The beauty of bacon: Is it the salt, the smoke, the size of the slice?

By Marlene Parrish, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Bacon isn't a food, it's a flavor." John Martin Taylor, author and teacher.

"Ham is a celebration. Bacon is every day." Ari Weinzweig, owner of Zingerman's.

Bad bacon is an oxymoron. Some people even go so far as to call it the best food in the world. No wonder. A many-pleasured thing, bacon is salty, a bit sweet, smoky, and when it's hot out of the skillet, both meaty and crisp. Even though almost everyone loves it, hardly anyone agrees on which brand or which style is the best. Like love, bacon is a personal thing.

First and foremost, bacon is an agricultural product. Good bacon, which comes from the belly, back and sides of the hog, comes from good hogs and will vary from hog to hog. There is a wide range of flavor depending on the breed of the animal, where and how it was raised and what it has eaten. Expect to find a huge difference between standard commercial brands and bacon prepared by artisans and specialists around the country.

But any way you slice it, literally, bacon is cured pork. The only ways to preserve meat before refrigeration were by means of salting, drying and smoking. The salt dehydrates the meat and destroys microbes.

Nitrites are used to aid the penetration of the salt evenly throughout the raw pork and prevent spoilage by killing bacteria. They do more than that. Sodium nitrite changes the red color to the pink color of cured meats. Nitrites also contribute to bacon's characteristic cured flavor. Because nitrites are converted to cancer-causing nitrosamines in the body, the FDA regulates the maximum amounts that can be used. But because it tastes bland or insipid, nitrite-free bacon is an acquired taste for most people.

Today, with refrigeration, curing is done to add flavor to the meat. Some makers still use expensive and time-consuming dry-salt curing and smoking. But most large-scale producers cure their bacon with a salt brine along with sweeteners and flavorings. Some will also inject the meat with a saline solution that pumps up the weight. That's the reason some bacons exude a watery, white liquid when cooked.

All bacon is cured in some way, but not all bacon is smoked. The distinctive, we can almost say irresistible, flavor depends on the kind of wood used -- hickory, apple, maple. The bacon is cured, dried and hung in a smokehouse with smoldering logs, chips or sawdust depending on the manufacturer. The process can take as little as several hours or as long as several weeks. Smoke flavor can also be injected.

Some form of bacon is eaten in almost every country in the world. American-style "Canadian bacon" is lean back bacon, from the loin, and precooked. Real Canadian bacon from over the border is called peameal bacon and is sold uncooked and covered in pea or cornmeal. Irish bacon is a meaty, lean cut from the eye of the loin and a mainstay in a classic and hearty "Irish breakfast." Pancetta is Italian salt-cured and herb-flavored bacon that is not smoked, and it is widely used in Italian cooking. Salt pork, that resident of Boston baked beans, is salt-cured fat with a smidgen of meat; it's used primarily for seasoning dishes after it has been desalted. Fresh fatback is from the pig's back and is usually rendered into lard.

The Chinese developed techniques for curing pork some 4,000 years ago. Their bacon today is an intensely flavored product that is air-cured with soy, sugar and spices. It finds its way into many Asian dishes, but its piggy flavor is an acquired taste for Westerners.
Buying bacon

Try to take a look at a whole slice, flipping the flap on the packaged brands or asking the butcher to hold up a slice or two. There should be an equal ratio of meat to fat, and it should look streaky with no large areas of fat.

The color of the bacon will depend on how the meat was cured, and it will range from pinkish to reddish-brown. Much bacon in the supermarket will be wrapped shingle-style and vacuum-packed. Specialty stores and many delis will have piles of sliced bacon, and other will cut slices to order.

Thick-sliced, or country-style, bacon is a favorite of connoisseurs. Many artisan brands are thick-sliced. If you are looking for flavor over price, this type is a must-try.

Regular-sliced bacon is vacuum-packed and a standby of supermarkets. Thin-sliced bacon is mass-market, supermarket available and also found in lower-scale restaurants.

Slab bacon comes in one piece and keeps well in the fridge. Sliced as needed, it's a good choice when chunks and strips are needed such as for lardons.

