Photo © Wendell T. Webber
I could never figure out why people boast about their love of bacon. What’s special about that? Everyone loves bacon. It’s a substance so intensely and unfailingly pleasurable that only the most insensate of beings could fail to enjoy it. But loving it isn’t the same as understanding it. And it really deserves to be understood. Here are six facts that constitute the beginning of bacon wisdom.
Bacon is smoked and cured. One of the main reasons bacon is so good is that two wonderful things happen to it, and if they don’t both happen, you don’t get bacon. One is curing, which is what happens when you let bacon sit around in a mixture of salt and sugar, causing it to dry up and become—duh—salty and sweet. You can also achieve these flavors by putting it in brine or putting it in a kind of iron maiden filled with syringes, but let’s just pretend these methods don’t exist. Afterward, the pork sits in a bath or in warm hardwood smoke for three or four hours. And I do mean warm; you should be able to sit in there next to it for the whole time, provided you had an oxygen mask and a big bottle of cold water. Country bacon often smokes at between 80 and 100 degrees.
Pork that is just cured is ham. Pork that is just smoked is barbecue. Pork that has been through both of these trials emerges at the end as bacon.
Bacon = Pork. You may have heard the phrase “beef bacon” or “turkey bacon” or even “vegetarian bacon.” There are nonsense phrases. The essential flavor of bacon—its essence—is pork, or rather pork fat. It doesn’t have to be belly; it could just as easily be jowl or side meat. But it has to come from a pig. The pork, not the process, is what defines the flavor of bacon. I realize this is bad news for some pious Jews and Muslims, not to mention vegetarians, but I don’t make the rules. I just explain them.
Real bacon is dry-cured. Earlier, I alluded darkly to some bacons that are “cured” through the use of chemical brines of one sort or another. I don’t deny that some of these fluids can be flavorful; cook up a package of standard-issue supermarket bacon and put it in front of me, and see what happens to it. But that doesn’t prove anything. I’ll also eat a whole bag of Cheez Doodles. That kind of bacon absorbs so much water that it becomes floppy and flaccid; when you squeeze the package it feels like toothpaste. Real bacon that has been dry-cured feels harder than fresh pork, not softer; the salt dries it out and concentrates its flavor, stiffening it up along the way.
There are four points on the bacon compass. When you are eating bacon, there are four basic components to its overall taste. These are, in no particular order, saltiness, smokiness, sweetness and leanness. When baconnoisseurs talk about “balanced” bacon, this is what they are referring to. Personally, I am no fan of balance, in bacon or anything else. I like my bacon fatty and sweet, with just enough smoke and salt to keep it from turning into candy. That’s just my orientation, and I’m not ashamed of it.
Bacon shouldn’t be cooked in a pan. Think of bacon as it cooks. I am willing to bet you thought of a big pan, most likely of cast iron, with the strips sizzling away, their surfaces buckling against the black iron and hot fat. That’s the iconic image of bacon; it’s what you see in every stock image of the stuff. But really, a round skillet is practically the worst way to cook bacon. (After a microwave, of course.) Just think of the geometry. Bacon slices are generally about equal to the diameter of the pan. So only two or three at best can fit there without being folded over or cut up. And most pans are hotter in the middle than at the edges, which pretty much guarantees the stuff won’t cook evenly.
No, the best way to cook bacon is in a deep-sided rectangular baking pan, in a 375-degree oven. Every slice cooks the same, because they all lay the same way and get the same heat. There isn’t any splatter grease on your counter, either. You don’t even really need to turn it. Try it once and you won’t go back.
Hickory is the once and future bacon wood. I realize that this is a very subjective assertion. Not everyone agrees. I know many very knowledgeable bacon lovers who prefer applewood or cherry smoke. But they are wimps. Applewood bacon is a concession to people who are offended by strong and singular flavors, the kind of timid consumer who buys Golden Delicious apples, 1 percent milk and listens to Chicago in the car. Bacon, as we know, comes out of the South, and in particular the backcountry, where nobody owned refrigerators, this being before electricity. They didn’t chop down apple trees, for the excellent reason that apple trees give apples. But hickory trees were as common as dirt; they were hard, burned long and didn’t have any fruit. That’s how and why hickory became the universal source of bacon smoke. If you want apples or cherries, go to the produce aisle.
Josh Ozersky has written on his carnivorous exploits for Time, Esquire and New York magazines; he has authored several books, including The Hamburger: A History; and he is the founder of the Meatopia food festival.