Bacon is salt-cured meat cut from a pig's belly or back. It is served on its own, incorporated into meals (such as eggs and bacon), or used as an ingredient in dishes like sandwiches, soups, salads, and even sweets like maple bacon ice cream.
What Is Bacon?
The most common form of bacon in the United States is side pork, which is cut from the side of the pig. It's very fatty and has long layers of fat running parallel to the rind. Back bacon, which is the most common form of bacon in the United Kingdom (sometimes called Irish bacon or rasher or Canadian bacon) comes from the loin in the middle of the back of the pig. Back bacon has a more ham-like texture.
The meat is cured—soaked in a solution of salt, nitrates, and sometimes sugar—and often smoked before you cook it at home. It is the fat in the bacon that provides most of the flavor and allows it to cook up crispy, yet tender. A hefty ratio of fat to meat—usually one-half to two-thirds fat to meat—is essential to good bacon. Since bacon must be cooked before being consumed, much of the fat is rendered out and can be poured off if need be.
It is important not to cook bacon at high temperatures for long periods of time. High heat can turn the nitrite curing agents into nitrosamine. Bacon cooked in the microwave contains fewer nitrosamines. Nitrates are used to not only preserve color but also as a preservative agent to retard rancidity in the fat and kill botulism bacteria. Nitrites have been the subject of controversy as a potential cancer-causing agent in some animal experiments, but results are as yet inconclusive. However, there are nitrate-free bacon products on the market. Additionally, food producers have started adding vitamin C during the bacon curing process, and this lowers the nitrosamine content.
How to Cook Bacon
There are three basic ways to cook bacon:
- Skillet: This is the classic method, and it's ideal for preparing six to eight strips at a time. Remove the bacon from its packaging and allow it to come to room temperature (about 20 minutes). Don't preheat the pan, but rather place the strips (without overlapping) in the cold pan and cook them over medium heat, turning as needed, for about 10 minutes. Drain the cooked bacon on paper towels before serving.
- Oven: Cooking bacon in the oven makes sense when you're preparing a big batch, and you have a bit more time. Place bacon on a parchment-lined baking sheet and put it in a cold oven. Then heat the oven to 400 F and bake for 17 to 20 minutes or to desired crispness. There's no need to turn but you'll have to drain the cooked bacon on paper towels before serving.
- Microwave: You can microwave a few strips for a quick BLT or burger. Line the microwave with a couple of layers of paper towel, place the bacon strips down without overlapping, and cover with another layer of paper towel. Cook on high for four to six minutes, without turning. No draining is required with this method.
What Does Bacon Taste Like?
The taste of regular bacon can vary depending on the breed of the pig, its feed, how the bacon is cut, and especially the processing and curing methods. In general, bacon flavor is a combination of salty, sweet, fatty, and smoky notes—any one of which can stand out to a particular palate—making an unmistakable impact when added to a dish.
Varieties of Bacon
In addition to basic no-frills bacon, you'll also find it available in a variety of flavors, including apple, maple, and mesquite. Low-fat and low-sodium versions are available.
There is also bacon made from other animals, such as turkey bacon, which is typically leaner than pork bacon. Italian bacon (pancetta) is pork belly that is cured but not smoked, and it usually comes in sliced spirals or diced. Canadian bacon is fully cooked pork loin that tastes more like ham.
Bacon adds a delicious smoky touch to countless dishes, from the classic bacon and eggs breakfast to BLTs, burgers and more.
Where to Buy Bacon
You will find bacon at the supermarket, butcher shop or warehouse stores. Most bacon is pre-sliced and sold as regular or thick slices.
- Thin bacon is cut into slices that are 1/32-inch thick, about 35 strips to the pound. Thin-sliced is also referred to as hotel or restaurant bacon.
- Regular slice is 1/16-inch thick and has 16 to 20 slices per pound.
- Thick-sliced bacon, generally twice as thick as regular bacon, contains 12 to 16 slices per pound on the average, depending on the supplier.
- You can also purchase bacon in a block (called slab bacon or flitch in Pennsylvania when unsmoked) and cut it into the thickness that best suits you. Outside the United States, one slice of bacon is often referred to as a rasher.
- Fully cooked bacon slices are also available in most markets for those with cooking time constraints.
- Canned bacon is a favorite with many as it is pre-cooked and shelf-stable until opened, but it is difficult to find these days.
- Bacon bits—pre-cooked pieces of bacon which are then dried—are still available. (Once opened, bacon bits must be refrigerated.) Do not confuse imitation bacon bits with the real thing! Imitation bacon bits are made of flavored vegetable protein.
Packaged, raw sliced bacon can be kept in its unopened vacuum-sealed package in the refrigerator up to a week past the expiration date. Once opened, keep it tightly wrapped in foil or a zip-top bag and use within one week. Sealed packages of raw bacon can be frozen for up to one month. Plan in advance to thaw bacon in the refrigerator to reduce splatters during cooking.
Cooked bacon is nice to have on hand for later use; cook the bacon to one level below how you like it done, drain on paper towels and cool. Seal it in a plastic bag and refrigerate up to five days. You can also freeze cooked bacon, in paper towel-wrapped individual portions in a zip top bag, for up to six weeks.
Nutrition and Benefits of Bacon
A standard cooked slice of bacon contains about 30 to 40 calories and 3.3 grams of fat per slice. The fats in bacon are about 50 percent monounsaturated and a large part of those is oleic acid—the same fatty acid that makes olive oil "heart-healthy." Bacon is high in salt. (According to the American Heart Association, eating too much salty food can raise blood pressure levels.). In addition, the curing agents used to make bacon remain a concern.