Americans love bacon. We eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes even for dessert. And many of us are willing to spend a little more if it means we get to bring home a bacon that’s extra-special. Since we last tasted artisanal bacons, access to smaller-scale producers has improved significantly, with more and more bacons around the country now available for purchase online. We were curious to know how our old favorite, Vande Rose Applewood Smoked Artisan Dry Cured Bacon ($29.07 per pound, shipping included), compared with the competition. So we rounded up six other products available online and priced from $8.00 per pound (shipping not included) to $14.75 per pound (shipping included) and tasted them plain, in Southern-Style Green Beans, and in BLT sandwiches.
We liked all the bacons we tried. But the bacons themselves were quite different. Some were great in green beans but too intense when eaten plain. Others were good plain but got lost in a BLT. As it turned out, a lot hinged on the style of the bacon—and on just how extensively the product had been cured and smoked.
In choosing our lineup, we decided to focus on dry-cured bacons. Most of the bacon made in the United States is wet-cured. Wet-curing, in which the pork bellies are either injected with or immersed in brine, is a relatively quick process that takes just 6 to 24 hours to complete. By contrast, dry-curing, in which the pork bellies are rubbed with the cure ingredients and left to sit, takes much longer to complete: The products we tested were cured for periods that ranged between several days and several months.
The dry-curing process is significant for two reasons. First, it’s the more traditional method for making bacon in the United States, with deep roots in American foodways. Second, the longer dry-curing process can generate more complex, interesting flavors—flavors that help justify the higher cost of artisanal bacon. As Matt Hartings, associate professor of chemistry at American University, put it, “People don’t realize it, but time is one of the most important and expensive ingredients a food can have.” The longer it takes to make a slab of bacon, the more costly it can be to produce—but also the greater the opportunities to develop its flavor.
People don’t realize it, but time is one of the most important and expensive ingredients a food can have.
The primary goal of dry-curing is to preserve the pork belly, making it safe to eat for longer periods of time. As the meat sits, salt in the cure draws water out of the meat, yielding a finished product that’s comparatively firm, dry, and resistant to spoilage—an essential trait that is significantly enhanced by the use of curing agents such as sodium nitrite and by the smoking process, which confers additional antimicrobial compounds that help ward off bacteria.
Over that long curing period, other changes occur as well. The salt also acts to concentrate the flavors of the pork belly. And, as Hartings explained, the protein in the pork breaks down as the result of both enzymatic and low-temperature Maillard reactions, forming new savory flavor molecules.
Salty, smoky, savory, and capable of being stored without refrigeration for months, bacon was historically an economical choice for those with limited access to fresh meat or expensive cured products made from more highly prized cuts of pork, such as ham. Because it is so intensely flavored, a small slice of this dry-cured bacon could be used to season an entire dish, helping extend the use of this meat for consumers who couldn’t afford more.
These days, there’s no scarcity of meat and no need to keep bacon for months on end. According to Roger Horowitz, professor of history at the University of Delaware, advances in refrigeration, processing technology, packaging, and transportation all changed the ways by which bacon was produced and made available, helping make wet-cured bacon ubiquitous in American supermarkets. Along the way, these advances changed the flavor and texture of bacon itself—and changed American expectations about what bacon should be.
Today, some bacon producers, especially in the South, continue to employ more traditional dry-curing formulas, curing and/or smoking their products more heavily or for longer periods. In our lineup, we included three of these more traditional dry-cured bacons, all from older Southern smokehouses. These traditional-style bacons had some of the longest curing times in the whole lineup (a week, two weeks, and “months”), contributing to some of the highest sodium contents in the lineup (267, 375, and 405 milligrams of sodium per 14-gram serving, respectively).
Eaten on their own, these traditional-style bacons were very salty. Some tasters liked that saltiness, but for many, the experience was akin to “drinking ocean water.” Still, these salty bacons were fine when buffered by other ingredients; sometimes, we even preferred them. They were fantastic when used to season the green beans and were particularly welcome in BLTs, where tasters appreciated how their “bold” salt contents contrasted with the sweet tomato and astringent lettuce. For eating plain, however, we preferred bacons with more moderate salt contents. Our winner had just 150 milligrams of sodium per serving, the lowest of the bunch; it had been cured for four days, one of the shortest curing periods of the bacons in our lineup.
