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.


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