In a reverse paraphrase of Shakespeare, “I come to praise bacon, not to bury it.” (In fact, a lot of people think that Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare, but that has absolutely nothing to do with my topic.)
To begin with, bacon – along with its sidekick, eggs – has gotten an awful lot of bad press lately. The health Nazis would have you believe that the road to hell is paved with bacon and that eggs provide the mode of transportation to take you there. “Nitrites,” they scream, “will kill you deader than a hammer if the fat doesn’t do you in first.”
I’m not going to sugar coat it (although that’s been done); bacon is the fattiest meat on the planet. Although it is rich in saturated fat (bad news), it contains no trans-fat (good news) and is a good source of protein and several essential nutrients. And, yes, it does contain sodium nitrite. But there are so many conflicting studies about the effects of nitrates/nitrites in food – including some that say certain levels of nitrites are beneficial – that we’ll likely never have the real story.
Here’s the “Catch-22:” cooking bacon slowly and thoroughly until very crisp renders out most of the artery-clogging fat. BUT….cooking bacon at high heat for long periods of time may convert the nitrites used in curing to cancer-causing nitrosamine. At least, that’s what some of the lab-rat crowd says. Hmmm….cancer or a heart attack; pick your poison.
For all their alarmist fol-de-rol, they have yet to convince me that the three slices I enjoy on Sunday mornings – with perhaps an additional slice or two crumbled over a midweek baked potato or slipped into a sandwich – are going to lead to my early, ghastly demise. (They’d likely have heart attacks themselves if they saw me barding my Thanksgiving turkey. That means I drape it in bacon before I put it in the oven. And then there’s bacon-wrapped scallops. Or chocolate covered bacon. Yum.) The concept of moderation does not occur to these culinary killjoys, who apparently believe that we who consume bacon are all doing so with voracious abandon, pushing pound after pound down our greedy gullets on a daily basis. What these pedantic pinheads consistently fail to realize is that unrealistically high megadoses of substances foisted off on rats do not always have corresponding effects in humans. As an example, go to http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/artificial-sweeteners and bone up on saccharin.
I know it’s not a terribly scientific way to look at it, but my dad ate bacon and keeled over from a heart attack at 46. My great-grandmother ate bacon and lived to be a hundred. If I split the difference, I’ll probably make 75.
So, let’s leave the nattering nabobs to choke down their turkey bacon and egg substitutes while pretending to enjoy it and talk instead about the glories of real, honest-to-goodness bacon – the food of the gods. (What? You didn’t know ambrosia had bacon in it?)
Who discovered bacon? Nobody knows. But the practice of smoke-curing meats dates back thousands of years and crosses many cultures. The Chinese, for instance, were salting pork bellies as early as 1500 BC. We do know, however, that the term “bring home the bacon” was used in twelfth century England where a local church offered a side of bacon as a reward to any man who could swear an oath that he had not quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. Thus the man who could “bring home the bacon” was well regarded in his community. (Another version casts a greased pig as the prize in a county fair contest. Whoever caught the pig was entitled to “bring home the bacon.”)
The word “bacon” itself comes from a variety of Old French and Germanic terms like “bako,””bacho,””bakam,” “bakkon,” and “backe,” all of which refer to the back. Good old Middle English produced “bacoun” or “bacon” as we know it today.
So, what is bacon? It is a cut of pork that comes from either the side, belly, or back of a pig. In the United States, it usually means the cut taken from the side between the fifth rib and the hipbone. These particular piggy parts have thick intertwined layers of flavorful fat and lean muscle tissue.
For the most part, bacon is salt-cured, as it has been for centuries. This is accomplished by either wet-curing, or “brining,” the meat in a salt solution or by dry packing it in salt. Salt-curing inhibits bacterial growth, preserving the meat and extending its shelf life. Many artisinal bacons are still produced in this traditional manner, although commercially processed bacon relies less on salt and more on modern refrigeration.
Bacon may also be smoked, both as a means of further preservation and as an avenue to additional flavor. Apple and hickory are among the most popular woods used in smoking, although maple, mesquite, alder, birch, and cherry woods are widely used as well.
A “caveat emptor” moment: maple smoked bacon and maple flavored bacon are not the same thing. In the former case, the flavor is infused into the meat through the smoking process, while in the latter case, the maple taste is produced by a natural or artificial flavoring additive. A recent purchase of a nationally branded “Maple Flavored Bacon” yielded strips that were difficult to cook and the resultant flavor was analogous to a serving of maple syrup into which a slice of bacon had been briefly dipped.
There are numerous types of bacon, generally determined by the specific cut of pork as well as by different curing techniques. Oftentimes, varying terms for bacon are merely semantic in nature. For example, if you’ve ever wondered what a “rasher” of bacon is, you probably haven’t spent much time in Britain or Europe. Us “Yanks” would just call it a “slice.”
Good old grocery store American bacon is called side bacon or “streaky bacon.” Taken from the fatty underside or belly of the pig, the slices have “streaks” of fat and lean, hence the term “streaky bacon.” Salt-cured and smoked, it is usually sold prepackaged in either twelve ounce or one pound quantities. Thin sliced bacon – also called “hotel” or “restaurant” bacon – is sliced to a thickness of about 1/32 of an inch and yields approximately 35 strips per pound. Regular sliced bacon – the kind you bring home from the store – is a 1/16 inch slice and there are about 16 to 20 slices per pound. Thick sliced bacon is about twice as thick as regular bacon and yields 12 to 16 slices per pound on average.
