Article Overview: This article dives into what bacon is, where it comes from, and how its made. Additionally, the article reviews both the traditional way that bacon is made, as well as the current industrial model
Bacon has long been a favorite at breakfast tables and a great source of flavor for all sorts of dishes. With its rich, salty taste and crispy, melt-in-your-mouth texture, this versatile red meat is sure to hold onto its popularity for many years to come.
Even for the bacon-lovers among us, you may not know what exactly bacon is and how it’s made. At S. Clyde Weaver, we’re passionate about delicious cured meats and the traditional processes that go into preparing them, so we’re going to take some time to explain what makes bacon that delicious meat we all know and love, and what all the labels mean that describe the various types of bacon you can buy today.
As we’ll see, not all bacon delivers the superior quality and taste your ancestors were accustomed to, but some companies like S. Clyde Weaver are still committed to producing amazing bacon the traditional way.
What Is Bacon?
Bacon has been popular for centuries, especially in the West. Breeding pigs traditionally followed a seasonal schedule, with piglets being born in the spring, then being fattened up as they matured until they were ready to be slaughtered toward the end of the year. Since pork could be cured to create ham, bacon and more, it was an effective and tasty way of feeding families through the winter. In spite of modern refrigeration methods, people today still enjoy cured pork, including bacon.
With the exception of specialty products like turkey bacon that seek to imitate traditional pork bacon, real bacon is made from pork. Unlike some other types of pork you might purchase from the butcher or supermarket, bacon isn’t defined by being from a specific cut of meat. Bacon can come from a pig’s belly, back or sides — essentially anywhere that has an exceptionally high fat content. In the United Kingdom, back bacon is most common, but Americans are more familiar with “streaky” bacon, also known as side bacon, which is cut from pork belly.
Any of these cuts of meat could be sold fresh from the pig simply as pork belly, loin or sides to be cooked or as uncured bacon for people to cure with their own recipe and method. To turn the meat into bacon, it needs to go through a curing process, which we’ll explain in detail in just a moment.
The Traditional Bacon-Making Process
So, how does bacon go from a cut of fresh pork to a delicious preserved meat? The traditional method for bacon curing is known as dry curing. The raw bacon is rubbed with salt and other seasonings, which imparts flavor and cures the meat over a period of a week or two. In some cases, sugar is added to the dry rub for some sweetness. This method is known as dry curing since you don’t add any liquid during the curing process.
Typically, after being cured, the bacon is rinsed off, dried and then goes into a smoker for further preservation and flavoring. Typically, the smoking process happens at a low heat, enough to flavor the bacon without cooking it. The type of wood chips used in the smoker can impart a specific flavor, whether it be applewood, hickory, cherry or any other type of smoke wood. If the bacon isn’t smoked, dry-cured bacon is traditionally hung to air dry in the cold for weeks or even months.
Dry-cured bacon tends to have a more robust flavor than wet-cured bacon, which we’ll discuss next. Dry curing is the time-honored method for curing bacon, so traditional types of bacon are generally dry-cured. This process is more time-consuming, though, so it has become increasingly rare in the U.S. today. You can still get traditional dry-cured bacon, however, from artisanal companies like S. Clyde Weaver.
Happy Bacon Tuesday everybody. To think of the millions of pounds of bacon sliced on this behemoth… There is a reason we’re named best bacon in PA, come taste why. #oldschool #bacon #since1920
Posted by S. Clyde Weaver – Smoked Meats and Cheese on Tuesday, October 23, 2018
The Industrial Bacon-Making Process
Most bacon today is cured through wet curing. Traditional curing ingredients like salt, sugar, sodium nitrite and potentially other chemicals or seasonings are mixed to create a brine. The bacon is either placed in the brine to soak or, more commonly, is injected with the brine. The soaking method is known as immersion curing and takes a bit longer than the injection method, known as pumping. After curing, as with dry-cured bacon, the cured bacon can now be smoked for enhanced flavor and preservation.
What’s more common for commercially produced bacon, however, is putting the cured pork into a convection oven. This process takes around six hours or more — much faster than smoking, which can take multiple days. When bacon is heated in an oven rather than smoked, liquid smoke may be added to help the meat achieve a smoky flavor.
Industrial processes of curing bacon result in bacon that is higher in moisture and generally lower in flavor intensity. The added moisture increases the weight of the bacon which, in turn, increases the cost of the bacon. The cost per pound for dry-cured bacon may be higher than commercially-made bacon, but you’re getting more meat and more flavor — not water. Remember, commercial bacon-making methods are aimed at mass production rather than exceptional quality.
Types of Bacon
Now that you know the basic processes for making bacon, you may be wondering what differentiates the dozens of varieties of bacon you see at the butcher, grocery store or ecommerce stores. We’ve already learned about two main distinctions — dry curing and wet curing. Remember, though, that most bacon you’ll find is wet-cured, and yet there are still many different kinds. Everything from the ingredients in the cure to the way the meat is smoked to the way it’s cut all influence the meat’s qualities.
Let’s look at 10 types of bacon any bacon connoisseur should recognize and understand.
1. Slab Bacon
Most bacon you purchase is already sliced, which means all you have to do is place the slices straight into the pan. However, you can buy bacon unsliced. An unsliced section of cured pork belly is known as slab bacon. Slab bacon is typically sold with the rind still on, which you can remove yourself before cooking.
Some recipes use large chunks of slab bacon, but since bacon is usually cooked in slices, you’ll usually want to cut it yourself to create slices of your desired thickness.
