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.
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 throughout the meat. At least three of the bacons in our lineup were injected; the other two manufacturers would not confirm their methods.
After curing, the bellies are cooked in convection ovens at a low temperature (115 to 125 degrees) and smoked, often simultaneously. Cooking helps drive out residual moisture from the wet cures, creating a firmer, more easily sliced belly; smoking contributes flavor and adds antimicrobial properties to the outside of the belly.
There are two main ways to get smoke into the meat. Traditionally, producers burned wood logs, chips, or even sawdust to create smoke. Many manufacturers still do; the words “naturally smoked” or “hardwood smoked” appear on their packaging. If the phrase “smoke flavor” appears on the packaging, that’s a sign that liquid smoke has been added directly to the cure. But as we learned from Gordon Smith, professor of grain science and industry at Kansas State University, many bacon producers—even those that use real smoke—also apply liquid smoke externally, spraying it on the pork bellies. Because the liquid isn’t added to the cure, it doesn’t have to be listed as an ingredient, which makes it hard to tell whether or not it has been used.
After the cooking and smoking process, the bacons are chilled, sliced, packaged, and finally sent out to market.
Our tasting results yielded a somewhat unsurprising conclusion: We liked every bacon, both when eaten plain and in the BLTs.
The textures of the cooked bacons differed slightly as a result of a few factors. One was thickness. Oddly enough, there’s no industry standard for how thick “regular” bacon should be; in our sampling, the bacons ranged from 2 to 2.6 millimeters thick when measured raw, with most on the low end of the spectrum. In general, the thicker the bacon, the meatier and chewier its texture; thinner bacons tended to be more delicate and brittle when cooked. But tasters didn’t have a clear preference. Our winner is the thinnest; our runner-up, the thickest.
Fat and protein content—two other factors that can contribute to texture—were more important. Responding to consumer demand for leaner meat in the 1980s, farmers began to breed and raise hogs with less fat and more muscle. Judging by our results, tasters still prefer leaner bacon. Our bacons generally ranked in order of how lean they were, with the top three products having 7 to 8 grams of fat and the last two clocking in at 8.9 and 9.5 grams per standardized two-slice serving.
Our winner actually has equal proportions of protein and fat, giving it good meatiness and plenty of richness.
The bacons in our lineup contained from 329 to 422 milligrams of sodium per serving; all registered as properly salty, as we expect of a cured product. None of the bacons were very smoky, but most tasters found these milder smoke levels to be acceptable. And tasters had no preferences when it came to the type of wood used to generate the smoke: Hickory was used in three of the products, but our winner used a blend of hardwoods, including maple, birch, and beech. That said, some tasters did note a slightly “artificial” flavor in one product that employed both natural and liquid smoke.
We’d be happy to eat any of these bacons again, but we do have a favorite. Oscar Mayer Naturally Hardwood Smoked Bacon ($6.99 per pound) is lightly smoky and has good meaty flavor. But it was its texture that truly won tasters over: At just 2 millimeters thick and with equal amounts of fat and protein, it had a nice balance of crispness and chew. Tasters deemed it a “truly all-American, supermarket-staple bacon.” Our tastes apparently align with those of the rest of the country: According to sales figures provided by IRI, the Oscar Mayer company sold a whopping 161.6 million units of bacon last year. No other company comes close to this benchmark; its nearest competitor sold just over half that number, at 84.2 million units. The bacon Oscar Mayer sliced, packaged, and sold nearly 100 years ago might taste a bit different from the one we eat today, but its remarkable popularity endures.