of those barbecue drums, you could use that.  Or you could use your regular old oven, but the flavor would not be as good. Because you would not really be smoking it.
  • You want the temperature in your smoker/grill/BBQ thing to be on the low side, around 200 degrees, but really smoky.  One guy recommends using half the coals you normally wood and adding wood that's been soaked in water for a little while so it will smoke a lot.  Of course the type of wood you choose will make a difference too.  Fruit woods tend to smoke a lot, as does hickory.  Which is why you often hear of hickory-smoked bacon, for example.
  • When you take your cured pork belly out of the smoker/BBQ/oven, it will look dang near like the bacon you're used to seeing.  And that's because it has become bacon.  All you need to do is slice it, and you'll say, hey!  I know that meat!  That's bacon!

Home-made smoked bacon, from pork belly.
(Photo from

  • Some people say to refrigerate for a while before slicing; others say slice and then refrigerate or fry it up as soon as you want to eat it.
  • Oh, and pancetta is essentially the same thing.  You take a pork belly, cure it, & smoke it. The difference is you use a specific recipe of spices in your cure rub.

Here are some recipes in detail:

Home-cured bacon, with spices still on top, prior to slicing.
(Photo from TasteFood)

Give it a try.  Let us know how your bacon turns out.

Oh, and by the way, pork bellies haven't been traded as a futures commodity since 2011.  Which may seem like a mistake because their fortunes have really taken off.  But actually this is why they're no longer traded.  The bellies don't get frozen & stored for later use, which is what made them ideal as a futures commodity.  Now, bacon & the pork bellies themselves are so in demand, they're eaten all year round.  Paradoxically, there's no longer a future in 'em. Har har.

Some futures traders lament their passing from the trading floor.  Apparently, pork bellies were a commodity for the most hard-core trader.  They could make you or break you.
There was the balding trader whose wig was seen as a gauge of the market’s volatility; on the craziest days, the wig’s part ran ear to ear, [Chicago Mercantile Exchange futures reporter Gary] Wilhelmi recalled. There was the analyst who died right there. “Bellies killed him,” Mr. Wilhelmi said. [from the New York Times]

Photo from the day the Chicago Mercantile Exchange began trading pork bellies -- September 18, 1961.  It was a good 50 years.
(Photo sourced from The '60s at 50)

Seattle Met, Bacon vs. Pork Belly, March 2, 2012
Food Network, Pork Belly Ribs and Bacon Guide
Sugar Mountain Farm, What Good is a Pig: Cuts of Pork, Nose-to-Tail, April 4, 2014
Cool Material, How to Make Bacon from Scratch
The Guardian, The secrets of home-curing your own bacon, March 16, 2011
A Knife's Work, Roasted Pork Belly
Jacob Burton, Difference between Sodium Nitrite, Nitrate, & Pink Curing Salt
Livestrong, Sodium Nitrate vs. Sodium Nitrite, October 21, 2013
Investopedia, Commodities: Pork Bellies and Pork Bellies: Definition
Trade in Pork Bellies Comes to an End, but the Lore Lives, The New York Times, July 30, 2011

Monday, July 14, 2014

Apple #678: Does Hair Dye Make Your Hair Fall Out?

Most of my Daily Apples start when I encounter some sort of question I don't know the answer to.  I look stuff up online, and I post what I find here.  One of my goals is to demonstrate that you can find the answer to just about any question on these here Internets, if you take a few minutes to run a few Google searches.  Now that pretty much everybody has a smart phone, you're all starting to figure that out.

But in some cases, these here Internets don't have all the answers.  I know, you Internet lovers are gasping in disbelief.  But it is true.  Sometimes the best way to learn about something is to experience it.  The answer to today's topic, can hair dye make your hair fall out, comes to you courtesy of your Apple Lady's personal experience.

This is actually a home hair coloring DON'T.
(Photo from SheKnows)

I'll give you the answer first, and then I'll give you some more information.  If you're interested, you can read on.  Or you can just get the answer and move along.

  • Yes, hair dye can make your hair fall out.  But only if it touches (and burns) your scalp.
  • One little spelling/grammar thing.  People, you are not "dying" your hair.  You are "dyeing" it.  Dying is the process of going down that dark road to death.  Dyeing is the process of coloring.  OK?  
  • And actually, we want to find out how to dye our hair without dying it.  If you get my pun.

