Published September 1, 2008.
Artisanal bacon takes time, hand labor, and real wood smoke. But at double or even triple the cost of supermarket bacon, is it worth it?
In recent years we’ve been hearing about small, artisanal producers crafting premium bacon using old-fashioned curing methods and hand labor. Before you factor in shipping (most of these products are only available through mail order), premium pork can cost double or even triple the price of ordinary bacon. Could such a dramatic difference in price really be worth it?
We bought six artisanal bacons by mail order in a single style—applewood smoked—so we could sample different brands’ treatment of this traditional approach that adds a mildly sweet, fruity note to familiar bacon. We then pitted these premium strips against applewood-smoked bacon from the supermarket. We cooked them all to a uniform doneness and tasted them blind.
American-style bacon is made from pork bellies that have been cut into slabs, cured, smoked, and sliced. But the similarity between most supermarket bacon and artisanal bacon generally ends there. Mass-produced bacon is made in a matter of hours and by machine. Artisanal bacon is made over days or even weeks, and much of the work is done by hand.
Mass-produced bacon often starts with frozen pork bellies that are thawed and tumbled in a metal drum to soften the meat, then placed on hangers and pumped full of a liquid cure solution. This solution includes curing salts such as sodium erythorbate and sodium nitrite, along with phosphates that bind the water to the cells in the meat, plumping it up (and also causing it to shrink in the pan when cooked). The meat is not actually smoked—liquid smoke and other flavorings such as sweeteners, herbs, and spices are added to the cure. After curing for a few hours, the bellies are often sprayed with more liquid smoke and heated in a thermal processing unit (often referred to as “the smokehouse”) to destroy bacteria and infuse smoke flavor throughout the meat. Finally, the slab is quickly chilled, machine-pressed into a uniform shape, sliced, and packaged for sale.
By contrast, artisanal bacon takes much more time, as well as hand labor and real wood smoke. It begins with fresh pork bellies, which artisanal producers say make bacon with superior texture and flavor compared to starting with frozen bellies. While the pork is sometimes soaked in a “wet” cure, it is traditionally dry-cured, which means the meat is hand-rubbed with a dry mixture of herbs, sugars, salt, and curing salts. Artisanal producers leave the bacon to cure for anywhere from a day to a month, then slow-smoke it over wood fires, generally from one to three days, depending on the maker. The extended curing time intensifies the pork flavor and shrinks the meat so that the bacon doesn’t shrivel much as it cooks. While most producers in our lineup burn real applewood sawdust or wood chips to create smoke, one burns dried apple pomace, the residue left after squeezing apples for cider.
The ingredients of the cure, the method of smoking, and the timing of each step determine each bacon’s unique flavor. The age, gender, and breed of the pig and what it is fed are other factors that determine the final flavor of the bacon. In contrast to mass-produced bacon, where the pork bellies must be similar in size for machine processing, artisanal bacon has a much more irregular shape.
In spite of the fact that all of the bacons in our lineup were applewood-smoked or apple-flavored, they were remarkably different. Great bacon is all about a balance of sweet, smoky, salty, and meaty—and striking that flavor balance turned out to be the biggest factor for success with our tasters. In fact, tasters downgraded most of the premium mail-order brands for being too much of any one thing—too smoky, too fatty, or too sweet.
Only two of the six achieved enough of a balance to bring genuine raves. In addition to sharing that desirable balance of sweet, smoky, and salty flavors, both bacons provided the largest, thickest-cut slices of the lineup (33 grams and 37 grams, respectively, compared to other slices that were as slight as 4 grams), which gave our tasters the meaty, substantial bacon texture they preferred.
But in the biggest surprise of the tasting, the next highest-rated bacons were not premium mail-order bacons at all, but our two supermarket brands. Both were a step up from the usual mass-produced bacon, straddling the gap between artisanal and more mainstream supermarket styles. While these bacons didn’t receive quite the raves of the two top-ranked premium bacons, tasters praised them both for good meaty flavor and mild smokiness.
So where does that leave us? As delicious as the best premium pork can be, there’s no getting around the fact that mail-order bacon is far more expensive than even higher-end supermarket bacon. Unfortunately for most of us, such a high price tag for what’s basically breakfast food is a pretty steep barrier to bringing these bacons home.