Getting To Know Bacon

Dec 17, 2018 | Cooking Tips, meat

If you’re reading this, you probably already have an affinity for bacon. Who could blame you? The fatty, salty, porky flavour of bacon is the perfect combination. But what do you really know about the stuff? More importantly, what don’t you know about bacon that you should?

This week, in the continuing series about getting to know your ingredients we are talking about bacon. What exactly is it? The different ways it’s made. Different ways to cook it for different outcomes. And how to buy it. 

Without further ado, sit down, relax, grab a napkin to wipe away the drool because today we are getting to know…

Bacon

What is Bacon Anyway?

Depending on where you are in the world the word bacon can mean a few different things. For our purposes here today we are talking about belly or side bacon. 

Bacon as we generally refer to it in North America is cured and smoked pork belly. In other parts of the world they have smoked and non-smoked bacon, and bacon can come from different parts of the pig. 

We do have different types of bacon as well such as back bacon which comes from the loin. However, we have different names for different bacon. In some places it’s all just bacon. 

The cure

There are two types of cures that are used to make bacon. Wet and dry. We are going to take a look at both of these processes but first let’s talk about what a cure is. 

A cure is essentially a salty brine or mixture which draws moisture out of the pork belly. This is a very old form of food preservation. Lowering the moisture content and increasing the salt content makes a very inhospitable environment for microbes. Today sodium nitrite is often added to the bacon cure to help it retain it’s colour. 

Wet Cure

A wet cure is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than a salt rub the pork bellies are put in a salt brine. Alternatively the bellies may be injected with the brine rather than being soaked. A brine is a salt water solution. 

This wet cure draws moisture out of the belly while replacing it with the salt water solution. This method is the way most commercially produced bacon is made. 

I personally feel as though wet cured bacon is inferior to dry cured bacon. If you have ever bought bacon that was very wet and soggy you understand what I mean. 

Dry Cure

Just like with the wet cure the purpose is to extract moisture from the belly. Where a wet cure replaces the drawn out liquid with the salt water solution, dry curing doesn’t replace the extracted liquid. 

The result of a dry cure is a firm, dry texture to the pork belly. This is the traditional way of making bacon. And the technique that I prefer to use when making bacon or to buy when purchasing bacon. 

Often with a dry cure there will also be sugar added to the salt which adds a bit more depth of flavour to the final product. 

Once the bacon is in the cure, wet or dry, it needs to sit for a period of time to allow the cure to do it’s job. This can be as little as a day or two or as long as a month. 

Smoke 

We all love that smoky flavour of bacon. However, not all bacon is actually smoked the way you would think it is. 

Often with commercially produced, wet cured bacon, liquid smoke is used rather than actual smoke. This can be added to the brine and/or the bacon can be given a bath in it. This liquid smoke also adds colour to the meat. 

Better quality bacon, and even a lot of commercially produced bacon, is actually smoked with wood smoke. If tasted side by side it is very easy to tell the difference between bacon with real smoke, vs. bacon with liquid smoke. 

Liquid smoke is often used for the same reason that a wet cure is used. It is much cheaper than a dry cure and real smoke. However the result is sub-par at best. 

Types of smoke

Bacon can be smoked with a variety of woods and even corn cobs. Often maple wood, apple wood, and hickory will be used. Each wood provides a different flavour and smoke profile to the bacon. Honestly though, they all taste good. 

Buying Bacon

When buying bacon look for a firm dry texture. This signifies high quality and more traditional techniques. 

Wet, soft bacon is low quality. It costs less for a reason. However, when you cook this bacon a lot of moisture comes out and is lost. The dry, firm bacon has much less loss in the form of liquid and fat.

The shitty bacon may seem cheaper. However, when you calculate all the loss that occurs when it’s cooked the price is actually similar to the better quality stuff. Remember, bacon is sold by weight. So, if you are losing 25% of the bacon’s weight when you’re cooking it, compared to maybe a 10% loss, you are actually paying 15% more than you think you are. Make sense? 

The final point is that dry cured, naturally smoked bacon just tastes 1000 times better than wet cured artificially smoked bacon. 

Cooking Bacon

Often when people cook bacon they get a pan really hot, add the bacon, and cook it on high heat. I’m going to tell you right now that this is a terrible way to cook bacon. 

There are a few methods that can be used to produce a really tasty finished product. 

The first, and my personal favourite way to cook bacon is to start it in a cold pan. Lay the bacon down flat in the pan off the heat. Put the pan on medium low heat and cook the bacon slowly. Flip the bacon after 5- 10 minutes. This slowly renders the fat out of the bacon and leaves you with the crispiest bacon you have ever had. 

The second way I like to cook bacon is in the oven at 350°F pressed between two cookie sheets. This does the same thing as the first method with the added bonus of perfectly flat bacon. 

Another method that I have been hearing a lot about but personally have not tried is to start the bacon in a bit of water. To do this, put the bacon in a pan, cover with a tiny bit of water and cook. Let the water evaporate and finish cooking the bacon in the pan until crisp.

This final method I wouldn’t use with good quality bacon. However, for a wet cured bacon it could actually help make it crispy. 

Conclusion

You may have just read through this whole thing and thought it doesn’t matter. Bacon is bacon. Well, I challenge you to try the difference side by side. Get a wet cured artificially smoked bacon and a dry cured naturally smoked bacon and test them. The moment the bacon goes in the pan you will see the difference. 

Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that all bacon is created equal. And definitely don’t be fooled into thinking that cheaper bacon is actually cheaper. 

Remember to pick up your copy of my cookbooks!

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