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What exactly is it? And can it compete with traditional pork bacon?
Whether you're intrigued by its purported healthfulness in relation to pork bacon or you prefer turkey to pork products, turkey bacon can be appealing. But is it any good? We purchased five nationally available products, priced from $1.99 to $6.99 per package. Panels of 21 tasters sampled pan-fried strips in two blind tastings: plain and in BLT sandwiches.
Traditional pork bacon is made from pork belly, a fatty cut of meat that comes from the underside of a pig. It's generally cured with salt, sugar, and spices; smoked; and sliced. An equivalent cut of meat just doesn't exist on a turkey. The distribution of fat on the animals is also different. While many cuts of pork and beef are marbled with fat (think of pork shoulder or rib-eye steaks), much of the fat in poultry is located between the meat and the skin. If you took a hunk of turkey and processed it like pork bacon, it would be very lean and dry because it doesn't have those streaks of fat running through the meat.
Based on how it's made, turkey bacon is more like sausage than pork bacon, according to Jeffrey Sindelar, a meat specialist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison's Meat Laboratory. There are two main styles: one that's made from finely ground meat and one that's made from meat chopped into larger chunks. The former is created by finely grinding white meat and dark meat separately and then mixing the meat with brines containing salt, sugar, and seasonings. At this point, each mixture “has the consistency of cake batter” and is easily extruded into rectangular pans in alternating layers, Sindelar explained. Eventually, the contents are sliced vertically, and those layers give the slices a faux-marbled appearance so that it visually mimics pork bacon, with striations of dark- and light-colored meat. In a crude approximation of the way pork bacon ripples and buckles as it fries, these strips have scalloped edges.
The second style of turkey bacon is usually made with turkey thighs (no white meat), which are “chunked” into larger pieces measuring 1 to 2 inches in diameter and tumbled with brine. As the pieces roll around, the proteins in the meat bind together and the pieces form a cohesive mass, which is later placed in molds and can be pressed before being sliced into strips. It is reminiscent of Canadian bacon or ham in appearance and texture.
Our lineup included both styles: three had dark- and light-colored stripes and were likely made with finely ground meat, and the other two more closely resembled Canadian bacon and were probably produced with larger chunks of meat, according to Sindelar. Both styles can be smoked in giant ovens or flavored with liquid smoke concentrates. Would we like one style more than the other? And how did they compare to pork bacon?
First things first: None of the turkey bacons in our lineup could be mistaken for pork. The better products hit on the same flavors we associate with pork bacon—sweet, smoky, salty—and contributed the requisite savory component to sandwiches, but they lacked richness and crispy texture. Many of the striped strips made from ground meat were “stiff” or “leathery,” with a fine grain. Meanwhile, the ham-like versions of the chunked style were dense, “like deli meat.” Some in each style were so mild that their flavor “got lost” amid the handful of ingredients in a BLT. Others had funky flavors, such as “hot dog,” “teriyaki,” and “mustard,” that were especially noticeable in the plain tasting. The best had “good chewy texture” and a bold, balanced combination of salty, sweet, and smoky flavors.
Another difference we noticed while cooking the turkey bacon is that it releases very little fat; while four strips of pork bacon yield about 1 tablespoon of fat, some of the turkey bacons didn't produce a single drop. We often use bacon fat as the foundation for soups or stews and even cornbread and vinaigrettes, so home cooks opting for turkey bacon would have to make up the difference with a neutral vegetable oil, which of course lacks bacon fat's meaty, smoky flavor.
We think there's room for improvement in turkey bacon. Our top scorer just barely edged out the competitors and earned only a lukewarm recommendation. We didn't have a strong preference for either the ground, striped style or the ham-like version made from chunks of meat. All five products have roughly half the fat, sodium, and protein of most pork bacons. The presence of liquid smoke concentrates didn't track with our preferences either.
Ultimately, the difference between the highest-ranked product and the rest was minor. Wellshire All Natural Uncured Turkey Bacon ($6.99 per 12-ounce package), which is made with large chunks of turkey thighs and is reminiscent of Canadian bacon, took the top spot in large part because it had bold flavor and no off-notes. We can't recommend it with the same zeal we recommend our favorite pork bacon, but we liked its “good chewy texture” and thought it had the best balance of bold smoky, sweet, and salty flavors.
Panels of 21 America's Test Kitchen staffers sampled five turkey bacons plain and in simple BLT sandwiches. For each tasting, we cooked the turkey bacon on the stovetop according to package instructions. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets, and nutrition information was taken from product packaging and, when necessary, converted to reflect a 15-gram serving. Scores were averaged, and products appear below in order of preference.
Made with larger chunks of thigh meat, our top scorer was much more like Canadian bacon than like the pork bacon most Americans prefer. We liked that it had some of the big smoky, salty, sweet flavors we associate with bacon. It had a pleasantly “chewy” texture and crisped up a bit more than other products in our lineup.
The intense flavor of this striated bacon made it stand out. Some tasters thought that flavor was slightly “artificial” and “hot dog”-like, but the bacon stood up to the other ingredients in a BLT sandwich. The strips toed the line between “crisp” and a little “leathery.”
This “soft” bacon didn't get very crispy, and we found it a little too “chewy.” Sampled plain, it had some “metallic” and “mustard”-y off-notes. When we layered it into a BLT, those funky flavors were much less noticeable and the prominent “smoky” flavor took center stage.
Made with larger chunks of thigh meat, this bacon “really tasted like turkey.” The poultry flavor was good, but we missed the intense smoke and salt of other products. In the BLT, the other ingredients' flavors overwhelmed this mild bacon.
Some of our tasters thought this turkey bacon had a “meaty” “turkey” flavor. Others thought it tasted more like “hot dogs” and “soy sauce” than either poultry or pork bacon. Its scores improved dramatically in the BLT tasting, where it was a little too salty but had a good balance of smoky-sweet flavor.