Add this fragrant treat to any dish
Who could guess that cured pork belly cut into thin strips would create the biggest food craze of the last two decades? No longer relegated to breakfast and BLTs, bacon now takes center stage in everything from doughnuts and jam to ice cream and chocolate. We can’t seem to get enough of it and who can blame us! The salty, crispy, scrumptious, sometimes smoky flavor is hard to resist. The aroma alone is enough to pull us into the kitchen morning, noon, and night.
Bacon got a bad rap in the 1970s and ’80s when everyone’s attention went to fat-free, no-nitrate, lower-sodium foods, and many of us made the responsible choice to limit the amount of bacon we consumed. While still not considered a healthy choice for everyday consumption, thank goodness most of us have released the guilt and given ourselves permission to enjoy this century-old favorite from time to time.
The resurgence of bacon’s popularity may have started when the Atkins diet took hold during the late 1990s. This high-protein, high-fat diet encouraged unlimited consumption of meats, including bacon, and something seemed to have flipped a switch in consumers’ heads. Sales of the savory meat rose and have continued to rise more than 10 percent every year since 2005. Chefs experimented, introducing it into all sorts of recipes, and the craze took off. Not only has bacon hit its stride in the culinary world, shelves are filled with items using bacon’s addictive scent—candles, shampoo, lip balm, and even massage oil; the list is endless. Some of the more interesting items we’ve seen lately include bacon-flavored vodka, chocolate-covered bacon strips, and bacon-flavored toothpaste. The American appetite for bacon has no limits.
Bacon has been a staple of the American diet since the first European settlers. Preserving pork for use during the long winter months made it essential in Colonial kitchens. The flavorful fat was carefully stored and used for frying, adding taste to items like potatoes. In the United States, bacon consumption followed a predictable, seasonal pattern. The bulk of sales came from home consumers, roadside diners, and pancake houses. Bacon was fried up with eggs for breakfast. In summer, though, sales surged with the annual tomato crop—peak season for Cobb salads, BLTs, and club sandwiches. When the tomato harvest dwindled in the fall, bacon retreated to the breakfast table until the next summer. Not so today—sales are consistent throughout the year and keep rising.
Bacon comes in many varieties. Maple flavored, lean, low sodium, thick, or center cut are just a few. Thick-sliced Canadian bacon is leaner than regular, and pancetta, an Italian-style bacon, is cured but not smoked, giving it a more intense, distinctive taste. Slab bacon is usually found at butcher shops. It comes in a large slab so you can slice it however thickly or thinly you want. Center-cut bacon is from the center portion of the belly, which has the most consistent ratio of fat to lean. This is the choice of many chefs, as it cooks more consistently and fries or bakes into beautiful, even strips.
Aficionados have their preferred methods of cooking bacon. You may want to experiment and see which you like best. Traditionalists prefer to cook their bacon in a cast-iron skillet on the stove top. Cast iron works well because it spreads the heat evenly and usually has high sides to keep grease splatters to a minimum, but any skillet will do. Use a set of tongs to grasp the hot slices and flip them. The downside is that some spattering still ends up beyond the pan, but this technique allows for more crispness control and somehow just seems right. Start with a cold pan and turn the bacon when it starts to release from the bottom. Always remove the grease between batches.
Oven baking is best for large amounts of bacon, because it is so much easier to clean up and frees the stove top for other uses. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with tinfoil or parchment paper. (You can also place a cooling rack on top of the foil and lay the bacon on the rack to bake. This allows the fat to drain fully, resulting in crisper, less greasy bacon.) Watch carefully and, when cooked to your liking, remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.
Finally, many folks like the convenience and speed of microwave cooking. This works well for just a few slices for a quick BLT or to crumble on top of a salad. Simply line a glass platter or dish with a few layers of paper towel and lay bacon slices on the towels and top with one layer of paper towel. Cook on high for a minute per slice. Remove from microwave when just about perfect, the bacon will continue to cook a bit more, and you can make it to your liking. Cleanup is a breeze!
While writing this story, we found an interesting note about the phrase, “bring home the bacon.” We figured bacon was a metaphor for a paycheck, but it turns out that it comes from the twelfth century, when a church in Dunmow, England, offered a side of bacon to any man who could swear before God and the congregation that he had not fought or quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. Any man that could “bring home the bacon” was highly respected in his community. Who knew?
One final note—possibly our favorite bacon dish is the lobster BLT in our café in York, Maine. If you haven’t tried it yet and are a true bacon fan, go now and enjoy!
Butternut Squash and Bacon Pizza
1⁄3 cup Stonewall Kitchen Butternut Squash Pasta Sauce or any creamy squash pasta sauce
3 tablespoons ricotta cheese
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
½ cup Brussels sprouts
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
½ pound homemade or store-bought pizza dough
½ cup baby bella mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
¼ cup roasted red bell pepper, thinly sliced
4 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled
1½ cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
1⁄3 cup baby kale
1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
2. Combine butternut squash pasta sauce, ricotta cheese, and Parmesan cheese. Stir until uniformly mixed. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
3. Trim stem ends of Brussels sprouts and remove damaged leaves. Cut in half if large. Toss with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread out on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the sprouts are crisp on the outside and tender inside.
4. Increase oven temperature to 450°F.
5. Sprinkle cornmeal over pizza stone or pan (preheat pan if crispy crust is desired). Place dough on top. Spread butternut squash cheese mixture over the dough to within an inch of the edge. Then layer Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, bell pepper, bacon, and mozzarella over the top. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the crust is crisp and golden. Sprinkle kale over pizza. Cut and serve.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta and Balsamic Glaze
1¼ pounds medium sized Brussels sprouts
4 ounces pancetta cut into ½-inch cubes
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
2. Using a small paring knife, cut off the end of each Brussels sprout and peel off the outer leaves.
3. Place sprouts in a 9" x 12" glass baking dish. Drizzle the olive oil over the sprouts and salt and pepper generously. Stir to coat the sprouts with oil.
4. Add the pancetta and bake for 15 minutes. Stir the sprouts and bake for another 15 minutes. Drizzle the sprouts with the vinegar and bake an additional 10 minutes or until the sprouts are tender and the pancetta is browned.