Photograph by Isa Zapata, Prop Styling by Emma Ringness, Food Styling by Taneka Morris
In our Taste Test series, Bon Appétit editors conduct blind comparisons to discover the best supermarket staples (like vanilla ice cream or frozen pizza). Today, which bacon will steal your heart?
Enjoying bacon was a personality trait for a few years in the 2010s. (Remember bacon milkshakes and chocolate-covered bacon?) But even if it’s not in the spotlight, bacon has staying power because at the end of the day it just plain tastes good. Over a decade later it’s still living large on menus across the country—and it’s still a staple in our kitchens at home.
Take a stroll down the packaged meats aisle in your local grocery store and you’re likely to be inundated with bacon options. There are different curing techniques, smoking processes, and cuts. And there’s also Canadian bacon, turkey bacon, and vegan bacon, which are a story for another day. Here we’re focusing on American-style bacon made with pork.
Even if the labels claim otherwise, all bacon is cured. Curing bacon extends its shelf life and affects how the product tastes. But this process has become less popular in recent years, as health-conscious consumers try to limit nitrate intake. Some bacon is labeled “uncured,” even though it undergoes a curing process, because the USDA only considers bacon cured if it’s cured using synthetic nitrates. So “uncured” bacon is cured using naturally occurring nitrites in things like fruits, vegetables, and sea salt. (The terms nitrates and nitrites refer to sodium nitrite and potassium nitrate, both curing agents used in meat manufacturing.)
When we asked tasters to describe their ideal piece of bacon, the first thing they mentioned was flavor. Bacon should have a hefty, meaty taste—fatty but not too fatty. It should be salty, not overly sweet, and each bite should have an initial crunch, with a slight chew and minimal crumbs.
We blind tasted seven popular brands, choosing what’s widely available in grocery stores, including generic options. While you can cook bacon in a skillet or even the microwave, we love the hands-off approach of the oven. We cooked several slices from each brand in a 400° oven on wire racks over baking sheets until they were browned and crispy. Though the thicknesses of the products were comparable, there were subtle variations, so we closely monitored their progress for even cooking.
Many of them we’d kick out of bed—we have high standards!—but two of them we’d invite back, with eggs, pancakes, and maybe even a mimosa.
Not Our Favorite: Boar’s Head Traditional
What’s inside: A notable ingredient here is sodium erythorbate. When you see sodium erythorbate on a bacon package, you know it was cured using a method called pumping, in which the curing chemicals are injected directly into the meat. Since this method introduces more moisture into the bacon, it’s more likely to shrink as it cooks.
The verdict: Sometimes settling on rankings in our taste tests is tough. Opinions clash. Finding a consensus takes a while. That was not the case with Boar’s Head bacon. The company, which was founded nearly 120 years ago, mostly sells cold cuts and sausages, though it also offers items like hummus and cheese. Senior test kitchen editor Shilpa Uskokovic noted that there was lots of fat, and senior test kitchen editor Jesse Szewczyk said it “tastes like eating a dirty fryer.” Other tasters described the same rancid flavor.
Sadly Disintegrating: Oscar Mayer Original
What’s inside: Generally, a bacon’s ingredients list will only mention the ingredients that are used to cure the bacon. (That’s right, the pig gets no credit.) Oscar Mayer uses a fairly standard set of ingredients for industrial-cured bacon: water, salt, sugar, sodium phosphate, sodium ascorbate, and sodium nitrite.
The verdict: We want crispy. We want crunchy. We do not want bacon that shatters into bits on the first bite, as Oscar Mayer’s did. Based in Chicago, Oscar Mayer is primarily known for making hot dogs (and for its infamous Wienermobile), so we had high hopes for its bacon. Senior service editor Kelsey Jane Youngman found that a bite of bacon coated her mouth in grease, and associate cooking and SEO editor Zoe Denenberg said it “disintegrates.” We appreciated the nice saltiness, but there wasn’t enough umami to stand up to, say, eggs, cheese, and ketchup in your morning BEC.