Turkey, tofu and other ersatz types of bacon are not to be confused with a rewarding bacon experience. Someone once said that martinis aren't made with vodka, pesto is not made with spinach, and bacon isn't made with anything but hog.

All bacon is not created equal, but typically it's about 4 percent protein along with vitamins and minerals. When you add uncooked bacon to a dish, the fat remains in the dish. But in frying much of that fat melts away. A meat-streaked slice of cooked bacon will have about 36 calories.
Store bacons in the fridge, well-sealed and packaged. Bacon can be frozen, but after a month it tends to lose quality.

How to cook bacon:
Cooking bacon is a matter of personal preference, but here are time-tested rules of thumb:
Use room temperature bacon to prevent the raw bacon slices from tearing when you separate them.

Cook bacon at a low temperature to prevent shrinking, curling and uneven cooking. Splattering comes from too-high heat and from low-end bacons that are pumped with water.

Turn slices as often as you like. When slices are done to your preference, transfer them to paper towels to drain.

Turn the bacon with tongs, a fork or, if you are good at it, chopsticks. If the bacon begins to curl, snip the edges with kitchen scissors.

To make bacon in advance or to keep leftovers, refrigerate cooked slices and reheat in the oven.

Spoon off drippings into a heatproof container between batches when you are cooking for a crowd.

What about all that bacon grease? Keep it in a covered container in the fridge or freezer, and use a bit of it to add flavor to any number of dishes. Bacon dressing on German potato salad is classic. Add a dab to the skillet when making fried eggs. Bacon grease added to the fat for fried chicken is wonderful.

A bacon sampling

You are probably familiar with the phrase "bring home the bacon." Back in the 12th century, a deacon in the English town of Dunmow is said to have promised to give a side of bacon to any man who would swear that he had not quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. A husband who could "bring home the bacon" was held in high esteem by the community for his upstanding behavior.

We brought home seven locally available bacons to sample and compare. They were thick-cut bacons, from both specialty shops and supermarkets. Strips were pan-fried over medium-low heat in a black iron skillet to the same degree of doneness. One slice of raw bacon was held out to judge shrinkage. We noted saltiness, sweetness, smokiness, meatiness and general appeal. Here, the bacons are listed in descending order of price per pound, not preference. It took a whole afternoon to do the comparison, but I don't believe I've ever lived so high on the hog.

Schaller and Weber -- $6.99. If you want to get in touch with your inner butcher, this one's for you. Have a good, sharp knife handy to hand-slice the thick, meaty solid hunk of bacon. The double-smoked bacon is meaty and chewy, with a good meat-to-fat ratio. This might be a good choice when a recipe calls for lardons, pieces a quarter-inch wide and 1-inch long. It tastes a lot like a good end of a ham.

Whole Foods -- $5.99. Dry-rub, slab bacon is meaty and chewy with more meat than fat in the sample. There was not much shrinkage. The bacon has a pleasant smoky flavor, but it is not as "bacon-y" as others.

Boar's Head -- $4.99. This naturally-smoked Canadian product is a good value. This is what bacon should taste like -- light, smoky flavor, balance between salt and sweet and a crispness that never faded. Was it my imagination, or were the first two slices thicker than the others? With very little shrinkage as well, this proved to be a good, all-around bacon.

John McGinnis and Co. -- $4.89. This Amish-made slab bacon from Ohio is cut to order in-house. Place your order and the butcher picks up a slab the size of a doormat and asks, "how thick?" Depending on where and how slices are cut, the bacon will be variable. On our order, slices were very fatty and short and had lots of shrinkage. We'll go back for another try because the sweet-salt balance and smokiness were good.

365 Whole Foods -- $4.49. With no nitrates or nitrites in this uncured bacon, the flavor was bland with little detectable smoke or sweetness. It shrank to almost half. When I eat bacon, I want bacon flavor, not a health lesson.

Giant Eagle -- $3.99. The Iggle has eight different kinds of corporate-brand bacon, all specially made for them by some big name provider. Let's call him, Harry Potter-style, He Who Must Not Be Named. Aside from being very salty, the naturally-hardwood smoked bacon had a good meat-to-fat ratio, stayed crisp and had good flavor balance.

