From Center Cut to Smoked, Consider This Your Ultimate Guide to Bacon
Everything tastes better with bacon, but the question is which kind? There's a wide selection of options at the grocery store, so what should you look for? Here, our ultimate guide to the different categories, cuts, and cures—and how to cook each of them to sizzling perfection.
First, an insider tip: "Bacon freezes so well," says assistant food editor Riley Wofford. "I'll buy a pack and separate the strips, then store them in groups of two or three, so I can pull out what I need and defrost it in the fridge overnight."
Pick a Style
There are three common types of bacon: slab, guanciale, and pancetta. Slab bacon is cured and smoked pork belly. You can buy it in a package of precut strips or get it from the butcher by the pound and slice it yourself. Another delicious idea? Chop it into matchsticks to fry into lardons (homemade bacon bits!). We like Smithfield Hometown Original ($6.60, walmart.com) for breakfast and BLTs and Boar's Head Butcher Craft Extra Thick Cut ($7.99, target.com) for lardons.
Then there's guanciale, or cured (and sometimes smoked) pork jowl. Called for in classic bucatini all'amatriciana, it's tender, meaty, and flavorful, but harder to find—look for it in Italian specialty stores or online. We suggest Smoking Goose Jowl ($9.95, smokinggoose.com), which is cured with a rub of black pepper and coriander.
Last but not least is pancetta, a cured (but not smoked) pork belly that's then rolled into a log. Its flavor is more delicate than bacon's, and it's wonderful cubed and cooked as the base for soups, pasta, or risotto. La Quercia ($9.99, igourmet.com) is rich, tasty, and made from heritage Berkshire hogs.
Decoding the Label
What exactly does uncured mean? Just how thick is thick-cut? We break down the language so you can buy the best type for your taste.
First, let's discuss the cut. This term gets used in two different ways: Center-cut means the bacon is from the middle of the pork belly, close to the bone, where it's about 25 to 30 percent leaner, while thick-cut refers to a slice's thickness. Regular bacon is 1∕16 inch thick, while thick-cut is often twice that or more (it varies by brand). Thicker bacon is meatier and has great chew, but doesn't always turn out as crispy as the thinner style.
Now, let's talk about the cure. All bacon is cured, or preserved with salt—even ones labeled "uncured." This term just means that instead of being injected with man-made nitrates and a salt solution, the product contains nitrates found naturally in vegetables, such as celery and beets. In traditional curing, bacon is rubbed with salt, sugar, and spices, and then sits for at least a week, while commercially made bacon is generally wet-brined (cured in a saltwater solution).
Finally, let's discuss smoke. Bacon is usually heated over a wood fire to give it that smoky flavor. Look for the terms naturally smoked or hardwood-smoked—otherwise the taste likely came from a chemical-laden liquid smoke. Are mesquite or applewood versions that much tastier than regular? Our food editors notice a slightly smokier taste in mesquite strips. If it's not labeled, it's probably smoked over hickory, and that tastes pretty darn delicious, too.
Cook It Right
How do you like to cook your bacon? Martha likes the sheet-pan method: Lay strips in a single layer (skip parchment; it won't contain the grease) and bake at 400° for 15 to 18 minutes. No need to flip. Drain on a wire rack or paper towels, and save the fat in the fridge to cook eggs or roast potatoes. If you want to cook bacon on the stove top, arrange it in a cold frying pan and turn the heat to medium. Starting cold lets the fat render slowly, so it won't curl up too fast or leave some spots rubbery.
Styling by Pearl Jones