Bacon, a favorite of American carnivores (and noncarnivores—vegetarians dub it the “gateway meat”) for centuries, has become a breakout fad over the past few months. Besides designer bacon in supermarkets, chocolate-covered bacon, bacon-flavored coffee and bacon-flavored vodka, the heart attack-inducing Bacon Explosion emerged from the pages of The New York Times as a phenomenon that spawned a six-figure book deal.
With bacon-mania cresting, the question must be asked: What were we thinking? This whole bacon trend started simply because bacon is delicious—and it is perhaps most delicious when it’s cooked simply. So what’s the best way to cook up bacon? Here are some tips and tricks for choosing the right bacon, cooking it to perfection, and what to do with all that leftover grease.
1. Choosing your bacon. The process for making American-style bacon—or the bacon you know and love—is fairly standardized: Pork bellies are cut into slabs, cured, smoked, and sliced up. What isn’t standard are the details in those steps. The type of pig and the conditions in which the pig was raised can have tremendous effects on the flavor and texture of the meat, as well as the amount of fat in the belly. The cure, which is necessarily made up of salt and sugar, can also contain herbs, spices, pink salt, or sodium nitrate (for preventing botulism, enhancing color, and giving bacon that classic cured taste), or phosphates (which plump up the bacon by causing water retention in the meat). Also a factor in the flavor of bacon is the method of smoking and the type of wood that’s used—or the type of liquid smoke, as the case may be.
While there are some tasty supermarket-brand bacons available, the industrial process for making bacon generally yields an inferior product, while artisanal bacon tends to be thicker, have better pork and smoke flavors, and a more even meat-to-fat ratio. And as with all processed products, take a look at the list of ingredients on the back: the fewer—and the more you can pronounce—the better.
2. Slow and low. The key to avoiding burnt, brittle, or soggy bacon is to cook the meat slowly at a steady medium-low temperature. This insures that the most amount of fat will render out of the bacon, giving you bacon that’s perfectly crisp but not burnt, and bacon that’s flat, not curly at the ends. Avoid the temptation to turn up the heat so you can get those pieces into your mouth as quickly as possible; slow and low is the way to go.
But managing that heat can be a little tricky, depending on the cooking method. While it’s easy to see the size of the flame on a gas range or set the oven to a particular temperature (ideally low broil or around 350°F), a microwave or an electric stovetop aren’t quite so easy to control. Cook’s Illustrated magazine recommends that for microwave cooking, bacon should be cooked at 70 percent power for five or six minutes in an 1100-watt microwave oven. And if you’re using an electric stovetop, remember that the system regulates temperature by turning the heat on and off to create an average temperature, so make sure to use a really heavy pan, such as a cast-iron skillet, which will absorb and retain as much heat as possible. Covering the pan is also a way to control temperature, creating an even heat between the top of the bacon and the bottom of the bacon where it touches the pan.
3. Don’t crowd the plate. Whether you’re cooking in a skillet, on a baking sheet, on a microwave turntable, or on the grill, bacon should cover the surface without overlapping. Crowding the pan with too much bacon doesn’t allow the bacon to cook evenly; the places where the slices of bacon overlap will be underdone no matter how constantly you re-arrange the slices. And with too little bacon in the pan, not enough fat renders quickly enough and the bacon will scorch.
4. Cleanup. No one likes cleaning up after cooking, especially when it involves disposing of a cup of hot rendered bacon grease. Throwing hot fat into your trash can will melt the bag, and pouring it down the sink will corrode the pipes. The path of least effort in bacon grease disposal is to let the fat cool and harden in the pan, then scrape it out and toss it. But if the sight of two inches of hardened, white fat isn’t what you want to battle with after breakfast (or lunch or dinner), line a bowl with heavy-duty aluminum foil, pour in the hot grease, and when the grease has cooled and hardened lift the foil out of the bowl and into the trash.
And if those two inches of bacon fat are not a chore but a blessing allowing you to add bacon-y deliciousness to every dish, then strain the hot grease through a fine mesh sieve and pour the liquid fat into a heatproof glass jar. Because for the true bacon-lover, there’s no more prominent flag than a jar of bacon grease in the front of the fridge.
Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.