Sugardale Original -- $3.98. This is the top-selling bacon brand at Giant Eagle. I can see why this is Everyman's bacon. It had the least shrinkage (how do they do that?), and although it was a little on the sweet side with prominent smoky flavors, Sugardale said "bacon" with every bite.

Extra slices from the bacon tasting were recycled into bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Since the BLT is one of America's favorite lunch-counter classics, we wondered where to find a really good one in Pittsburgh.

Just about every lunch menu has its version. We found a really good one last summer at St. Clair Memorial Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, whose snack bar serves the definitive BLT. Two slices of lightly toasted sandwich bread, a couple of thick slices of fresh tomato, several leaves of crisp lettuce and four or five slices of crisp bacon. Mayo is on the side. The sandwich -- cut on the diagonal, of course -- is served with a bag of chips for $2.85. Such a deal. This is the experience that started me on the good bacon quest.

For more about bacon, read "Everything Tastes Better With Bacon" by Sara Perry.


LA Times Article: Where 'A' Is Not on the Menu


Where 'A' Is Not on the Menu

· Chinese eateries in an L.A. County enclave struggle with hygiene ratings. An inspector knows the challenges unique to the cuisine.

By David Pierson, Times Staff Writer

After concluding a three-hour inspection, Los Angeles County health officer Siu-Man Chiu sat down at a table in a closed-off banquet room to tally the letter grade for a Chinese dim sum eatery in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley.

She noted the uncovered glass left in the food preparation area. No paper towels by the hand sink. A moldy refrigerator. Dead bugs in a plastic container used to hold pig's blood. The restaurant's current grade was a B, but as Chiu began tabulating violations, she knew it was in jeopardy. "Right away, it's borderline," she said. "What killed them was the red beans. That's six points."

The cooks had left 7 pounds of cooked red beans cooling overnight on a food preparation table to make desserts for the next day. When food is left for three hours at room temperature, bacteria growth can reach unacceptable levels.

"I hope I have a C in the car," Chiu said.

At that moment, the doors swung open. A manager told Chiu that the restaurant was so jammed with lunch-hour customers that he needed the space. Before Chiu could finish, servers with steam carts began to unload glistening spareribs and braised chicken feet onto tables filled with noisy patrons.

"Some places, you don't feel like you're making a difference," Chiu said. "Some of the violations you see again and again, and they're still making good business. Even with a C, Chinese people don't care."

C is the lowest grade a restaurant can get before being shut down. It is given when a restaurant scores 70 to 79 points out of 100. Scoring 80 to 89 points lands a restaurant a B, and an A is 90 or higher.

According to a recent study in the Journal of Environmental Health, the bold letters posted by the health department at entrances to restaurants have helped reduce hospital visits for food-borne illnesses 13% in the county since the system was introduced seven years ago.

Many diners check out the letter grade before they check out the menu.

But in the San Gabriel Valley, home to the nation's largest Chinese American community, the letter-grade system is often viewed as little more than a minor intrusion on a proud cuisine — if diners consider it at all.

Patrons of one cafe in Monterey Park, which has repeatedly been cited for health violations and recently received a C from Chiu, are undeterred.

"I've been coming here forever," said Melvin Jin, 25, as he headed for lunch. "I'm getting the fried rice. It's quick, it's easy. Besides, my friend used to work here and he says it's OK."

Michael Ke, 30, a USC student who frequents the restaurant, is equally unconcerned. "I don't even know where they post the letters. B and C is so much gray area."

The county does not categorize restaurants by their cuisine. But, anecdotally, officials have long believed that Chinese restaurants elude A grades at a rate greater than any other type of restaurant. Consider this: 80% of the county's eateries have an A. So why is it so hard to find an authentic Chinese restaurant with anything other than a B or C?

Chinese restaurateurs argue that their kitchens simply use too many ingredients and too many cooking techniques to comply with the all the rules of health inspectors like Chiu.