Knowledge by Experience

  • Here's how I learned the truth about hair dye and hair loss:
  • For a while I had my hair professionally colored, but my hairdresser left a very thin strip along the part that wasn't colored.  After several sessions when this was still the case I thought, What the heck am I paying him all this money for if he doesn't even color the roots?  I'll do this myself.
  • So I started coloring my hair myself.  So much less expensive!  Plus, I made sure to put the dye as close to the scalp as possible.  No more differently colored roots!
  • Rinsing out the color afterward, I noticed more strands than usual coming away in my hands.  Not a ton more, but enough to be noticeable.  Slightly disturbing and not ideal, but not enough to freak me out.
  • But by the third or fourth time I did it myself, I was really putting the color close to the scalp.  Get it all down in there, I thought.  We don't want any of that undesirable shade (OK, gray) to show up any sooner than necessary.  I even kind of scrubbed it in at the temples.
  • Rinsing out the color that time, egad, practically buckets of hair came away in my hands.  Not, like, in giant bunches, but six & eight & ten strands at once, again and again and again.  Combing my hair afterwards, still a ton of hair coming away.  One and two days later, still, a ton of hair coming away in my comb and my brush, and even just when running my hand through my hair.  THAT was enough to freak me out.

This is about the level of hair loss at that time.  Maybe not even quite as much as this.  But enough to be upsetting.
(Image from

  • I looked up all sorts of things online and I found out that there's a chemical in some (OK, most) hair colors that can give you "adverse reactions" including making your hair fall out, or giving you an allergic rash, etc.
  • That chemical is paraphenylenediamine, sometimes abbreviated P-Phenylenediamine, or PPD.  
    • IMPORTANT NOTE:  At the time, I thought it was the PPD that was making my hair fall out, but it turns out, that only happens if you have an allergic reaction to it.  That's why the hair color box tells you to test the color on your skin first, before applying.  This test is to see if you are allergic to the PPD.  I didn't have that skin reaction, so the PPD wasn't actually the problem.  But for a while, I assumed it was. 

This is the amount of hair loss you could experience if you are allergic to PPD.
(Photo from Ishida et al., ISRN Dermatology)

  • I checked the ingredients on the box of hair color I'd been using and sure enough, that giant para-blahblah word was in the list.  The next time I went to the store, I looked at other brands of hair color, and they pretty much all had that ingredient.  So I thought, Well, so much for coloring my hair by myself.
  • So I went back to my hairdresser.  I assumed he was using some sort of "professional" hair color that wouldn't have that bad old PPD in it.  I told him what I'd read online, and when I mentioned this chemical, he picked up a box of the stuff he uses and frowned at it.  He said, "So, you're allergic to this chemical, and I shouldn't use hair color that has that in it?"
  • OK, now, here comes what's known as a "human moment."  I so wanted my hair to be colored that, even though I suspected his hair color had the PPD in it, and even though I suspected that the PPD would make my hair fall out, I told him it was fine, don't worry about it, go ahead.  I wanted my hair to be colored, even if that meant a good deal of it would fall out.  Go figure.
  • But there is actually a logic to me telling him to go ahead.  Which is that after he colored my hair a number of times before, there hadn't been much hair loss at all.  In fact, I noticed no difference between the day after getting my hair colored by him and any other day's normal hair shedding.  You know, a strand or two here & there.  No big deal at all.
  • So this left one other possible explanation for my hair shedding episode.  I said to my hairdresser, "So, do you avoid putting the hair color all the way to the scalp on purpose?"
  • "Yes," he said.  He explained that this keeps the different colors from bleeding into each other, and it also protects your scalp and the root of the hair from being damaged.
  • If I'd just asked him the question from the get-go, that would have saved me so much time.

Ignoring the fact that they are making this poor woman's hair striped, notice how they've left a bit of hair NOT colored up near the part. This helps keep your hair from being damaged and breaking at the scalp or falling out.
(Photo from BoldSky)

Again, notice how the foil doesn't actually go all the way up to the scalp but stops a little bit below the scalp. You may not be using foils at home, but you can be sure to apply the color a bit away from the scalp.
(Photo from 7YearsYounger)

This is what you DON'T want to do.  You don't want to inject the color right down into your scalp.  These squeeze bottles don't actually give you much control over where the color goes.  It will work better if you squeeze the color into a plastic dish of some kind and use a little brush to apply the color.  Clairol's Nice 'n' Easy Root Touch-Up is really cheap--about $4.50 at the grocery store--and it comes with a brush.  The color has lots of ammonia and is pretty harsh after more than a couple uses.  But it's a cheap way to get a coloring brush that you can rinse out and use again.
(Photo from SheKnows

