Published May 1, 2004. From Cook's Illustrated.
Does it matter which brand of supermarket bacon you buy? Absolutely.
Given bacon’s unquestioned—and growing—popularity, we posed the question: How would ten popular national brands stack up in a side-by-side blind tasting? To answer, we focused our tasting on the lowest common denominator—plain, regular-cut bacon—leaving aside center cut, thick and thin cut, flavored, specialty wood smoked, low salt, reduced fat, precooked, and microwave-ready. We did, however, include one nitrite-free, natural sample because it is popular at our local natural foods market.
All bacon, with the exception of turkey- and tofu-based products, is made from pork belly. One fresh belly can weigh from ten pounds to 25 pounds, though most fall between 12 and 18 pounds. The spare ribs are removed from the belly's interior, the skin is taken off the exterior, and the remaining slab is trimmed for further processing into bacon.
The next step is curing, which is generally done in one of two ways. Many small producers of artisan (aka smokehouse or premium) bacon choose to dry-cure by rubbing the slab with a dry mixture of seasonings (which always includes salt and sugar). Large producers usually inject the slabs with a liquid brine containing salt, sugar, and sometimes liquid smoke for flavor; sodium phosphate for moisture retention during processing and cooking; sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate to accelerate the curing process and promote color retention; and a curing salt that includes sodium nitrite to stave off bacteria and set flavor and color characteristics. Once the cure has been applied or injected, the slabs are hung. If a dry cure has been applied, this process could stretch up to one week. Curing with an injected brine can be completed in a mere one to three hours and so is quite cost-efficient.
The final step is thermal processing, which can take as few as four to five hours or as many as 24, depending on the processor. During thermal processing, the cured pork bellies are smoked and partially cooked to an internal temperature of roughly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, after which they finally merit the term bacon. The bacon is chilled to approximately 24 degrees, pressed to square it off for uniform slicing, sliced to the processor's specifications, and packaged. A package of regular-cut bacon usually contains between eighteen and twenty-two 1/16-inch-thick slices per pound, whereas a package of thick-cut bacon, sometimes called country style, contains twelve to sixteen 1/8-inch-thick slices per pound.
In the tasting, the nitrite-free product took tasters by surprise. Complaints arose about its unexpectedly pale color and particularly mild flavor, which led to a rating of "not recommended." A little knowledge of nitrites explains these characteristics. Sodium nitrite helps fix the red shade of the meat from its raw state by combining with the pigment myoglobin. Nitrites also contribute to bacon's characteristic cured flavor. It makes sense, then, that nitrite-free bacon neither looked nor tasted the way most tasters expected. Having conducted hundreds of blind tastings over the years, our test kitchen has found that most folks prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar. For most of us, nitrite-free bacon is clearly an acquired taste.
Tasters liked the nine other brands well enough to recommend them all. (Bad bacon is something of an oxymoron.) The highest rated product among them was picked out as particularly meaty, full flavored, and smoky. Furthermore, neither of the two other prominent flavors in this top-rated bacon -- salt and sweet --dominated, and tasters appreciated the balance. We wondered why our tasters rated this brand as the meatiest bacon in the pack. Our cadre of experts pointed out that because pork bellies are a natural product, there is no way to guarantee a perfectly consistent ratio of meat to fat from pound to pound to pound of bacon. A simple check of many packages of the same brands of bacon confirmed that fact -- differences were obvious.
To get an accurate measure of the relative meatiness of our winning brand and to see how it stacked up against the least meaty brand in the group we sent both samples to our local food laboratory. The lab ground 3 pounds of each brand and then analyzed them for protein (lean), fat, and moisture. Sure enough, the lab confirmed our tasters' observations. Our winner had 15 percent more protein and almost 17 percent less fat than the other brand.
Smoky flavor, which is a defining characteristic of bacon, was another important factor in rating success. Tasters appreciated assertive smoke, which processors can give in one (or both) of two ways: adding liquid smoke flavoring to the liquid brine or applying real smoke during thermal processing (the thermal processing "unit" is also sometimes referred to as the smokehouse). Our winner uses the "real smoke" method.
What did we learn from this tasting? First, bacon, like wine, is an agricultural product and therefore subject to variation from hog to hog and from cut to cut. Second, the ratio of protein to fat as well as the smokiness factor are key to success. Finally, a good balance of salt and sugar is important. Texture, however, is a matter that is largely under the control of the home cook and therefore hard to judge based on brand.