Thick-cut, double-cut, triple-thick-cut, extra-thick-cut, and even steak-cut: Bacon today comes in a variety of ever-more-substantial slices, accommodating a new world order in which bacon is no longer seen as a mere supporting player—there just to enhance the performance of the main ingredient—but as the star attraction, a meat worthy of attention in its own right. We decided to take a fresh look at this increasingly popular style of bacon, so we bought six top-selling national products (as assessed by IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm), priced from $3.99 to $6.99 per pound. We focused on the most basic thick-cut bacons, tasting them both plain and in BLTs.
Large-scale commercial producers make thick-cut bacon the same way they make regular bacon: Fresh pork bellies are wet-brined—injected with a solution containing salt, sugar, and curing agents—and then cooked at a low temperature to remove excess moisture before being smoked, chilled, and sliced. The only real difference between thick-cut bacon and regular bacon is in how thickly the bacon is cut; in many cases, the two types are processed identically right up to the slicing stage.
There is no industry standard that dictates how thick a piece of bacon must be to be called thick-cut. On average, the products in our lineup ranged from 3.2 to 3.8 millimeters thick, about 50 percent thicker than the regular-cut bacons we’d tasted previously.
Tasters liked almost all the bacons regardless of how thick they were, but they noticed something interesting: Across the board, the texture was much less crispy than that of the regular-cut bacon many of us are used to eating. To understand why, we consulted Gordon Smith, professor of grain science at Kansas State University. He told us that because the bacon is thicker, it’s harder to dehydrate the “lean,” or the meaty portion, of each slice to get it crispy enough; moisture lingers in the interior, resulting in bacon that registers as chewy even after you’ve cooked it long enough for most of the fat to be rendered. Still, the majority of our tasters found this chewier texture to be perfectly acceptable; to some, it made the slices seem more “meaty” and “substantial.”
. . . because the bacon is thicker, it’s harder to dehydrate the “lean,” or the meaty portion, of each slice to get it crispy enough
Additionally, we preferred bacon that was leaner, with equal amounts of protein and fat. Products that had more fat occasionally came across as “greasy” or “too fatty,” though they were still largely good to eat.
Flavor proved more important. Like the regular bacons, most of the thick-cut products were deemed only mildly smoky. But that was fine by our tasters, who generally ranked bacons with moderate smoke flavor above those that were more assertive. A total lack of smoke, however, was unacceptable; the one product we couldn’t fully recommend seemed to have “no smoke to speak of.”
That low-smoke bacon had another problem: It was “very, very salty,” with a “briny” flavor. Bacon typically has quite a lot of salt, which is critical for preserving and for providing some of bacon’s characteristic flavor; it’s the second ingredient listed for all the products in our lineup. On average, most products had around 250 milligrams of sodium per slice, but the problematic bacon had 309 milligrams.
Another essential component of bacon production is sugar, which is included in the brine that’s injected into the pork belly to encourage browning, among other things. As Eric Decker, professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explained, very little of the sugar remains after the bacon is cooked. Some sugar might be converted to acid during the curing process, and some changes form as the bacon is browned, which is why every product in our lineup lists 0 grams of sugar in its nutritional information. Still, our panel preferred products that tasted a little sweet, perhaps to offset the saltiness.
Where did that sweetness come from if not from the sugar in the brine? Decker had a possible explanation: During cooking, two molecules that register as sweet on the palate but don’t necessarily “count” as sugars form: furan, from Maillard reactions and caramelization, and isomaltol, also from caramelization. In addition, Decker pointed out that according to Food and Drug Administration regulations, a product can have up to 0.49 grams of sugar and still list 0 grams of sugar on its label.
Our winning thick-cut bacon, Sugardale Thick Sliced Bacon ($4.39 per pound), stood out for its distinctive “maple-y” sweetness, which helped balance its moderate salt content and mild smoke flavor. It was the outstanding favorite when eaten plain, and we also liked it in BLTs, though a few tasters found the sweetness to be a little “too much” for the sandwich. If you can’t find Sugardale bacon in your area, we recommend Oscar Mayer Naturally Hardwood Smoked Thick Cut Bacon ($6.99 per pound), the thick-cut version of our top-rated regular-cut bacon. With a subtler sweetness than our winner but similarly moderate smoke flavor and sodium content, it was our favorite in the BLT tasting and our second favorite when eaten plain.