Supermarket Bacon

Published September 1, 2013. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

These days, buying bacon means choosing from a slew of options that range from center-cut to pepper-crusted, maple-flavored, specialty-wood-smoked, low-salt, or even reduced-fat. The latest style vying for market share? Thick-cut strips. Since we last compared major brands in 2004, a bevy of heftier bacons have shown up alongside the traditional thin, shingled slices. But does a thicker cut offer anything more than just a bigger bite of bacon? To find out, we rounded up six thick strips (based partly on actual thickness rather than labels, since some fatter slices weren’t identified as such) and four traditional slices from nationally available supermarket brands (choosing both styles from the same brand when possible) and invited colleagues to a tasting.

From Belly to Bacon

Good bacon is meaty, smoky without tasting like an ashtray, salty without imitating a salt lick, and sweet without being cloying—what industry experts call “balanced bacon flavor.” The five samples that consistently topped tasters’ rankings had all these… read more

These days, buying bacon means choosing from a slew of options that range from center-cut to pepper-crusted, maple-flavored, specialty-wood-smoked, low-salt, or even reduced-fat. The latest style vying for market share? Thick-cut strips. Since we last compared major brands in 2004, a bevy of heftier bacons have shown up alongside the traditional thin, shingled slices. But does a thicker cut offer anything more than just a bigger bite of bacon? To find out, we rounded up six thick strips (based partly on actual thickness rather than labels, since some fatter slices weren’t identified as such) and four traditional slices from nationally available supermarket brands (choosing both styles from the same brand when possible) and invited colleagues to a tasting.

From Belly to Bacon

Good bacon is meaty, smoky without tasting like an ashtray, salty without imitating a salt lick, and sweet without being cloying—what industry experts call “balanced bacon flavor.” The five samples that consistently topped tasters’ rankings had all these traits, and their “substantial,” “crisp but not brittle” texture also won us over. Most of the rest didn’t fare badly—they’re still bacon, after all—but one failed to earn our unqualified recommendation, and one didn’t pass muster at all, tasting “blah” and “not bacony enough.” So what, exactly, did our highestranking products have that the others didn’t?

To help answer this question, we reviewed how bacon is made. All bacon begins with curing a fatty, meaty cut from the underside of the pig, known as pork belly. Most of the products in our lineup use the modern wet-cure method, injecting the bellies with a brine composed of salt, sugar, sodium nitrite (to set color and act as a preservative), sodium phosphate (to retain moisture), and, in some cases, liquid smoke. The slabs are tumbled in rotating drums to work in the brine and then hung for a few hours to distribute the cure throughout the meat. Just one brand (Wellshire) used the more old-fashioned, artisanal method of dry-curing the bellies for several days with salt and sugar, but this turned out not to matter since tasters liked wet-cured bacons just as much or even more.

After curing comes thermal processing, a procedure in which the cured bellies are partially cooked to an internal temperature of up to 130 degrees. This is also when bacons that didn’t get liquid smoke in their brine are smoked before being sliced and packaged. Most of the bacons in our lineup were dry-smoked (exactly how long is proprietary) with smoke derived from wood or sawdust, earning them the label “naturally smoked” or “old-fashioned smoked,” according to U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. One brand, however, used the shortcut of spraying vaporized smoke onto its bellies. While some industry experts maintain that flavor differences between the two methods are hard to detect, our tasters disagreed. They panned that brand's thick-cut strips in particular, demoting that style to ninth place (its thinner strips made it only to seventh place).

Differences in processing methods weren’t the only factors that affected our opinions. Tasters also took off points for samples that veered into being too “fatty” and “flabby.” Although bacon wouldn’t be bacon without the fat, producers have known for years that shoppers habitually buy the leanest bacon, and most hogs destined for bacon have been bred to be leaner. When we sent samples of each bacon to an independent laboratory for analysis of their fat, protein, and salt levels, it turned out that, almost in exact rank order, the higher a bacon’s protein-to-fat ratio the more we liked it. Tasters also judged meatier bacons (which have more moisture) to have more complex flavor. At first we thought that sounded odd; it’s almost gospel that fat carries lots of flavor. But in bacon, experts told us, it’s the moisture in the meat that carries the salty-sweet flavors of the cure, which also include the familiar “cured” taste created by water-soluble sodium nitrite.

The saltiest strips didn’t necessarily taste the best, but neither did bacons with a combination of more fat and less salt. These were described by tasters as “bland” and “anemic.” This made sense, since we’ve found in test kitchen experiments that fat masks salt flavor, meaning that fattier meats require more salting to taste fully seasoned.

In the Thick of It

Besides meatiness, the strongest predictor by far of which bacons would land at the top of our list did in fact turn out to be thickness. It wasn’t simply that the brawnier strips, which ranged from 1/8 inch to 1/5 inch, boasted a more satisfying chew and cooked up to a just-firm crispiness that never shattered or crumbled. Heftier strips were also smokier strips.

But why would this be the case since, thick or thin, all but one maker's products were smoked the same way—that is, with real smoke in a smokehouse? At first we surmised that some producers might simply smoke their bacon longer, which is one possibility. But when we talked to an expert on meat processing, Iowa State University Distinguished Professor Joe Sebranek, we discovered another possibility: that wider swath of edge on a slice of thick-cut bacon. “Smoke is applied to intact, unsliced bellies,” Sebranek told us. “A thicker slice has more of the surface area where smoke is deposited included with the slice.”

But could a few fractions of an inch more edge really account for a smokier taste? We froze our bacon samples and got out our digital calipers to measure them. Their thicknesses ranged from 1/15 inch all the way up to 1/5 inch—three times as thick. Sure enough, the thinnest strip of the lot, at 1/15 inch, had so little smoke flavor that tasters likened it to “lunch meat.” They also decried it for tasting “blah,” since its thinness meant that it had too little of any of the flavors that make bacon taste good. At 1/8 inch, on the other hand, the thick-sliced version by the same maker drew raves for its smoke flavor—and for having plenty of “all the flavors that come to mind” for bacon. Meanwhile, the brand’s spokeswoman assured us that both styles are produced exactly the same way except for the adjustment on the slicing mechanism.

In the end, we have two bacons to highly recommend, so evenly matched by tasters that we declared them co-winners. Both are thick-sliced and both have that perfect bacony balance of meatiness, salt, sweetness, and smoke. One boasted a “sweet,” “smoky, porky, and salty” taste that added up to “a perfect mixture.” The other co-winner was “pleasantly smoky and substantially meaty.” Tasters called it “umami-licious.” It’s also worth noting that this was the only brand we tasted to use brown sugar in its cure, which accounts for this bacon’s “deeply browned, Maillard flavor.”

Methodology:

In two blind tastings, 21 Cook’s Illustrated staff members tasted six thick and four traditional bacon samples from a list of top-selling national brands compiled by the Chicago-based market research firm IRi. We sampled the bacons cooked according to our recipe for Oven-Fried Bacon and rated them on flavor, texture, and overall appeal. An independent laboratory analyzed salt, protein, and fat percentages for each product, and findings are shown per 100 grams of uncooked bacon. Tasting results were averaged; bacons appear below in order of preference. All bacon was purchased at Boston-area supermarkets.

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