If you are the do-it-yourself type, you can also buy unsliced bacon. Usually referred to as “slab” bacon, unsliced bacon is just a solid piece of meat, often sold with the exterior rind still intact. Other than giving you the opportunity to exhibit your Iron Chef-like bacon slicing skills, slab bacon can be useful in cooking applications where chunked or diced bacon is called for. Salt pork, by the way, comes from the same porcine neighborhood as slab bacon, but it is fattier and is not smoked.
Canadian bacon and Irish bacon are really more ham-like than bacony. Generically referred to as “back bacon,” these cuts come from the center loin portion of a pig’s back. They are much leaner than regular bacon and usually come cured, smoked, and fully cooked, just like a ham.
Another bacon cousin that comes from the back of the pig is commonly called “fatback.” Usually processed into a slab, it is a versatile and essential flavoring ingredient in many cuisines. You can’t think of Granny Clampett’s Southern-style cooking without thinking of fatback. It’s also a prime ingredient in “Soul Food.” The Italians call it “lardo,” and to the French it is a staple in charcuterie. When rendered into lard, it once provided the cooking fat of choice until the relatively recent advent of cooking oils and shortening.
Speaking of the Italians, they employ more forms of bacon than you can shake a stick at. Pancetta is an unsmoked, salt-cured bacon that comes from the pork belly. Nutmeg, pepper, and fennel are also traditionally used in curing. The meat is dried for a period of about twelve weeks. Pancetta is usually sold in a rolled form, although flat pancetta is also available.
Prosciutto is another popular form of Italian bacon, although, like Canadian and Irish bacons, it is actually more of a ham since it is cut from the rear haunch of a pig. The meat is salt-cured and air-dried under strictly controlled conditions for at least 10 to 12 months, although some traditional prosciutti are cured for up to two years. Prosciutto is sliced almost paper-thin and is generally served crudo, or raw.
Also served in very thin slices is speck, a salt-cured, smoked pork product from the Italian-Austrian border region. It is highly spiced – commonly with juniper, nutmeg, garlic, and bay leaves – after which it is cold-smoked and allowed to age for about five months.
The last Italian bacon up for discussion is guanciale. Made from pig cheeks, it is salted but unsmoked and cured for about three weeks. It has a stronger flavor than pancetta, but a more delicate texture than many similar pork products. Often substituted for pancetta in cooking, guanciale is a delicacy in its own right in many parts of Italy. In America, this cut is called “jowl bacon.” (Yeah, think “Granny Clampett” again.)
For a cut of meat not so “high on the hog,” middle or “through cut” bacon – taken from the half side of the animal – offers economy, but also sacrifices the higher fat content that lends flavor to streaky bacon.
Pre-cooked bacon is a relatively recent newcomer to the bacon scene. Fully-cooked slices of streaky bacon are prepackaged for this convenience item designed for the time constrained cook who can just pop it in the microwave for a few seconds and produce perfect, worry-free bacon. It’s also a boon to the lazy cook and to the one who can’t boil water. However, like most convenience foods, it’ll cost ya.
Imitation bacon bits are actually a bacon-flavored soy product. Yuck. Do yourself a favor and just crisp up and crumble the real thing over your salad or baked potato, please.
In case you were dying to know why bacon is packaged the way it is, it’s all Oscar Mayer’s fault. That would be German immigrant and American meat mogul Oscar F. Mayer. Back in 1924, Mayer developed the shingle-stacked, cardboard-backed (with a window in it), plastic-wrapped packaging that we all know and sometimes love in order to display his new innovation – sliced bacon.
If you really can’t get enough bacon, you might consider joining a “bacon of the month” club. There are dozens of them out there. Just input “bacon of the month” into your search engine of choice and then pick your pork.
And if bacon is your life – or if you really don’t have anything better to do – check in with Mr. Baconpants. Yeah, that’s right, Mr. Baconpants. He has a website for everything bacon at http://www.mrbaconpants.com. And if you’d like to know more about things like bacon mints, maple bacon coffee, bacon air freshener, and bacon water for your dog, head over to his “strange things” page at http://www.mrbaconpants.com/strange-things-with-bacon/. You’ll be amazed – or, at least, bewildered.
Motivational speakers often bring bacon to the table when addressing issues of commitment, commenting, “In the case of a bacon and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.”
Among my favorite bacon quotes are these: “Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.” – Doug Larson, 1924 Olympic gold medal winner; and, “Of all the lessons in life that I’ve learned the hard way, the ones involving frontal nudity and hot bacon grease seem to be the most enduring” – unknown (but right on!)
Just so you know:
* Approximately 70% of all bacon consumed in the US is eaten at breakfast. (17% of us eat it for dinner, 11% for lunch, and 2% enjoy bacon as a snack.)
* The average 200 pound pig will yield 20 pounds of bacon.
* There are breeds of pigs especially grown to produce bacon. Among these “Heritage Breeds” are the Yorkshire and the Tamworth.
* More than two billion pounds of bacon are produced in the US annually.
* The BLT (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato) sandwich really caught on after WWII when the new “supermarket” concept made fresh lettuce and tomatoes available year round.
* Bacon curls and shrinks when cooking because the bundles of proteins in the lean parts lose moisture and shrink up when heated.
* The average American eats 17.9 pounds of bacon per year.
Gotta go now. There’s a cast iron skillet and a package of bacon calling to me from the kitchen, and after all, I do have to keep up my average consumption.