They say inspectors are overly strict and that a perfect score is tantamount to destroying the flavor of their food. If a roast duck were kept at the temperature the county wants it at all times, for example, chefs say you'd be left with duck jerky, not the succulent flesh and crispy skin diners expect.

And if diners were getting sick, restaurant owners say, they wouldn't be coming to eat in such large numbers.

"We've been cooking like this for 5,000 years," said Harvey Ng, owner of Mission 261 in San Gabriel. "Why do we have a problem now?"

Ng's restaurant has a strong clientele, both local Chinese Americans and foodies drawn by the glowing write-ups in national magazines. But if he gets an A, he doesn't keep it for long.

Chiu, a Hong Kong native, doesn't buy the excuses.

She has patrolled the restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley for more than a decade, cajoling, sweet-talking and even scolding the most grizzled of Chinese chefs. But her task — bridging a cultural divide over hygiene — is foundering on the long lines outside eateries with B and C ratings.

It was 10:33 a.m. when Chiu entered the dim sum house with the red bean problem, which like several other restaurants permitted a reporter to follow Chiu through the inspection process provided their names not be used. Chiu, who stands 5 feet tall, conducts her inspections wearing casual clothes and a county ID card.

In preparation for the noon dim sum horde, four chefs worked frantically in a back room behind the kitchen, forming row upon row of miniature dumplings and pastries.

A giant floor mixer stirred a pasty combination of shrimp and pork, later to be stuffed into yellow dumpling wrappers. Heated cabinets held trays of baked roast pork buns, milk buns and taro cakes. Strips of fatty pork were being defrosted under running water, to be ground for more dumplings.

Chiu acknowledged that no other type of restaurant can compare to the Chinese kitchen in volume and variety of dishes — and therein lies the problem. Each dish requires more handling, more ingredients and less time to do it all.

Chiu stabbed bowls of pork with her thermometer and crouched beneath sinks with her flashlight to check for vermin. She ordered the manager to remove greasy rags from table tops and clean a chopping board with bleach.

"Here is very bad," she said, pointing to grease on a hood above a wok station.

"We clean it once a week, maybe twice," a cook replied in Cantonese.

The owner arrived, appearing agitated. Chiu spotted an open plastic container of shrimp on a table and ordered it covered. The owner pointed at the shellfish and barked at his staff in Cantonese, "Are you kidding me?"

Chiu rolled her eyes. It's all for show, she said later.

In the end, the restaurant maintained its B, but barely, scoring 80.

The inspection, one of hundreds Chiu has done over the years, reinforced her long-standing belief that it's nearly impossible for large Chinese restaurants to earn an A.

The pressure on the employees would be tremendous, she said. It would force them to work several hours on top of 10-hour workdays just to clean up. The Chinese restaurant business is notoriously competitive, and owners cannot afford to pay more for cleaning staff.

"Sometimes I feel sorry for them," she said. "I don't take their attitude personal."

Chinese restaurants don't have the efficiency of major chains, which pack in just as many customers, she said.

"A place like the Cheesecake Factory or Acapulco, a lot of the food is precooked," Chiu said. "They have cleaning crews. In a big Chinese restaurant, the dishwashers have to do the cleaning. They have six or seven refrigerators. What are the chances that they're all going to be clean?"

The cultural gap became vividly clear when Chiu visited a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park that had come under new management, which requires an inspection. The restaurant was prized for its roast duck and pork.

In Chinese cuisine, uncooked ducks and geese are hung to air dry, ridding them of as much moisture as possible. Drying allows the skin to become exceptionally crispy when roasted, as with Peking duck. The debate is over how long the birds can be left to hang in the bacteria-friendly danger zone from 41 to 135 degrees. The law allows only four hours.

The first thing Chiu noticed when she walked into the kitchen were the raw ducks and slabs of pork hanging on silver hooks, waiting to be barbecued. She immediately prodded them with her thermometer, explaining to the cooks that in two hours they would have to cook or refrigerate them.

Chiu walked to the takeout area and told a manager that a side of golden roast pork must be heated to 135 degrees and that he was in violation.

