Bacon!? Yes, we know we’re mostly a beef company, but still, we couldn’t resist the allure of bacon.
Bacon has been traced back to China around 1500 BCE, where the Chinese cooked salted pork bellies, the first known ancestor to today’s bacon. Speculation has it that the Romans learned to salt-cure pork from Middle Easterners. The Roman’s version of bacon was called Petaso and was made by boiling salted pork with figs, then browning the roast and finally seasoning the mixture with a pepper sauce. Petaso was a staple of Roman peasants since there was abundant access to pork and the absence of refrigeration meant that salting was necessary to keep meat from spoiling. Couple that with the fact that salted pork tastes so darn good, and the long hold bacon has on humankind makes complete sense.
Who thought up this magic?
Like its ancestors, bacon is pork that is salt-cured and smoked (the innovation that makes bacon, bacon!). Curing meat is a way to preserve meat, using salt to deprive bacteria of water and disrupt their ability to function (get us sick!). The muscles of the meat lose moisture and absorb salt, adding flavor while keeping safe for months. Around the Middle Ages, cooks started adding saltpeter to their curing mixes. Saltpeter, gave meat a lasting red color, a pleasant flavor and improved shelf life and food safety. Saltpeter is KNO3, and NO3 is Nitrate, which salt-tolerant bacteria turn into NO2, Nitrite, the compound responsible for all the team saltpeter wins (it is also linked to cancer and the center of a rabid debate, to cure or not to cure?).
Nowadays, bacon makers use pure Nitrite to precisely control the levels to bring out the desired product. Even “naturally” cured products that don’t use pure Nitrites use Nitrites. They use the less precise naturally occurring Nitrites that exist in replacers like celery salt. The function is the same, but naturally occurring Nitrites have not received the bad PR that pure Nitrites have.
A really big win for curing is that the meat cells enzymatic functioning remains intact. This means, (and if you’re a regular reader you know this already!), that the complex compounds in meat are broken down over time into many different flavor compounds that, when allowed to build up over long periods of time like with cured hams, can bring out notes of melon, citrus, apples, flowers, and butter!
Once you cure your bacon, it’s time to smoke it! Smoking is one of the oldest forms of food preservation. It works by utilizing the hundreds of complex compounds in smoke to 1) kill bacteria 2) slow fat oxidation (rancidity) 3) add some down-home smokey flavor goodness. Smoking only affects the outside of the meat, so it’s a perfect partner for curing!
But… back to our history lesson. So we know how to make bacon, but how did we get from the Roman Petaso to Bacon? It appears we owe many thanks to the British for the last leg, though widespread peasant food is hard to track exactly. Remember, pork has been a cheap staple for peasants, and curing is necessary, so leave it to the scrappy English peasant to make a good dish a great dish.
Here’s an 18th Century English recipe for bacon for those of you who want to try at home (Copied from Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking):
“Bacon, to dry: Cut the Leg with a piece of Loin (of a young Hog) then with Salt-peter, in fine Pouder and brown Sugar mix’d together, rub it well daily for 2 or 3 days, after which salt it well; so will it look red: let it lye for 6 or 8 Weeks, then hang it up (in a drying-place) to dry.”
-William Salmon, The Family Dictionary: Or, Household Companion, London, 1710
So, how's it made?
The next innovation (ahem, commercialization) in bacon, came from John Harris in the late 18th century. He opened the first mass bacon processing plant in Wiltshire, where he developed the “Wiltshire Cure”, at first his cure was similar to the dry-cure described above, but eventually, it was changed to wet-cure, where meat was soaked in a solution to quicken the process (and to keep water weight, remember meat is sold by the pound). This method of wet-curing is the preferred method for almost all grocery store bacon, the pork is injected with a liquid solution (salt, water, Nitrites, spices) then into the smoker!
While it seems obvious, it’s worth talking about what makes bacon, bacon. Curing and smoking yes, but what cut? One of the first things I learned in the meat industry is that you can make bacon out of anything, any piece of meat from any animal. In fact, until the 14th century, bacon was the term used for any pork. The recipe above uses leg and loin and we all know what our brethren in the north use, lean loin. In these parts (the good old US of A), we think of bacon as cured and smoked pork belly.
Pig, same as me, store thick deposits of soft fat in their bellies. Bacon can be 50-60% fat, but it’s this ratio of fat to lean meat that makes bacon so perfect. We render out the fat, causing the meat to crisp up, scratching all our evolutionary driven taste desires (sweet, umami, fatty, salty) with a textural win to boot. It’s no wonder bacon is at almost every breakfast. Though, it wasn’t always.
Wait, we do what with bacon grease?
In the 1920s, Americans were starting to eat lighter breakfasts (coffee, cereal, OJ), and gone were the days of a hearty American breakfast. Enter Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR. Bernays was hired to increase demand for bacon, so he got 5000 doctors to agree to the statement that a big breakfast is better, healthwise, than a light breakfast, a big breakfast that included eggs, and of course, Bacon.
Just like that, Bacon was at every table, at every Holiday Inn, and in every American Heart. During World War II, the US military used bacon grease to create glycerin for munitions. Minnie Mouse and Pluto starred in a wartime short to tell all American households to save their bacon grease to help the boys (Mickey) on the front.
Now that you have a sense of bacon’s start, I encourage you to take the master class on bacon, that is, going out and eating as much as you can get your hands on. Take notes, you could be the next innovator in bacon. Oh and if you want to see a really disgusting video, here is Matt Stonie setting the Bacon Eating World Record for 182 strips in 5 minutes..but really, don’t, just go eat a normal amount of bacon in an enjoyable amount of time.
Check out our recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara with Corn and Beef Bacon