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Bacon

Wednesday, 24 June 2009 | Tags: ,

An age-old comfort food, bacon comes from trimmed pork and is a mixture of meat and fat that is smoked and cured. So is there a difference in flavour and nutrition among brands of bacon? We put a few brands to the test to find out!

The Basics

  • There are different types of bacon depending on how the meat is processed, what part of the animal it comes from, and how it is cured.

  • The three main cuts of bacon are:

    • Side bacon comes from slabs of pork belly. Belly meat is streaked with fat, which leads British folks to call it streaky bacon, or a “rasher” (one slice). North Americans just call it bacon.

    • Back bacon comes from the pork loin, located on the back of the pig. It’s lean and meaty and a popular bacon in the UK. Canadians call it back bacon. Americans call it Canadian bacon. (Confused yet?)

    • Gammon comes from the hind leg of the pig (like ham) and is a popular cut in Europe and the UK.

  • Bacon is cured using salt to draw out moisture in preparation for smoking, which makes it inhospitable to bacteria. Sugar is also used to balance the salty flavour, and other spices are sometimes added.

  • Curing can be done in two ways:

    • Dry curing produces a stronger flavour than wet, and takes much longer to produce (generally about a week). It is rinsed off before smoking.

    • Wet curing is like a concentrated brine. Most supermarket bacon is wet-cured by injecting the pork with brine so that it is fully cured within 2 to 3 hours, rather than submersing it in a brine solution to sit for a few days, which is the traditional wet-cure method.

  • Once the cured pork is fully dry, it is smoked to improve texture, shelf life, and resistance to bacteria.

    • Some types of bacon are cured, but not smoked, such as pancetta.

    • Artificial smoke flavouring can be mixed with the brine that is injected into the pork, however this method is no longer widely used due to health concerns since artificial smoke flavour is synthesized from chemical sources.

    • Natural smoke flavouring can also be mixed with the brine solution, which is the method favoured by the producers of most supermarket bacon. Natural smoke is made by burning wood or sawdust, condensing the smoke into water vapour, then concentrating that liquid to make it more potent. Most supermarket bacon labelled “naturally smoked” is smoked in this way.

    • Most specialty bacon manufacturers smoke bacon the traditional way with real wood and a simple smoking process.

    • Hickory, mesquite, and apple are commonly used for smoking, though this information isn’t usually included on the label.

  • Bacon has many additives to be aware of:

    • Salt is bacon’s most important ingredient (outside of pork, of course), since it dries and cures the meat.

    • Sugar is added mainly to balance out the saltiness from curing.

    • Water is a major ingredient in wet-cured bacon, used to deliver all other additives to the meat.

    • Sodium phosphate prevents bacon from drying out during processing and cooking.

    • Sodium erythorbate speeds up the curing process and helps keep the red colour.

    • Sodium nitrite prevents bacteria, helps keep the colour, and contribute to the “cured” flavour of bacon.

  • When shopping for bacon, look for the following qualities:

    • Visually, look for equal amounts of fat and lean meat.

    • On the nutrition label, look for bacon that has a higher percentage of protein than fat. But remember that the amount of fat also lessens when cooked.

    • The fat should be firm so that it doesn’t curl up much when cooked. But if the fat is actually hard, the bacon is likely rancid.

    • The fat should look somewhere between pale white to pale golden. Avoid any yellowing fat, which means it’s going bad.

    • The meat colour should be anywhere from a deep pink to a reddish brown. Avoid any with overly dark-looking meat.

    • If you like crispy bacon, look for a thin cut. Thicker cuts cook to a more chewy and meaty texture.

    • Most supermarket bacon is wet-cured, which you can tell by looking at the ingredients list. Water is listed as the second ingredient. Dry-cured bacon, however, tends to be more flavourful. Go to a specialty meat shop or grocery store to find dry-cured bacon.