The manager pleaded with Chiu for some leeway. "It will be so dry we won't be able to sell it."

"Yeah, I know, I know, I know," Chiu said, her eyes still on the report she was filling out.

After four pages of handwritten notes on violations — including dirty gaskets, a lack of hot water in the bathrooms and unrefrigerated garlic in oil — Chiu was done. She had the manager sign each page and then walked toward the main entrance, where at least 30 people were waiting in line for a table.

Chiu stripped the green B placard from the glass door. Because it was an inspection prompted by a change in ownership, the restaurant would operate without a visible grade until another inspector arrived in the following weeks.

Otherwise, "They would have gotten a C," Chiu said. "It was pretty bad."

Chiu grew up in Hong Kong, a city with one of Asia's richest culinary traditions and where residents still buy food from "wet markets," outdoor stalls where slabs of meat hang from hooks without refrigeration and shoppers eat cooked food from unlicensed hawkers.

"Our stomachs must be used to the germs," Chiu said.

Chiu went to Cal State Northridge to earn a master's degree in epidemiology and biostatistics. But she did not complete her thesis, opting to take a job with the Department of Health Services in 1987.

She joined the department amid a major demographic shift in the San Gabriel Valley, as largely white suburbs such as Monterey Park, Alhambra and San Gabriel became the epicenter for a wave of Chinese immigration. Suddenly, the area became home to hundreds of Chinese restaurants.

The first six months on the job were not easy for Chiu, who was still adjusting to life in the U.S. She was too passive, she said, and was often intimidated.

"Some of them would chew me out," Chiu said. "But I got more confidence in myself from the job because I know what I'm doing."

She believes the restaurant owners' attitudes toward her also changed with time.

"When I started, they thought I'd be easy on them because I'm Chinese," said Chiu, now the mother of three teenage daughters. But from the beginning, she said, she was a stickler for the county's rules.

And over the years, she has come to command the respect — and fear — of the Chinese restaurant owners.

The most gratifying inspections are the ones that produce results, Chiu said. Take Au 79, a Taiwanese cafe in an Arcadia strip mall that boasts an A.

On her first visit, Chiu found numerous temperature violations and handed out a C. It took a year of encouragement and educating on the part of Chiu and other inspectors for Au 79 to earn an A. It meant translating the rules into Chinese for the kitchen staff, teaching the correct way to wash dishes and how to store food to prevent cross-contamination.

"She is very, very strict. My heart was pounding so fast when she came in," said Megan Lee, 27, who manages the business for her parents. "We moved here from Taipei. There were a lot of new rules to learn. It's completely different from Taiwan."

But Au 79 is an uncommon example.

More typical for Chiu was her trip to a Hong Kong-style restaurant in Monterey Park that serves a distinct Chinese take on Western food, such as chicken a la king and grilled steak smothered with brown pepper sauce.

The restaurant had been clinging to a B for more than a year. Heat from a deep fryer, a grill top, two stove tops, four woks and six stock pots raised the tartar sauce and Thousand Island dressing on an adjacent counter 19 degrees above the highest allowable temperature.

A container of rice porridge had a dead fly in it, food was stored in the employee changing room, a rice scooper was left in standing water and a meat slicer was encrusted with dirt.

Chiu sat down at a booth to write up the report. She refused a drink, as she always does. The owner, a Chinese immigrant who came to the U.S. in the 1960s, sipped hot tea and sat across from Chiu, hoping again to elicit some sympathy.

"We're month to month now," he said. "The owner won't renew our lease. I can't even change the plates. We wanted to renovate. We're barely paying our bills."

Chiu flashed a wan smile and said, "I hate to give you a bad grade."

"I don't mind, I don't mind," the owner said. "You're doing your job. And I get to scream bloody murder at the staff tomorrow."

The restaurant dodged closure by only two points, with a 71.

As Chiu left the restaurant, she stripped the green B placard from the window with one swipe.

She walked to her car, grabbed a red C from her back seat and returned to the front door. There, she taped up the new grade without attracting any attention.

Soon, customers filled the restaurant, as if Chiu had never been there.