Friday, April 7, 2017

Perfect Bacon - A Treatise

This month we're touting our love for bacon all month long at An Eat'n Man.

Ah, bacon.  How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.  Such a simple thing, bacon is.  Pork belly, smoked and cured.  It's been a staple in our diets for hundreds of years or more, and it was probably taken for granted a bit back in the day.  Hogs were readily available, thus bacon was as well.

Then came the health conscious 1980s, and bacon began to get a bad rap.  High in fats and containing nitrates, bacon became verboten in many diets.  This was a sad, sad time.

But in the last decade or so, bacon has made a comeback like nobody's business.  An not because of any re-evaluation of its healthfulness.  No, people just realized they really love bacon, and were missing it.  So it came back with a vengeance, as if people simply threw caution to the wind and said to hell with it, I want some bacon!  Everything suddenly had bacon in it.  Fast food.  Jelly.  Chocolate.  Practically everything.

The Baconator

Well, I'll not waste time debating the merits of this.  But I feel that a little bacon now and then in moderation probably isn't that big of deal in the grand scheme of things.  And with that in mind, let's start this bacon month here at An Eat'n Man with the basics--making perfect bacon every time.

(Note for my international readers--the bacon I'm referring to in this article is what you probably call 'streaky bacon,' rashers or strips of meat cut from the pork belly, cured and smoked.  This is what is commonly known as bacon here in The States.  I'm fully aware that in most other places in the world, bacon means what we call here Canadian bacon or back bacon, or slices cut from the loin of the hog.  We won't be dealing with that one today, just the streaky, pork belly stuff)

Anyway, cooking bacon.  It seems so simple.  Most people just slap a skillet on the stove and fry away, and that's that.  But as a bacon connoisseur, I thought it might be good to consider all the different ways of cooking bacon, weigh the merits and drawbacks of each, and then we can decide which we like best.

The most basic of course if frying.  We're going to skip this method for a moment and come back to it.  First lets cover the other possibilities.

One of the fad ways to cook bacon these days is baking it in the oven.  Seems so simple, right.  Hell, it even sounds right.  Bacon...bakin.'  Almost like it was meant to be.

Well, I tried this method quite a long while ago, and I have to say I wasn't impressed.  As you'll come to discover, I like my bacon crispy, and the oven baking method left me with chewy bacon.  It also made a royal mess.  Grease splattered everywhere, making the oven smoke, and a terror to clean.

 Now, there are websites out there that will swear by baking bacon, and swear it doesn't make a mess.  Well, if you want to try it, go right ahead.  But I gave up on it, so I won't recount technique here.  This is mainly because I am satisfied with another method that we will get to in a moment.

Before we move on to that, we should mention one other method that was all the rage back in the 80s, and still satisfies some people today.  That is the microwave.  Yes, you can cook bacon in the microwave.  My mother did it all the time back in the 80s.  She even had a special hard plastic rack that was made for the microwave.  It held the bacon at a slant and had a little reservoir to collect the grease.  It made passable bacon, but it was still chewy and flappy.  I hates flappy bacon.

So, after all this rigmarole, what's the best method?  Well, in my opinion, frying is the absolute end all be all method by which to cook bacon.  But, as with anything, there are different ways to fry bacon, but before we get to that, let's address the product itself.  Yes, there are different sorts of bacon out there.  We need to decide what kind we want before we get around to frying it.

Basically, the main difference in available bacon out there is its thickness.  You can get thin-cut bacon, regular, thick and extra-thick.  The super-thick stuff is all the rage these days.

All the gourmet chefs on the TV will tell you that you want this thick cut stuff for your bacon needs.  Me, I'm not buying it.  To me, there is nothing more wonderful than a succulent piece of thin, crispy bacon that practically melts in your mouth.  But with thick you get more, they'll tell you.   Hey, look, a pound of bacon is a bound of bacon.  With thin-cut, you just get more strips.  It all evens out.  Thick-cut bacon, to me, just never gets crispy.  The outer area will begin to char long before the inner part gets crisp.  If you like it that way, by all means, stick with thick, but for the method I'm about to cover, thin is the way to go.

There's another advantage to thin-cut bacon.  It's cheaper.  The thick-cut stuff always seems to cost a few dollars more.  But you can get store brand, thin-cut bacon for much cheaper.  The exception to this is center-cut bacon, which is pricier, but still usually thin-cut.

This, I've found, is absolutely the best for perfect bacon, but I still get some really good results with the store brand or even the discount brands.  Hell, I once found a discount brand called 'Corn King' bacon on sale for a dollar a pack at my local grocer.  I bought up several packs and was pleased with it.  It was, to say the least, quite interesting stuff.

You know how in a regular pack of bacon there is sometimes one piece on the end of the slab that is sort of paper thin, as if they hadn't got things up to speed when they started cutting.  Well, Corn King was like that through the whole pack.  It was a pain to deal with, but man did it cook up crispy.  Alas, I can't seem to find it anymore.

Not to worry, the store or discount brand stuff works just fine.  Most boxes even have little windows on the back so you can see an individual slice and judge that it's cut evenly.  Nice.

Now, here's the deal.  There are two techniques to use when frying bacon, and each achieve different results.  I'll cover both here and you can decide which you like best.  Kay?

The first method I learned about from an old Life magazine I had lying around from the 50s.  It had an Armour bacon ad in it that suggested the proper method for cooking bacon.  I've reproduced it below.

As you can see, it suggests starting with a cold pan or griddle, laying the bacon out and then applying the heat slowly, so that the bacon cooks slowly.  This supposedly causes the bacon to render less fat and not shrink as much.  I tried this method, using my griddle, which I like because I can cook a lot of bacon at once.

It indeed made some nice bacon, and the pieces did stay bigger than usual,

but since they were retaining some of the grease, they were still a bit chewy for my liking.

If you like it this way, then this might be the method for you.  If you like ultimate crispiness, however, you might want to go with my ultimate method.  High heat cooking.

Yes, for this method, we go ahead and get the griddle or pan hot, then slap the bacon down on it.  The strips of bacon will shrivel up and cook quickly, and they will render most of their fat.

But what you are left with is succulent, flavorful, oh so crispy bacon.  Here's some I cooked in my Dutch oven out over open coals.

Note how wrinkly it is compared to the nice, flat orderly pieces we slow-cooked.  Ah, my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

If you want your bacon to behave and lie flat, but still want to go with the high heat method for crispiness, you can get yourself a bacon weight.  Here's mine.  It's even in the shape of a hog.  Cute, eh?

This will weigh down your bacon and help it cook quickly and crispily.  One word of caution--using the high heat method you will want to flip your bacon repeatedly to keep it from charring or burning.  This is an absolute necessity with the high heat, particularly if you use the bacon weight.  Just flip the pieces every 30-40 seconds until they are a deep brown color and then drain on paper towels while you cook up more slices.

So, there you have it, my own particular recipe for perfect bacon.  It won't float everyone's boat, but I highly recommended it.

Until next time,

~ Chris