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Thick-Cut Bacon

Published January 2019

How we tested

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.

How Thick Is Thick-Cut Bacon?

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.

Thicker Bacon, Greater Chew

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.”

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.

Smoke, Salt, and Sugar

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.

Methodology

Twenty-one America's Test Kitchen staffers sampled six top-selling thick-cut bacons, priced from $3.99 to $6.99 per pound, both plain and in BLT sandwiches. Nutritional information was taken from product packaging and, when necessary, converted to reflect a 14-gram serving (about 1 slice). We measured the thickness of each bacon with digital calipers, averaging a random sampling of slices from three packages of each product. Products were purchased in Boston-area supermarkets and online and are listed in order of preference.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*