Is bacon the perfect food? Many would argue yes, and indeed it is, but not quite in the way you'd expect.
In our turbulent times, many have sought refuge in bacon's fatty smoke, treating it as a centerpiece and eating it as the quivering, coronary-inducing heart of a meal. Perhaps this was a viable tactic if you were a laborer in the early 20th Century, when disease or poor working conditions could cut your life short. We'd take a bacon sandwich too. But in our era, there is no such excuse, and the symbiotic overproduction and falling quality of bacon pulled it further away from its core purpose.
Bacon is a flavor enhancer, and a powerful one at that. It's the focus of BLT sandwiches — the perfect complement to a ripe, sweet tomato. Imagine pasta carbonara without bacon, or pancetta or guanciale — bacon's dry-cured cousins whose rendered fat helps emulsify the sauce. Bacon is essential to braised collard greens and fried rice. It can be used to crisp potatoes, or its rendering can create vinaigrette for potato salads, a bacon-fat Bolognese, or bacon-fat mayo.
But before you get started, it's critical to know what you're working with and where to find the good stuff. In Miami today, it's a cinch, because restaurants and butchers are making their own thousand-pound batches. We went, as George Jung said, straight to the source and got some education from James Bowers of Miami Smokers and Jason Schoendorfer of Babe's Meat & Counter.
It's All About the Cut
The bacon we're most accustomed to in the United States is what's known as streaky bacon, the stripes of interchanging fat and meat that come from the pig's belly and run parallel to the rind. Of course, life is about choices, and butchers aren't limited to bellies. There's back bacon, which also contains meat from the loin of the pig. You may or may not have heard of rasher bacon, a meatier, leaner style of bacon that includes loin meat and a bit of belly. Bowers made it for places such as Threefold Cafe thanks to the Australian spot's connection to the United Kingdom, where rasher remains omnipresent. There's also collar bacon and jowl bacon, of which guanciale is a member. Remember that bacon isn't necessarily limited to the pig, and it's as much about the process as it is the source. Don't hesitate if you see something like beef or duck bacon. What's important to remember is that the more kinds of house-made bacon you see, the closer you are to the real deal. "When we made rasher bacon, we were able to do that because we were butchering whole pigs and cutting it to spec," Bowers says. "It's not something you can really order."
Look for the Cure
The second essential step in bacon creation is seasoning and preserving it for the long haul. Bacon harks back to a time thousands of years before refrigeration, when those who handled food had to find a way to use it past freshness. The first instance of salted pork belly appeared as far back as 1500 BCE in China. Today there are two most common methods: one using sea salt and one using curing salt. Though some people prefer the more natural sea salt to curing salt, the latter is responsible for bacon's deep rosy color and enables cooks and butchers more control over the production process. At Babe's, the cure sometimes includes Cuban coffee or delicate herbs de Provence. Bowers wouldn't divulge much about Smokers' blend, yet the two ingredients somewhat lined up at the next step, in which the cure is allowed to envelop the pork bellies for several days until they penetrate the meat. "We use the saltbox method. I take five whole bellies, mix the cure recipe, coat every belly, then place them in bins. Every couple of days, I go through and flip all the bellies to make sure any liquid brine is back in contact," Schoendorfer says. Next, both spots hang their bacon (with Miami Smokers taking a few extra days) to dry out the bellies, first to concentrate their flavor and then to create a dry surface for smoke to cling to.
Smoke Until You Can't
Here, bacon makers are again presented with a choice: hot versus cold. The former, which is what Schoendorfer uses, somewhat cooks the bellies, resulting in strips of bacon that can be scented with a variety of different, more volatile woods that won't shrink as much in the pan. Supermarket bacon undergoes few of the above processes and is little more than injected with a curing solution, hence the reason fat strips from the package turn into little shriveled curls while they cook. At Smokers, Bowers opts for the cold smoke, which allows him greater control of the smokiness of the final product.
Perhaps the thing to do is try them all, and perhaps one day soon we might even see some sort of vegetable bacon. Babe's bacon that's seasoned with black pepper maple, coffee, and herbs de Provence costs $15.99 per pound; jowl goes for $19.99; and Canadian and buckboard run $16.99. Miami Smokers' bacon costs $13.99 per pound and can be delivered, allowing you to snag premium bacon without ever having to put on real clothes. What a time to be alive.