Bacon raises my carnal instincts to epic proportions. There are few pleasures of life more ecstatic than the merits of a rasher of streaky bacon. The very sight of creamy fat lined with strips of pink flesh makes me drool so obscenely that it might well coerce a Komodo dragon cringe with shame. No, not turkey bacon. Here I am talking about pork bacon derived from the blood relatives of the proverbial Wodehouse-ian “Empress of Blandings”. There is also the UK style lean variety, but to me, consuming lean bacon is blasphemous. The US style streaky bacon with copious layers of white grease is the thing for me. The health conscious brigade curses me no end for my gluttonous demeanour, but, frankly, I am deaf to such cacophony, though well-intentioned. I have submitted to their logical conclusion that I am the black sheep amongst my flesh and blood. Let me assure you (my empathisers), bacon is not at all the exterminator the public would like you to believe. Shall come to that later.
True; I do possess a naked contempt for food-veganism, but, trust me, I was not born like that. My cousin and I who grew up together like real sister and brother had with us our saviour- a prototype of Bertie Wooster’s “Aunt Dahlia”. She was a voluptuous woman with rosy cheeks, short cropped hair and a mobile and ever cheerful face. My aunt never got an opportunity to wear the betrothal ring. She was independent, extrovert, modern and a working woman. She doted on us, her niece and nephew and did her every bit to pamper and spoil us. True to her benevolence for the family, she would often buy pork salami, bacon and ham while returning from work. And that’s how I got my first taste of blood. My sister was much restrained though; probably something to do with her gentler X chromosomes. But I was unstoppable.
I started exploring food. To make matters worse, I made it through IHM which still is the most respected culinary and catering college in India. Naturally, with unending supply of meat of different animals, I was a devil in the making at Hell’s Kitchen. Among all blood, bones and flesh, I found pork and beef to be the most versatile and gratifying in their possibilities. Hence, genuflecting to the power of Bacon is not an exaggeration, I guess.
The Basics of Bacon
Now, let’s get down to the basics. There are mainly two types of bacon- the US and the UK varieties. The US bacon is usually made from side pork meaning the meat is carved out from the side (and often the fatty belly) of the pig. This results in a very fatty product with streaks of fat running parallel to the meat. Hence, it is also called Streaky Bacon. Whereas, for the UK style, the meat is cut from the loin of the pig. This gives lean bacon and is known as Irish Bacon or Canadian Bacon. The main difference is the texture. Two of bacon’s independent siblings are the Italian versions, Pancetta and Prosciutto which are far superior products than US or UK style bacon and are my personal favourites. But, to keep matters simple, let us stick to bacon.
When you go for purchasing bacon, it is important to know the difference between “cured” and “uncured” bacon. Curing is the process of brining the bacon through addition of salt, sodium, nitrites and/or nitrates. Nitrates produce the typical pinkish colour of bacon and help preserve it over time. You must understand, the term “uncured” is misleading. No matter what style of bacon you are consuming, the meat has definitely been cured one way or the other.
Cured bacon is the process of preserving bacon with the addition of salt, sodium and chemical nitrites or nitrates.
Dry curing is the traditional and commonly used method for curing. Fresh pork is rubbed with salt, seasonings and nitrates and left to cure for a week or two. The bacon is then rinsed off and placed into a smoker. Alternately, the meat is put in a conventional oven or left to dry at cold temperatures for weeks or even months.
Wet curing is a much faster process. The curing ingredients are mixed with water to create a briny solution and the meat is either soaked in this or injected with it. The injection method known as pumping is the quickest way to cure bacon. The meat is then smoked for enhancing the flavour and for longer preservation. Smoking takes several days. Keeping with the current trend of ‘maximum profit with minimum effort’ most of the big commercial brands do away with the tedious smoking process and instead add liquid smoke to replicate the smoky punch.
When choosing which bacon to purchase, keep in mind that most commercial bacon curing processes focus more on mass production than quality.
While all bacon is cured, what is uncured bacon then? Uncured bacon is still cured bacon but undergoes a very different method altogether. The end product is much healthier for you and way more flavourful than cured bacon. Here, no synthetically-sourced nitrites or nitrates are used. Instead, it is cured with natural nitrates-containing vegetables like celery, beets, etc. These veggies when combined with sea salt and seasonings create a very flavourful and delicious concoction completely free from artificial chemicals. It is usually dry-rubbed on the fresh pork, cured and then smoked the traditional way. So, look for the labels containing “uncured” or “sodium-nitrate free” while purchasing your bacon and keep the food-scientists quiet.
However, the above does not give you much insight into the smoking process. If your bacon is labeled “hardwood smoked” or “naturally smoked”, it means that it was smoked inside a smoker. But, if your bacon has a smoky flavour without these labels, it’s likely that it was injected with liquid smoke to hasten the preservation process. When smoking bacon, different types of wood and sawdust are used to achieve a variety of flavours.