  • Since then, I've looked up this question a couple other times, trying the search a few different ways to see what other responses come up.  Because all the aesthetician/cosmetician/professional hair care people insist that no, hair dye does not make your hair fall out.  But regular people like you and me say, Well, actually, it seems like my hair is falling out.
  • After combing through (pun!) a number of comments on a few chat boards, I noticed a pattern.  People who said they'd put a ton of color on their hair, or let it soak in, or otherwise put it all the way on their scalp--these were the people saying they were experiencing episodes of "shedding": tons of hair falling out over a period of a few days to a week.
  • So I took a chance and went back to coloring my hair myself.  (I really can't afford the professional thing that often.)   I've been careful not to let the color touch my scalp, though it is hard to keep that from happening sometimes, and I have not had another shedding incident since.  Some extra hair still does come away during the post-coloring rinse, but nowhere near as much as before.
  • Thus, I call the case solved: hair dye can make your hair fall out, but only if you let it touch your scalp.  Conversely, if you keep the hair dye from touching your scalp, you can reduce the possibility of hair loss quite a bit. 

More Facts I've Learned Since

  • So, most of your hair is dead.  That's why you can color it, cut it, curl it, blow it dry, and feel nothing.  As long as you confine the stuff you do to your hair to the dead part -- the shaft -- it's probably not going to have really serious effects.
  • But when you start messing around with the live part of the hair, then you're going to have problems.

A trusty diagram of ye olde hair follicle.  How many times have you seen diagrams like this?  But here's my point: look at all the activity going on under the surface of the skin.  There are oil (sebaceous) glands, there are blood vessels, there's the outer sheath, and there is the dermal papilla, better known as the bulb or the root.  All this stuff exists to keep your hair alive and growing.  Mess with this and your hair is not going to be happy.
(Diagram from Too Loop)

  • Hair naturally goes through a cycle of growth, falling out, and regrowth.  One strand of hair is in the growing phase for 4 to 6 years.  That's right, years!  Then it goes into a resting phase where nothing's happening.  Then a new bit of hair starts growing in the follicle under the old hair, pushing the old hair out and the cycle begins again.  
  • Normally anywhere from 50 to 150 strands of hair fall out per day as part of this cycle.  

Stages in a strand of hair's life: Growth, Transition, Resting, Falling Out/Regrowth.
(Diagram from Pure Aesthetics Pure Wellness)

  • When a stressor hits, the effects are felt in the follicle.  The results -- hair falling out -- can happen right away, or more often, within 2 to 3 months of the stressing event.
  • These kinds of stressors are usually major life things, like big changes in hormone levels, giving birth, very high fevers, diseases such as diabetes or lupus, severe dieting or anorexia, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, burns. 
  • Those big-time events literally make the hair fall out of the follicle. When the stressful thing goes away, the hair usually grows back eventually.
  • One of the experts who finally admitted that dyeing can adversely affect your hair says that dyeing the hair (or bleaching it or straightening it or giving it a perm) doesn't actually make the hair fall out, but rather breaks the hair off at or near the scalp, and then the root of the hair continues growing.  
  • I think she might be splitting hairs (another pun!).  I don't remember noticing the little bulb of white at the end of any of the hairs that have come out following a coloring incident, so maybe she's right.  Maybe the hair isn't actually falling out; it's only breaking off.  But either way, it's not what you want to happen.
  • The good news is that, once the color-treating process is over, even though that's when you discover that damage has occurred, the damage has actually stopped.  From that point on, the hair continues its growth process.
  • Hair grows about half an inch per month.  So within a couple of months, you can go back to being happy, smiling you.

(Photo by Ahoova on Flickr)

Ishida et al., "Severe Hair Loss of the Scalp due to Hair Dye Containing Para phenylenediamine," ISRN Dermatology, April 2011
Dr. Judith Reichman, Getting to the root of female hair loss, TODAY Health, August 2006, Can dying [sic] your hair cause hair loss?  
Susan Donaldson James, After Hair Loss at 11, Shame Ruins Woman's Singing Career, ABC News, April 3, 2013
Florida Center for Pediatric Dermatology, Does Hair Dye Make Your Hair Fall Out? Dr. Tace Rico Explains [they're talking about PPD and allergic reactions to it]
Linda DiProperzio, Women's Hair Loss: What Your Hair Stylist Might Not Be Telling You,