The more traditional Southern bacons had generally been smoked for significantly longer periods—from two to five days—whereas the other products in our lineup had been smoked for up to 12 hours. (The third traditional-style bacon wouldn’t disclose its smoking time.) Perhaps as a result, two of these products were also much smokier than the rest of the bacons in the lineup. Our tasters were divided on these two bacons: While some liked their “campfire”-like flavor, others thought them “overpowering” when the bacons were eaten on their own. Still, those two smoky bacons were our favorites in the green beans, where that smoke washed out into the pot liquor and infused the beans with a rich, deeply savory jus. On the other end of the spectrum, bacons that weren’t very smoky often seemed a bit bland to tasters. Overall, tasters preferred bacons that were moderately smoky; our winner had been smoked for 12 hours, and our runner-up for “several hours,” providing just the right amount of wood-smoke flavor.
As we’ve noted, all the bacons had flavor profiles that were decidedly more complex and savory than those we’d seen in the supermarket bacons, with “umami for miles,” as one taster put it. Tasters also detected “nutty,” “roasty,” and “caramelish” notes, which Hartings attributed to the breakdown of proteins in the pork during the long dry-curing process.
Many of the bacons—particularly the three traditional ones—went a step further. They were noticeably “funky,” with unusual “mushroom-like,” “mineral-y,” “farmyard-like,” and even “fruity” aromas. These aromas weren’t unwelcome, but a few products had odors and flavors that tasters found less acceptable, with “musty,” “almost sour,” and even “fishy” notes. As explained by Eric Decker, professor and department head of the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, these off-flavors were probably due to fat oxidation. As the pork belly cures, its fat breaks down; while salt and nitrite in the cure can protect that fat against oxidation, some of it can still turn rancid, contributing to the “off” aromas that tasters described. These less desirable flavors were bothersome only when the bacon was eaten plain, though; in the beans and the BLTs, they were virtually unnoticeable.
As we’d seen in previous tastings (Thick-Cut Bacon and Supermarket Bacon), a bacon's thickness helps determine its texture. The thinner the slice, the crispier it can get when cooked, as it’s relatively easy to force moisture out of those slimmer slices; thick bacon, by contrast, tends to be chewier, as it’s harder to drive out that moisture. In our lineup, thicknesses ranged from 2.3 millimeters (regular-cut) to 4.2 millimeters (thick-cut); in general, the thinner bacons were more crispy, and the thicker bacons were more chewy.
But thickness alone isn’t the only factor that contributes to texture. Salt and sugar—both critical components of the cure—can also play roles. As Decker explained, sugar is a humectant, which means that it helps bind water molecules; when absorbed by the meat during the curing process, sugar can actually help the bacon retain moisture and keep it more tender. But if left on the meat too long, too much sugar can have negative consequences. Cured for 12 days, one distinctly sweet bacon had a somewhat “soft,” “flabby” texture that testers found less appealing when the bacon was eaten by itself, though it was fine in a BLT.
Salt can also affect texture, though mostly for the better. Because of their high sodium contents and long curing times, the traditional-style bacons were comparatively dry, since all that salt had already driven out a lot of the water. As a result, all three traditional bacons crisped up easily—even the two products that were relatively thick.
In the end, though, our panel didn’t have clear texture preferences. Our winner is thick-cut and a bit chewy, our runner-up thin and crispy.
You can’t go wrong with any of these bacons. There’s a product in our lineup for every palate, and each one has a unique identity, with some products shining more brightly in certain applications than others. Our favorite, however, is an all-around superstar, delicious every way we tried it. Once again, Vande Rose Applewood Smoked Artisan Dry Cured Bacon, $29.07 per pound (shipping included), took top honors. Our panel loved how well this “perfectly balanced” bacon’s moderate smoke and salt contents aligned with its pleasantly sweet flavor. Cured for four days and smoked for a relatively short 12 hours, this “pretty much ideal” bacon was nevertheless complex, with outstanding “nutty,” “meaty,” and “savory” overtones. And at 3.9 millimeters thick, it was “substantial” and pleasantly chewy. As one taster put it, “I would eat this bacon every day if I could.” It’s not cheap, but judging by the raves it received, we think it’s worth the occasional splurge.