Bring Home Better Bacon

Americans consumed more than $2 billion worth of bacon last year, but the tastiest stuff is made by a small group of artisanal producers

Bacon is the food people hate to love.

It must also be the most politically incorrect food in the culinary world. The Talmud prohibits its consumption, as does the Koran. It's loaded with nitrates, salts, and the worst kinds of animal fat. But still we keep on eating it—$2 billion worth annually in the U.S. according to the National Pork Board, the Other White Meat people. Why? Because it tastes so very good.

The lure is that exquisite combination of intense, concentrated, sweet pork fat, along with salt and smoke. There's something very basic and primal about bacon's flavor. It seems to hark back to a simpler, more agrarian past when most of the population was in close contact with the land.

Pigging Out in Kentucky

A few years ago I took part in a whiskey tour through Kentucky and, while the whiskey was wonderful and the locals were friendly and open-handed, the food left something to be desired. Except the bacon. We stayed at a series of high-end, antique-filled, B&B's. Each morning we were greeted by a full breakfast, the highlight of which was, inevitably, some of the best bacon I have ever tasted. I always inquired from whence it came and the answer would always be a small, local, family-owned smokehouse.

But these artisanal producers represent only a tiny fraction of the huge bacon industry, itself only a part of the larger business of raising and slaughtering pigs. America consumed 737 million pounds of bacon in 2006, according to the Des Moines-based National Pork Board. That's $2 billion worth of bacon, up from $1.8 billion worth in 2000.

And bacon, unlike many other foods, hasn't gotten more expensive. One might think that with the general rise in commodity prices and with ethanol demand pushing up the price of corn, pigs' preferred nosh, that the price of pork bellies (what bacon starts out as) would be up also, but this isn't the case.

Sizzling Surpluses

On Mar. 14, 14-lb.-to-16 lb. pork bellies closed at $0.69 a pound, down 5¢ since the Mar. 5 quote, and down 29¢ from a year earlier. This is entirely due to excess inventory—cold storage stocks on Jan. 31 were 68.5 million pounds, up 48% from levels of a year earlier. So even if you do feel guilty frying up your favorite fatback, it won't be because you're overspending for it.

Bacon is such an American staple that more than half of U.S. households—53%—report always having bacon on hand and, despite its demonization by the food police, per capita consumption in the U.S. rose from 16.8 lbs. per person in 1998 to 17.9 lbs. in 2007. Most of this growth has occurred not in the home but in restaurants—and not as a breakfast food.

According to Jarrod Sutton of the National Pork Board, "The food-service industry has led bacon growth by adding bacon where it hasn't been before. It's not just a breakfast entrée anymore. Bacon is becoming more popular as part of the other two meals…it's become a complementary item to salads, sandwiches, and baked potatoes."

Local Smokehouses

Most of the bacon supplying this demand is commercial bacon made by such large-scale producers as Kraft Food's (KFT) Oscar Meyer and Hormel (HRL). It's perfectly tasty stuff, and millions of people enjoy it every day, but there is one small section of the bacon industry that functions differently, with less emphasis on speed and cost and more on perfecting quality. This is where I looked for America's best bacon.

It can be called the craft or artisanal bacon business and, while small, it is growing, reflecting similar trends in other food categories and even beer. As Mike Satzow of North Country Smokehouse in Claremont, N.H., explains "We work on a much smaller scale. We cure our bellies in an expensive brine with real maple syrup in it and let it sit for a minimum of three days before we smoke it."

This is in contrast to commercial producers where the whole process can take as little as six or eight hours. Some producers even microwave bacon, and then spray it with liquid smoke. Their priority is to produce bacon as quickly and as cheaply as possible while maintaining a minimum level of quality. A large plant can do a million pounds of bacon a day and their concern is getting it in and out in the minimum amount of time. Satzow, by contrast, smokes about 7,000 lbs. a day.

He believes that "Industrial bacon producers use a whole different philosophy than we do." For example, he starts with smaller pigs because they are leaner and have more flavor, even though they are more expensive per pound. An industrial producer is primarily concerned with weight while North Country and the other producers focus more on quality, as exemplified by such factors as the lean-to-fat ratio.

Satzow smokes his bacon for 10 or 12 hours with real applewood chips, at higher temperatures than commercial smokehouses. This produces more flavorful bacon, but at the cost of yield because of increased water loss.

These are just a few of the factors that make America's best bacon so lip-smackingly tasty and differentiate it from the supermarket variety. You can find a selection of ten of the best in the accompanying slideshow.

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