Bacon: Does Thicker Always Mean Better?

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

How could two strips from the same brand of bacon taste so different?

What would you predict could make one piece of bacon taste better than another?

We were surprised to find that besides meatiness, the strongest factor by far of which bacons won in our recent taste test turned out to be thickness. It wasn’t simply that the brawnier strips, which ranged from 1/8 inch to 1/5 inch, boasted a more satisfying chew and cooked up to a just-firm crispiness that never shattered or crumbled. Heftier strips were also smokier strips.

But why would this be the case since, thick or thin, all but one maker's products were smoked the same way—that is, with real smoke in a smokehouse? At first we surmised that some producers might simply smoke their bacon longer, which is one possibility. But when we talked to an expert on meat processing, Iowa State University Distinguished Professor Joe Sebranek, we discovered another possibility: that wider swath of edge on a slice of thick-cut bacon. “Smoke is applied to intact, unsliced bellies,” Sebranek told us. “A thicker slice has more of the surface area where smoke is deposited included with the slice.

But could a few fractions of an inch more edge really account for a smokier taste? We froze our bacon samples and got out our digital calipers to measure them. Their thicknesses ranged from 1/15 inch all the way up to 1/5 inch—three times as thick. Sure enough, the thinnest strip of the lot, at 1/15 inch, had so little smoke flavor that tasters likened it to “lunch meat.” They also decried it for tasting “blah,” since its thinness meant that it had too little of any of the flavors that make bacon taste good. At 1/8 inch, on the other hand, the thick-sliced version by the same maker drew raves for its smoke flavor—and for having plenty of “all the flavors that come to mind” for bacon. Meanwhile, the brand’s spokeswoman assured us that both styles are produced exactly the same way except for the adjustment on the slicing mechanism.

COMPARISON: SAME BRAND, DIFFERENT WIDTHS

Only 1/15 inch wide, less edge per slice meant less smoke for thin Plumrose—and less love from tasters. They described it as “blah,” overall, and said it lacked smoky flavor.

A thicker cut from the same exact brand, Plumrose, measured at 1/8 inch wide and boasted great smoke flavor. Tasters loved it.

In the end, we have two bacons to highly recommend, so evenly matched by tasters that we declared them co-winners. Both are thick-sliced and both have that perfect bacony balance of meatiness, salt, sweetness, and smoke. One boasted a “sweet,” “smoky, porky, and salty” taste that added up to “a perfect mixture.” The other co-winner was “pleasantly smoky and substantially meaty.” Tasters called it “umami-licious.” It’s also worth noting that this was the only brand we tasted to use brown sugar in its cure, which accounts for this bacon’s “deeply browned, Maillard flavor.”

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