    • If smoke is in the ingredient list, it’s been injected with the brine as part of the wet-curing process. Don’t be fooled by supermarket brands that say “naturally-smoked flavour” on the label. It’s not smoked in the traditional way, over real wood.

    • Bacon smoked over real wood is usually leaner and more flavourful. Look for specialty brands that may even describe the smoking process on the label.

    • Nitrate-free bacon may have health benefits, but be aware that it will appear paler and will have a flavour closer to ham or pork.

    • Reduced salt bacon is available and has a milder flavour, as well as a shorter shelf life.

Other Considerations

  • Buying whole slab bacon (unsliced) from a butcher or grocery store meat department can be less expensive than pre-sliced varieties. Also, you get to choose your own slice thickness. Place it in the freezer for 20 minutes to firm up the fat, which makes it easier to slice.

  • Cook bacon over medium or medium-low heat for about 15-20 minutes, turning often. Cooking at low temperature over a longer period of time ensures everything is evenly cooked. High temperatures can burn the meat and give it a soggy, greasy texture.

  • Pre-packaged bacon has a best-before date stamp. Once open, keep it well wrapped and use within 1-2 weeks.

  • Unsliced bacon will keep up to 3 weeks if well wrapped.

  • Bacon can be frozen but it’s not the ideal candidate due to its high fat and salt content. It’s best to freeze it in the original vacuum-sealed packaging as soon as possible after bringing it home from the store, and use it within a few months.

Be Aware

  • There are many health concerns about bacon:

    • Bacon is fairly high in fat and saturated fat, but it loses 2/3-3/4 of it when cooked.

    • There’s a lot of salt and sodium-based preservatives in bacon. Cooking removes some of it, but it’s still a high-sodium food.

    • Nitrites (or more specifically, the nitrosamines that form when bacon is cooked at high temperatures) are carcinogenic and have been linked to pancreatic cancer, as well as an increase in pulmonary diseases. Nitrite use hasn’t been banned because it guards against botulism.

    • Smoke flavour, whether artificial or natural, has people concerned due to chemicals, both synthetic (artificial smoke) or from naturally burning wood

TEST CRITERIA

We wanted to know whether there really is a difference between grocery store bacon, butcher bacon, and nitrate/nitrite/hormone-free bacon, so we invited some morning radio hosts and their office staff to help us with a taste test of these brands:

  • Maple Leaf (wet-cured, smoke-injected): $5.99-7.49/500 grams
  • Schneider’s Fully Cooked (wet-cured, smoke-injected): $5.39/465 grams
  • Woodstown Farms Dry Rubbed Seasoned Side of Pork (dry-cured, real wood smoked): $8.48/500 grams
  • Dry-cured Side Bacon (a butcher shop house brand): $7.99/450 grams

Taste Test

  • The Maple Leaf tasted like your common grocery store bacon brand. Our testers recognized it right away. They thought it tasted fine, the usual, unremarkable.

  • The Schneider’s pre-cooked bacon was terrible. Nobody liked it. They called it “fakin’ bacon”! It tasted weird and processed. Just not good, especially compared to the others.

  • The nitrate/nitrite/hormone-free Woodstown bacon hit it out of the park. Everyone raved and wanted seconds. It was really rich and thick, with a smoky, maple flavour, and had a good meat-to-fat ratio.

  • The freshly-cut, dry-cured butcher shop bacon was a close contender to the Woodstown bacon. It had a clean flavour, good thickness (which we cut ourselves), and a nice meat-to-fat ratio as well.

OUR TOP PICK

We definitely found that dry-cured bacon tasted way better than wet-cured bacon. As for a top pick, our testers chose the Woodstown bacon (from Wellshire Farms, available at Whole Foods and Capers Markets in Canada, or check your local health food grocery store).

However, you’ll also do well buying bacon directly from your butcher, and you can always ask for organic or chemical/hormone-free meat if it’s available. (Ask nicely enough and your butcher may just order it in especially for you!)

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