Bacon 101

B acon. The word alone causes mouths to salivate. From the Old High German bakkon, which was related to bakam, the source of English "back," the word bacon has become a rallying cry for everyone from the gourmet set to the diner counter at a truck stop. Bacon is big right now, and just about everywhere. Everything is better with bacon, from brittle or chocolate to a cheeseburger and grilled cheese. Even popcorn is improved with the addition of crumbled bacon. Bacon is the sweet-salty-smoky strip of pork that is most likely to convert vegetarians.

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How it’s Made
In the United States, bacon is made from pork belly, usually the back section closest to the loin, which is streaked with fat. Making bacon requires that the pork be cured—and there are two ways to do it. The first and oldest method is dry curing, in which the meat is coated in a mixture of salt and sugar, and sometimes other spices, even maple sugar or maple syrup. The pork belly is then hung in a cold place wrapped in cloth for about a week. In the modern process this usually takes place under refrigeration, but in the past it most likely would have been in a cool cellar. The salt draws out the water from the flesh. When it’s done curing, the rub is washed off and the bacon dries out for a day or two. Only then is it smoked with natural hardwood like hickory or applewood, imparting that wonderful distinctive smoky flavor. Applewood provides a sweeter, milder flavor than hickory, which offers a robust smokiness.

The other process involves a wet cure, in which the belly is soaked in a salted brining liquid for several days under refrigeration. The rest of the process is much the same, and the bacon is smoked in the same fashion as the dry-cured bacon.

In different countries various cuts are used, from the back to the sides of the pig. Bacon can be made of fatback, which is just what it sounds like: almost pure fat from the back of the pig. Pork loin is very lean, but can be cured and is known as back bacon. In Europe, bacon is not always smoked. This type of bacon is called pancetta, or ventrèche, and is usually chopped into cubes and used in a variety of recipes, to impart flavor and a little extra fat.

Nitrites and Nitrates
At a certain point in meat-curing history it was determined that an element in salt—nitrate—is what preserved the meat and made it pink. During the bacterial process of curing, a chemical reaction occurs where nitrate is changed to nitrite; and it is nitrite that keeps botulism from developing, preserves the meat and improves the color. This exact process occurs in your digestive system when you eat fruits, vegetables and grains. Nitrites, naturally occurring or synthetic, serve a vital public health function of blocking the growth of dangerous bacteria in processed meats, and give "cured" meats their characteristic color and flavor.

Nitrates and nitrites are naturally occurring, and closely related chemically speaking. And nitrites can be found in many vegetables, as they draw sodium nitrite out of the soil. Celery has lots of naturally occurring nitrites, which is why celery salt, or celery juice powder, is often seen in the list of ingredients of cured meats. But once science determined that nitrites were the magic in the cure, synthetic nitrites were created to be used in curing.

Some years ago, studies indicated that eating large amounts of nitrates and nitrites is dangerous to human health. Other subsequent scientific inquiries have proven that small quantities are not harmful. Nevertheless, many people choose to avoid foods with sodium nitrates or nitrites on the label.

Sometimes bacon is labeled “uncured” because the USDA won’t allow the term “cured” unless synthetic nitrates or nitrites are used. When synthetic nitrites are not used, the bacon must be labeled "uncured." Perhaps it would make more sense to call this bacon “naturally cured,” as bacon cannot be made without the curing process.

Does it Have to be Made of Pork to be Called Bacon?
There is alternative bacon available for those with dietary restrictions, like those who won’t eat pork. Among the most popular is turkey bacon, which is made from smoked, chopped and reformed turkey meat.

There are many animals that yield fat-streaked bellies that can be used to create bacon. Duck breast can be cured and smoked in the same way that pork belly can be, and then sliced thinly into bacon strips. Duck bacon makes smoky, delectable bacon with a rich flavor that is wonderful when tossed into salads, layered on a burger, chopped on a pizza or wrapped around scallops. We like to make DLT's -- that's duck bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Because duck bacon comes from the breast of a duck, it can be cooked on the rare side, which makes it versatile bacon to keep stocked in the refrigerator.

There is bacon made from beef, lamb belly, turkey (usually reconstituted meat) or even wild boar, though in all fairness, this could be considered the original bacon, from the old, wild breed of pig. Wild boar bacon offers a sweet, smoky take on plain old pig bacon, though it does tend to yield smaller strips, as wild boars are generally leaner than domesticated pigs.