Tough and Thick: Trader Joe’s Uncured Apple Smoked
What’s inside: Unlike a lot of the other bacons we tested, Trader Joe’s contains turbinado sugar and “spice extractives,” both in theory for a delicious taste. It is also, per Trader Joe’s description, “thickly sliced.”
The verdict: First bites of Trader Joe’s bacon revealed two things. The first was good: There was a robust, smoky, meaty flavor. The second was less good: This bacon was tough, with a little too much resistance. Shilpa called it “weirdly dry,” and said it was almost like jerky. While we like thick bacon, this erred on the side of too thick.
Mightily Meaty: Smithfield Center Cut Applewood Smoked
What’s inside: Many of the bacons we tested are labeled as uncured, but not Smithfield. That means synthetic nitrates were used in its curing process, confirmed by their appearance in the ingredient list. Synthetic nitrates aren’t worse for your body than naturally occurring ones, they’re just cheaper for food suppliers.
The verdict: A robust meaty flavor was the first thing our tasters looked for in the taste test, and unfortunately that’s where Smithfield fell flat. Smithfield is America’s largest pork producer, and as of 2013, is a subsidiary of Chinese food processing company WH Group. Shilpa described the bacon as “almost tasteless,” and Jesse said it had an “almost false flavor.” It tasted, he said, like something bacon-flavored, as opposed to actual bacon. The texture fluctuated between crunchy and flaccid.
Sweet and Salty: Jimmy Dean Applewood Smoked Premium
What’s inside: After it finishes curing, bacon is usually smoked with hickory or applewood. Hickory characteristically gives the bacon a more insistent smoky flavor, while Applewood is more mild.
The verdict: A great piece of bacon is a balancing act. Too little fat and the bacon tastes flat. Too much fat and each bite feels slick and oily. It’s a fine line that Jimmy Dean crossed. (This company was indeed founded by Jimmy Dean, the country western singer, who apparently loved sausage so much he created his own sausage company.) Zoe described her piece as “ribbons of fat with one shred of pork,” but other tasters said they enjoyed the salty-sweet taste. As Jesse said, this one would be nice for crumbling over sweet desserts.
Perfectly Crisp: Good & Gather No Sugar Uncured
What’s inside: Many bacon brands add a sweetener like sugar or maple syrup to contrast the salty savoriness. Good & Gather’s label announces to the world that they forgo that step. That said, their ingredients list does mention fermented rice extract powder, which contains rice malt. That contributes a “negligible amount of sugar,” per the package.
The verdict: It was a strong showing for Good & Gather, Target’s own-label that says its products are made “without artificial flavors, synthetic colors, artificial sweeteners, and high-fructose corn syrup.” In the end, it landed in second place—a respectable ranking in our very competitive taste test. It wowed us on texture. Our tasters said Good & Gather’s slices were just thick enough. Not tough, not brittle—sitting in that Goldilocks range of crispy meets chewy. The flavor was salty and savory, but we wished it was a little smokier. That’s where our winner stole the spotlight.
The Whole Package: Whole Foods 365 Uncured Center Cut Smokehouse
What’s inside: This ingredients list is rather simple: pork, water, sea salt, and evaporated cane sugar. Those last three ingredients are used during the curing process for flavor and shelf life.
The verdict: It was love at first bite. Our tasters went bananas for the just-crisp-enough wonder that was Whole Foods’ Uncured Center Cut Smokehouse Bacon. Jesse even went so far as to declare it “looked beautiful,” with a rich golden brown color and a delicate shine under the test kitchen lights. Each bite was savory and salty, with a whisper of sweetness. It was thick enough to have the slightest chew, but thin enough to give tasters a satisfying crackle. It reminded Shilpa of the bacon you get at an old-school diner. “You want toast and eggs with it,” she said happily nibbling on her second bite.
Bacon, egg, and pasta
Simple Pasta CarbonaraClaire Saffitz
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit
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