2. Thick-Cut Bacon
One of the distinctions you’ll find with different types of bacon is the thickness of the slices. There are no regulations for the standard thickness of bacon slices, but most bacon is sliced to around 1/16 of an inch thick. Slices that are thinner or thicker than normal are typically labeled as such.
You won’t see many types of bacon labeled as thin-cut, but you will see thick-cut bacon on the market. This bacon is typically about twice as thick as standard bacon slices. Thick-cut bacon makes for a more substantial breakfast and works well for dicing into dishes like pasta carbonara, green beans and more.
3. Center-Cut Bacon
As we mentioned earlier, bacon isn’t necessarily defined by a specific cut of meat. However, center-cut bacon is. If bacon is labeled as center-cut, this means it was taken from the middle of the pork belly, close to the bone. This section is less fatty, so it’s a good option if you’re looking for leaner bacon.
The lower fat content won’t make much difference when you’re frying bacon on the stove and draining off the grease, but it can be helpful when you’re making certain recipes, such as appetizers where you wrap something in raw bacon before cooking it and don’t want the appetizers to soak in too much fat.
4. Hardwood Smoked Bacon
Remember, just because bacon tastes smoky, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was smoked. In most cases, commercially-made bacon is injected with liquid smoke and heated in an oven to replicate the taste of smoked bacon without taking the time to actually smoke it.
However, if you see bacon that is labeled “hardwood smoked,” that means it was genuinely smoked over smoldering hardwood chips in the traditional way. Sometimes, the label may tell you which type of wood was used since different types of wood chips can subtly affect the flavor. Another label you might see is “naturally smoked,” which means the same thing as hardwood smoked. If you’re looking for bonafide bacon, choose hardwood smoked varieties.
5. Double Smoked Bacon
If smoking bacon once imparts a delicious, smoky flavor, then why not smoke it twice for an even deeper, richer flavor? Well, for most manufacturers, it’s because of the time it would take. Commercial bacon manufacturing depends on shortcuts, so you won’t find these manufacturers looking for ways to lengthen the process.
Artisinal companies that are willing to put in the time, however, can produce double-smoked bacon that is sumptuously rich in a delicious, smoky flavor that brings out the best in this beloved meat. All our smoked bacon at S. Clyde Weaver is double-smoked.
6. Uncured Bacon
One of the most confusing bacon labels out there is uncured bacon. If you’ve been reading up to this point, you know that bacon is cured, by definition, so this is a misnomer. There really is no such thing as uncured bacon, unless you think of a fresh cut of pork belly as uncured bacon. So, what does this label mean?
“Uncured” bacon has still been cured, but instead of synthetically-sourced nitrites, natural nitrates are used and converted into nitrites. These nitrates typically come from celery, beets or other produce that is naturally high in nitrates. Sea salt can also do the trick in some instances. What’s interesting to note is that there is really no difference between artificial and natural nitrites. It’s the same molecule, either way.
7. Canadian Bacon
Canadian bacon is an altogether different product from American bacon. In fact, it has more in common with ham than it does belly bacon. This is because Canadian bacon comes from a pork loin and contains far less fat than the pork belly. Like bacon, however, it’s a favorite meat at breakfast time and can be pan-fried in slices, though the slices look more like ham slices rather than bacon strips.
What makes the meat Canadian bacon as opposed to a fresh pork roast is that it is cured and smoked. This process preserves the meat and imparts that signature flavor we associate with cured pork, including ham and bacon.
Pancetta is another type of bacon worth mentioning. This Italian pork product has more in common with American-style bacon than Canadian bacon does because it is made from pork belly. The main difference between pancetta and bacon is that pancetta is only cured and not smoked.
You can buy pancetta sliced extremely thin or diced. Like bacon, it adds fantastic flavor to a variety of dishes. In this case, though, that flavor won’t be smoky, just rich and salty with notes of whatever seasonings were included in the curing process.
9. Non-Pork Bacon
While true bacon is made from pork, you may have seen or tried other types of “bacon” that come from different animals. The most common non-pork bacon is turkey bacon. This product was created to be a leaner alternative to bacon. By processing and cutting turkey into bacon-like slices, curing the meat and smoking it, it comes out resembling bacon, but of course, a 10% fat content means significantly less flavor than pork bacon and a more rubbery texture.
Similar process can be used to create beef bacon and duck bacon. Bacon is so popular that there are even vegan imitations on the market. While these imitations may come close to the taste of bacon, any bacon that is not made from pork will never be quite the same as real bacon.
10. Precooked Bacon
If you don’t like the time or mess involved in cooking bacon at home, you can pay extra at the grocery store for precooked bacon, but what exactly is this product? The answer is pretty simple. The bacon is cooked at the production plant before being packaged. To be considered shelf-stable, the water activity must be 0.85 or lower.
Precooked bacon may seem convenient, but it will never taste as fresh as bacon you just cooked in your own oven or on your own stovetop. Plus, with precooked bacon, you don’t get any bacon grease. For centuries, cooks have been using bacon grease for frying and adding flavor to food.
Enjoy Bacon That Is a Cut Above With S. Clyde Weaver
If you love bacon, but you’re used to the water-injected variety you find at the store, you’ll be amazed by S. Clyde Weaver’s bacon. Using time-honored methods of dry curing and smoking and never taking short-cuts, we produce delicious bacon right here in Lancaster County that you can enjoy with breakfast, lunch or dinner, no matter where you live.
Bacon is one of the most beloved meat products, but not all bacon is created equal. When you’re looking for bacon that is a cut above the rest, you can find it at S. Clyde Weaver. With over a century in the business, we’ve had plenty of time to perfect our recipes and methods so we can bring you the very best. Browse our bacon products today, and consider trying some of our amazing ham and other meat products, as well.