Cooking with Bacon Fat
Bacon in itself is a bit too much as main course even by my hoggish standards as it is heavy on your palate with all the grease floating around and can be overpowering for the faint-hearted. But nothing can be more enticing than a few rashers of crispy bacon filling your breakfast air with its entrancing smoky whiff. As an accompaniment with other dishes there is hardly any other match you can find to compete with bacon’s exacting standards. As an ingredient, it can lift ordinary bland veggies and salads to a gourmet’s delight. No bacony soul can deny the sinful greatness of BLTs and club sandwiches. From fillings for quiches, to toppings as lardons over pastas and risottos, to wraparounds for Angel’s on Horseback (oysters rolled in bacon), to relishes, to cold salads, to soups, to bacon jam; do I need say more? And the best part is, you can never go wrong with bacon. It is non-fussy, easy to cook and has the scope for countless innovations.
Nevertheless, my endeavour here is not to talk about bacon recipes, loads of which are already available on the net. Rather, I would discuss about what you can do with the leftover heavenly liquid fat which oozed out from the bacon you last fried. We call it “rendering” in cooking terms. Bacon fat as a cooking medium gives an entirely new dimension to whatever you are cooking. But let us first understand rendering.
How to render bacon fat
- Take a skillet and heat it with the slightest bit of butter. Fry bacon on low heat to avoid burning it, therefore releasing less grease. Once your bacon is cooked to your desired texture (it should be evenly browned and crispy) devour whatever way you like and move on to the next step to strain the grease.
How to strain bacon fat
- While the liquid is still warm, strain through a fine mesh sieve or cheese cloth preferably into a wide mouthed glass container. Never use plastic vessel as the hot liquid can melt it.
- The strained product should be caramel coloured, transparent and free of solids, although personally I prefer those tiny bits of crispy bacon crumbs in the fat.
How to store bacon fat
- At room temperature, you can store it in an opaque or dark coloured sealed jar for up to one week. Do check for rancidity once in two days.
- In the fridge, the shelf life can be increased to six months.
- In the freezer you can store it in a sealed jar for up to nine months, either in a wide mouth jar or in ice cube trays for easy use.
- You can even keep in two jars – one for storing and the other for using.
Rendering works excellent in microwave oven also. For 100gms of bacon cook at full power for 10-15 minutes and then follow the process of straining and storing.
How to use it
- As a substitute for butter when making eggs or pancakes. Use bacon fat for making omelette, fried eggs or scrambled eggs and see the difference.
- With leftover baked potatoes, chop these up and toss in a skillet with bacon fat, and season to your liking.
- For popping popcorn, in place of oil or butter, use bacon fat. When done, add some sea salt and lemon zest. You would wonder what trash you had been dishing out before.
- As a base for your stews, soups or gravy.
- Sauté your veggies and greens with bacon fat. This works wonders with kids who may need some goading to eat their greens.
- Rub on the skin before roasting a chicken. (I mean skin of chicken).
- Fry chicken in bacon fat for your Fried Chicken but never disclose the secret to your neighbours.
- Croutons for your soup to give that extra smoky zest.
- Use it for salad dressings, aioli and vinaigrette.
Is Bacon Bad for your Health?
With all my suggestions above, it’s quite natural for you to give me that surreptitious look as you would to a sociopath…….. particularly, after watching and listening to the collective tirade by the media that bacon is a sinful poison which would surely lead you to the path to hell. Nothing can be far from the truth and this is nothing short of wickedness by the media and the health freaks. I would rather go as far to say that generalising and disseminating such half-truths is debauchery of the highest order. And to what end, I am yet to comprehend! Very soon I am planning to venture out on a fact-finding mission to understand this depravity. Seriously!!……….
If you know your bacon and what and where to buy; eat, enjoy and be merry. Uncured bacon is “keto” (from the word Ketogenic) compliant; meaning it is very low on carbs with high fat content. This high fat content is in fact beneficial for your health. You shouldn’t need to believe me as I am a certified badass. Do your own research or you can check here. Bacon is also “paleo” derived from the word Paleolithic- meaning food habits of our ancestors in this context. Check here, what I am alluding to. Protein is a hallmark of paleo diet. As we all know, without protein you are as dead as a dodo. You can read my blog on ancestral food habits here. Having said that, I am not asking you to eat truckloads of bacon. Eaten in moderation bacon is a bliss you should not miss out on. The cryptic key is ‘eating in moderation’. Well, isn’t it true for all eatables?
Let me end this debate by saying “Anything in excess” is not good and holding the same argument “Abstinence in excess” is also not good. Hence, let us bust this notion, “Anything that tastes too good is poison for your body and soul”.