Bacon has always been a part of my life, as I am sure it has been a part of all your lives. As I recall a plate of fried bacon was typically set on the table daily when I was a child. For me, it was never served with eggs in our house, strictly oatmeal. My mother must have considered eggs to be an adult thing. Nibbling on a piece of fried bacon was one of the things I was allowed to enjoy. It was always fried to a crisp. Its fat was never drained away on paper towels, primarily because they were not yet considered a kitchen essential, despite having been introduced in the 1930s. The Wiesers were slow in growing accustomed to the throw away culture. In fact, I suppose most families here at that time were still rather frugal. Today, bacon is something I enjoy eating even without frying. It’s not really raw, it’s cured, and to me it is simply delicious that way. Whether bacon is good or bad for your health is an entirely different matter.
You may remember the story of my Uncle Ben, the butcher. Bacon was another of his specialties. I remember seeing slabs of bacon hanging and being cured in his smoke house. He proudly hung them alongside the racks of broom handles laden with sausages suspended from the smokehouse rafters, liberally coated with salt and pepper, where they awaited being smoked to perfection.
Bacon is salt-cured pork made from various cuts of the pig, typically the belly or parts of the back. It has a long storage life and has been an international trading commodity for centuries. Bacon is eaten separately, used as flavoring, or even included in salads. Served with eggs fried sunny side up is perhaps the most iconic American breakfast ever created. Denmark, surprisingly, is the leader in pork consumption. However, some argue that the average American consumes 18 pounds of bacon annually. This seems remarkable to me as another reference I found shows that Americans eat bacon at breakfast only about once a month. These once-a-month bacon eaters must really load up when they sit down to that meal!
New Yorkers, allegedly, eat more bacon than any other American city, but the Alamo city residents place 2nd, Houston comes in 7th, and Forth Worth ranks 9th in its annual bacon consumption. What is it about Texans that causes us to rank so high? In other surveys Nebraska tops the list as the most bacon-centric state at 132% above the national average.
During WWII, scientists took the opportunity, and considerable credit, for putting back into certain foodstuffs what improved manufacturing techniques had taken out. Things we now call additives. However, not until the 1960s, when convenience foods came into their own, did the panic over additives arise. Suspicion first fell on MSG, then beginning in 1969 on nitrates and nitrites, which are widely used as preservatives, especially in curing bacon. It was recommended that we eat smaller quantities of foods with additives, and we were told everything was considered laden with carcinogens no matter how minute the amount. Better safe than sorry.
Bacon can be cured through injections or soaking in brine and Nitrites are used in either process. They add characteristic flavors and pink color as they preserve and extend shelf-life. They keep the meat safe from deadly bacteria and have always played a significant role in the curing process even if not necessarily known by early butchers. Nitrites are responsible for the important reactions in curing. When added, Nitrites bond with the myoglobin pigment in the meat and release a gas called nitric oxide. This gas reacts with the pigment in meat and forms this very stable and beautiful red pigment called nitrosohemochrome. It also produces important flavor compounds and acts as an antioxidant.
Though the case can be made that bacon is unhealthy (I decided writing the statistics here would be too depressing), we must remember to look at our diets holistically. Eat a well-balanced diet and you can enjoy bacon occasionally. Maybe that’s where those once-a-monthers come in. Bacon and eggs are a classic old-school breakfast — and for good reason. They stick to your ribs, provide protein, and fortify you for the day ahead.
Cook’s Illustrated: New Best Recipe claims bacon is best when fried. The bacon flavor remains more pronounced, its color more appealing, and the proper crispness is maintained. Turning over the bacon in a cast iron skillet is required for the perfect bacon. Lowering the heat from medium to medium-low, just hot enough to sizzle proved the perfect answer for them. Time is, of course, required. Oven frying is even better, creating a texture more like a seared piece of meat rather than a brittle cracker. No raw spots, no turning nor flipping required during cooking. Hmmm.
Use a large, 12 x 9-inch rimmed baking sheet,
(Shallow enough to promote browning yet deep enough (3/4”) to contain rendered bacon fat.)
12 slices of bacon, thin or thick.
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat to 400ºF.
Roast until fat begins to render, 5 – 6 minutes.
Rotate pan front to back.
Continue to roast until crisp and browned, 5 -6 minutes longer for thin-cut bacon; 8-10 for thick.
Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate, drain and serve.
By Mark Wieser