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Bringing home the bacon? Make sure you choose the right one.
Published Dec. 1, 2018. Appears in Cook's Illustrated September/October 2013, Cook's Country TV Season 12: Beef, Dressed Up
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What You Need To Know
In 1924, a German immigrant named Oscar Mayer began producing and selling sliced, packaged bacon in Chicago. Previously, bacon had to be ordered, sliced, and wrapped in paper at the meat counter—services for which customers paid extra—or, more cheaply, bought in slabs and sliced at home with varying degrees of success and food safety. Mayer wasn't the first to slice bacon before it hit the shops or even the first to protect it with ready-made, easy-to-grab packaging. But he knew a good idea when he saw one; by marketing these innovations extensively, Mayer helped make bacon a true convenience product, more accessible to consumers and easier to cook consistently. And in so doing, he helped usher in a new era of ubiquity for bacon in American homes.
Packaged bacon has come a long way since 1924, but its popularity endures. According to a recent report by market research group Mintel, 70 percent of American adults eat it regularly. We wanted to know how the classic supermarket bacons measured up, so we bought five of the top-selling products (as assessed by IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm), priced from $4.00 to $10.39 per pound. We tasted them side by side, both plain and in BLTs.
How Bacon Is Made
Each slab of bacon is produced from pork belly, the fatty strip of meat found on the underside of a pig. The hogs are butchered, typically when they're six to seven months old and weigh 175 to 240 pounds. The belly is removed from each hog and then skinned and trimmed to size.
Next the bellies are cured. Curing is a process of preservation that uses salt and two additives, sodium nitrite and either sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate. These ingredients inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria (most important, Clostridium botulinum, the microbe responsible for deadly botulism) and give bacon its characteristic pink color and “cured” flavor. A sweetener (sugar or dextrose) is added to the cure to enhance flavor, and sodium phosphate is often included to help the bacon retain moisture.
Historically, the cure ingredients were applied as a dry rub to the pork bellies, which were then left to sit for up to a few months to allow the cure to penetrate the meat. Since dry curing is time-consuming, most large-scale commercial operations instead dissolve the cure ingredients in water, forming a brine. They then either immerse the bellies in that brine or, more often, use needles to inject the brine directly into the meat. The injection process is more efficient and cost-effective, taking just 6 to 24 hours compared to weeks for the immersion method. The injected bellies are usually tumbled in rotating drums to help distribute the cure...
Everything We Tested
This “classic,” “textbook bacon” “hit all the right notes.” It was our favorite both when eaten plain and in BLTs. While most tasters agreed that it was “not very smoky,” they loved its “mildly meaty” flavor and “ideal texture.” It had a “good balance of chew and crispness,” thanks to equal amounts of fat and protein and its extra-thin slices.
Although many tasters thought it “could be smokier,” especially when eaten by itself, the thickest bacon in the lineup was acclaimed for its “hearty,” “substantial” chew and good porky flavor. Its distinctive savory, tangy cured flavor reminded some tasters of prosciutto or ham.
Tasters appreciated this well-marbled, “visually appealing,” “ultrasavory” bacon with “mild smoke” and “nice porkiness” that really “stands up in [a] sandwich.” At 422 mg of sodium per serving, it was “a little on the saltier side,” but it had the “best crunch of the bunch,” getting properly crisp, with fat that “really melts in your mouth.”
This bacon was particularly enjoyable in BLTs, where its “good smoke” and “nice porky flavor” came through loud and clear. Tasters also liked its “moderate chew” and edges that got “nice and crispy,” thanks in part to its relatively high fat content.
With small islands of lean meat surrounded by larger strips of firm fat, this bacon pleasantly reminded some tasters of English-style back bacon, though some found that the relatively high fat content made it a bit greasy. A few tasters also picked up on a slightly “artificial” aftertaste (perhaps due to the use of liquid smoke in the injected cure), but most enjoyed the bacon's “strong” “grilled” flavor, especially in the BLTs.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Miye is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She covers booze, blades, and gadgets of questionable value.