We’re all familiar with the crunchy texture and salty flavor of bacon, but what exactly is it? Read on, as we breakdown the stuff this delightful breakfast is. Where does it come from? Different varieties of bacon. How it’s made? What nutritional value it has to offer? And how best to store it?
But first a bit of history…
The origins of bacon date back to 1500 B.C. China where the Chinese found a way to create a primitive form of bacon by curing pork bellies with salt. Later on, when pigs were domesticated in Europe, the production of bacon found its way to the Roman and Greek empire. Although, this is mere speculation because there isn’t documented evidence that either of these empires spread the method of preparing bacon.
Interestingly, however, the word ‘bacon’ itself has roots in Germanic. The root word ‘bak’ (which originally referred to the back of a pig) became “bacco’ and then, ‘bacoun’. That said, up until the 16th century, ‘bacoun’ meant any meat that has been salted, whether or not it had been derived from pigs.
What is bacon?
Bacon is essentially cured pork, or more accurately, pork that has been salt-cured with brine and then smoked using traditional wood smoke or on an industrial scale with liquid smoke. That said, bacon isn’t the only brine-cured product, but it is the only one which makes use of a specific curing agent, commonly referred to as Bacon brine. Unlike regular brine which is simply water concentrated with table salt, brine used for curing bacon also contains sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, and potassium nitrate.
Before the curing process begins, the meat is obtained from either the pig’s belly or back after skinning it. More often than not, the bacon you’ll find in the US is side pork (cut from the side of the pork). The meat is part fat and part meat – easily visible as streaks or long layers of fat. These layers of fat alternate with layers of meat and evidently, this fat is where the lardy taste of bacon comes from.
That said, not all types of bacon contain the fatty layers. For instance, Canadian bacon comes from pork loin, instead of pork belly. In the same vein, Pancetta is Italian bacon which is cut from the side, as opposed to the American-style bacon cut from the belly. The fat content in this type of bacon is also minimal and it is often unsmoked and spiced. So depending on where you reside, bacon can have different meaning.
How is it made?
The pork belly and the ribs attached to it are removed after the pig is skinned and its shoulder and backside are removed. Following this, the ribs are removed from the belly and the belly itself is trimmed which is then rendered into bacon.
Then comes the curing part, which is more time-consuming. The pork belly can either be cured with the help of Bacon brine or using dry salt crystals. After the meat is cured, it is then smoked and air-dried – a process that can take weeks to months. Once it is smoked, the belly is then cut into the final product – bacon.
The process smoking can be carried out using traditional methods, but more often than not, wet cured bacon employs liquid smoke instead of actual smoke. This alternative (yet more commonly used) method results in an end-product that tastes distinctly different from bacon smoked with traditional wood smoke.
The idea of curing is preserving the meat and it is a rather ancient, but still efficient method of food preservation because bacteria need a moist environment to thrive but a salty and arid (becase the salt has drawn out most of the moisture) environment inhibits their growth.
How to cook bacon
There are different ways you can go about cooking bacon, but they boil down to three basic techniques: skillet, oven, and microwave. Skillet method involves placing the bacon strips on a pan and then cooking and turning them on medium heat. If you have 20 minutes to spare, you can place the bacon strips in an oven and then heat it up to 400 F. But if you’re pressed for time because that breakfast needs seeing to, you can simply microwave the slices for 4-5 minutes and you won’t even have to drain the slices before serving them.
If you did everything right, your bacon should taste sweet, smoky, and lardy, with a tinge of sweetness. That being said, the way bacon is processed and cured also has a significant impact on how the finished product tastes. Case in point, the common thin-sliced variety of bacon doesn’t taste as good as the more expensive, thicker slices with lesser fat content and more tender meat.
Roughly half of the fats in bacon are ‘heart-healthy’ good fats, while the remaining 40% of them are saturated fats and cholesterol. The scientific community is divided when it comes to the risk factors associated with bacon. Some professionals believe that bacon consumption, or more accurately the intake of saturated fat can lead to heart disease. But there haven’t been any conclusive studies directly linking bacon to an increased risk of heart disease.
Aside from the fat, bacon has a high concentration of salt (the same salt that was used in the curing process), and excessive intake it can lead to problems like high blood pressure and stomach cancer. So if you suffer from high blood pressure, you might want to cut down on your salty food consumption.
With that in mind, bacon has plenty of nutritional value. Each serving of bacon carries up to 37g of important protein, Vitamin B Complex, and a generous amount of minerals, such as iron, magnesium, and zinc.
Bacon has many, many different cuts but the way they’re processed is almost always the same. Hopefully, this article gave you better insight into this salty, smoky, and fatty treat and also some good-to-know caveats.