Everyone, it seems, loves bacon (except of course if you’re a vegetarian/vegan or if you don’t eat it for religious reasons). After doing nothing more than a quick google search for the word “bacon,” I found the following: bacon ice cream sandwiches, a bacon dog costume, bacon vodka, bacon wrapped corn, and slip-on shoes featuring bacon. Apart from the bacon vodka – which I think is a truly awful combination (bourbon or rum, on the other hand…) – I have to admit that I would eat all of the above bacon-related food products and potentially consider purchasing the above bacon-related apparel. In many ways, however, I feel that we as a society have caught bacon fever without really delving into the nuanced, fatty delicacy that it truly is.
Every “new and exciting” bacon creation to hit social media websites like Pinterest or Buzzfeed has at least one thing in common: the bacon is always the same. I am not trying to be silly or trite. The bacon in these examples is always supermarket-style bacon strips: uniform planks of stripy, reddish brown, crispy, salted and vaguely smoky meat product. You know: the stuff that you have for breakfast at your local diner next to eggs and hash browns with the steamy cup of mediocre coffee. I love that stuff –especially mediocre diner coffee (a guilty pleasure). But to only focus on that variety of bacon is to ignore its true potential.
Bacon is, generally speaking, the term for cured pork belly Several centuries ago, bacon referred to a variety of pork products, mostly derived from the belly or back of a hog (the name coming from backe in Old Teutonic, bakkon in Germanic, and others). Despite the popularity of belly bacon, “back bacon” (made primarily from the loin and a bit of the belly) remains popular throughout England and Canada, and bacon made from the shoulder (Cottage bacon) offers a less expensive and leaner alternative. There are, of course, alternative bacon varieties out there (for better or for worse), but in the interest of blog space, I won’t get into those at the moment.(See: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/meat-preparation/bacon-and-food-safety/ct_index)
So that’s it: cured pork belly. I have mentioned nothing about the type of cure, the inclusion of nitrates/nitrites, or the cooking process. Most “supermarket bacon” as I called it above is very simple. The cures are almost all sweet: typically the sweetener will be brown sugar, maple sugar, or maple syrup blended with salt. Some include sodium nitrite (pink curing salt), an additive that reduces spoilage during the curing process in sausages and other charcuterie (there is some controversy over the use of nitrites – I will also refrain from discussing this here and direct you to Michael Ruhlman’s discussion of the issue). Finally, this bacon is smoked, sliced, and packaged for your enjoyment.
With that said, apart from curing a pork belly in a salt mixture, the rest is up to the maker. Personally, I generally prefer curing bacon in a blend of sweet and savory elements: despite the intensity of maple syrup or brown sugar on their own, the addition of herbs such as thyme and rosemary or spices such as ground mustard and peppercorn creates a balance between the two. I do this for a very simple reason: I don’t know what I’m going to use the bacon for. A few family-owned butchers I frequent, however, create fantastic savory varieties: a popular Eastern European style, for instance, is paprika bacon, topped with a blend of sweet, hot, and smoked paprika. Normally, I smoke my bacon, but there are circumstances where I prefer to simply roast the belly instead (more on that below).
“Ok, great,” you’re thinking. “Enough background – how else can we eat it?!” Here’s the thing: good bacon (particularly homemade bacon) is about a 50/50 ratio of meat to fat. When you cook it, the fat renders out and begins cooking the other 50%, thereby making it the crispy, flavorful piece of meat we all know and love. This makes it a very handy dish starter. Simply dice or cut into matchsticks (lardons in French recipes) and use it as the starter to a soup or braises. Rather than sweating vegetables in oil or butter, why not give them a dose of whatever your bacon is flavored with? This is the main instance where I prefer unsmoked varieties of bacon like pancetta (which is hung and briefly dried after curing); not all dishes beg to be smoky, yet almost all need more depth and flavor.
Another option, interestingly enough, is braising the slab itself (not just using it as a flavoring element). In his follow-up to the brilliant The Whole Beast, British Chef Fergus Henderson slow-cooks a chunk of bacon in a liquid that he dubs “trotter gear” (a heavy-duty braising liquid made of chicken stock, Madeira, and pork trotters) with wine and prunes. The term unctuous – although a slightly overused term when discussing all things pork – is fitting here: the bacon that we are so accustomed to having crisp is transformed into something meltingly fork-tender, while its saltiness seasons the braising liquid, creating a rich sauce accentuated by the tart sweetness of the prunes. The dish is stick-to-your ribs savory, the perfect burst of warmth on a cold fall or winter evening.
A final example I discovered recently leans toward the non-traditional – at least as far as bacon definitions are concerned. I am a tremendous fan of pork in tacos – pork carnitas (braised pork, shredded and crisped in its own fat) may be one of the best options ever for filling a tortilla – and found myself with a pound or so of belly scraps leftover while making a slab of bacon. Instead of using these for sausage (belly is a phenomenal cut for grinding and increasing the fat content of charcuterie), I instead did a quick overnight cure of salt, cumin, cayenne, and a bit of cinnamon, and then slowly braised the scraps for a few hours in olive oil (similar to confit). After they cooled, I sliced the “quick bacon” into larger chunks and crisped the fat side. Add to a tortilla with something spicy and pickled (I had some pickled tomatillo) and enjoy.
I understand of course, that few things beat the warm and crispy joy of snacking on regular supermarket bacon. The next time you are over the stove on a Saturday morning and the smell hits you, just try to avoid eating a few slices hot out of the pan or oven, I dare you. But there are so many options for this glorious invention, which – much like any cured meat – was probably born of the necessity to preserve. The few ideas above are certainly worthy choices, but pick up a slab some time and experiment. There are very few bad choices at the end of the day.