– Or: This entry is not for my vegan friends
Right, because the traditional form of bacon is very much not vegan friendly. There are versions of bacon-things that are vegan friendly and the science behind them blows my mind.
This post isn’t about them.
Anyone who has known me for more than about 5 minutes knows that if I had to pick a favorite food, it would be bacon. Easily. No contest. My father at one point when asked on a medical questionnaire was asked to cite his favorite food and he put “bacon” down. Old country Polish father generally did not put much stock into taste and indulgence where food is concerned – he grew up in a region and a time period where having food at all was a luxury sometimes but that’s another story for another time – but oh my goodness did he like bacon.
Which pretty much meant growing up with it around at times. Not all the time, just frequently enough to develop an appreciation for it.
It wasn’t until sometime during this last year when I wanted to try and think about why it tastes so delicious to me (and apparently everyone else who thinks so too). Turns out there’s a whole bevy* of science behind it and it’s surprisingly interesting in analysis!
So let’s talk nerdy.
*yes I probably misused ‘bevy’ there but I really really wanted to so here we are.
So what exactly is bacon?
This is probably the part where my vegan friends want to go find any other blog ever. (:
The whole thing starts with pork belly. The ratio of meat and fat in said belly cut tends to work really well for the purposes of slicing and cooking in various forms; oven baked, pan fried, thrown bare on the grill if you like watching things get set on fire. Those proportions look something like 50-55% lean, 45-50% fat. Pretty darn close to equal when all is said and done.
Although sometimes a package of slices kiiiiiiiiiiinda looks more like 70% fat and 30% meat. Makes you wonder how you’re going to convince the kids that it’s a) bacon and b) still ok to eat.
The pork belly having been acquired is then typically salt cured for somewhere in the neighborhood of seven days, after which voila! You have a slab of bacon ready for slicing.
That, in a nutshell – or a ceramic pan that was in the fridge for a week – is bacon. More on the curing process!
Let’s talk more about the bacon / salt curing process
As mentioned above, the cut of meat is cured in salt for roughly seven days. There are SO MANY THINGS you can add to this process to change the entire flavor profile.
Everything from “cake the thing in salt, flip it a few times, YA DONE” to This Very Elaborate Flavor Profile version and a whole lot in between.
But it all comes back to salt. At the base level, salt does a spectacular job of sucking the moisture out of foods that can spoil over time – like, say, meat – and in doing so it makes an environment that is deadly to bacteria by also extracting water out of their cell walls. Bacteria like meat almost as much as we do and once they get their grubby little paws in it the meat will end up spoiling. The combination of drying out the meat product – and this can apply to so many different kinds from steak to chicken to salmon and sausage and on and on – and destroying the souls of those unfortunate bacteria are how we are able to consume those meats without breaking Rule #1, which is “Don’t Death.”
There are -rules-. I think we’ve been over them before. But yes, the dominant of those rules is Don’t Death.
Since eating meat that has been mussed up by bacteria could potentially kill you, we’re back to salt curing.
Salt curing goes way back. By 200 BC, salt curing was already in action in the Greek and Roman empires. Allegedly the Romans learned it from the Greeks but I couldn’t find a YouTube video from that era proving it. Given that those Greeks didn’t do too bad with inventing modern civilization, their meat curing techniques are probably fair to trust.
Nerdy science nerd stuff
We can juswt say “sugar + fat + salt = OM NOM NOM NOM. Ship it. Call it a day. But that’s probably not quite nerdy enough. Or at least not the same type of nerdy enough. Let’s learn some Big Words.
Some of it has to do with what is referred to as the Maillard Reaction. Based on research from 1912 it is a subject that discusses the chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that give seared meats their unique (and often irresistible) flavor.
Scientific research confirming the existence of a sixth basic taste in “fat” brings out some other terms that are interesting to note that happen in the cooking of bacon:
- Furans – has a sweet and nutty categorization. It has a scent to it at higher temperatures that, oddly, is also found in coffee and processed baby food. Two things that were not on my bingo list as being associated in any way beyond needing more coffee to survive the feeding ritual of a small creature ingesting processed baby food.
- Aldehydes – Important in technological and biological circles. Traces of several types are found in essential oils and contribute to things that smell nice. Remember how nice bacon smells? This also contributes to it. Sometimes described as “grassy,” I’m a bit confused on that and will have to look into it deeper later.
- Ketones – has nothing to do with music. Categorized as “buttery.” It wins by virtue of my other obsession with butter.
The fatty acids will break down as the heat increases and will interact with the meaty portions. This scenario is what releases the precise combination of the above compounds aroma into the air which our noses react to as “pardon me, sir, may I have some more?”
A word of caution regarding bacon and other processed meats
A couple of things that are probably worth mentioning. The sodium level of bacon – by nature of salt curing – is off the charts. Four strips of average sodium – Costco makes a lower sodium version that doesn’t suck – is roughly close to half the recommended salt intake for an entire day for the average adult. Crispy crunchy hypertension in a delicious strip package. So as much as it’s delicious and I know I could personally eat an entire plate of it without batting an eyelash, some moderation is probably in order.
Then there’s the conversation surrounding the association between processed meats and cancer. For that, I’m going to defer to some outside articles to handle that discussion. Forbes has a less morbid take on it while Cancer.org comes out swinging with a much more doom-and-gloom perspective.
I’m certainly not going to make any recommendations one way or another. That would be bonkers. Quite a bit of what ingest should be tempered by our overall health and any specific conditions. If heart failure is your jam, maybe bacon shouldn’t be a staple. That kind of thing.
I … uhh … really like bacon. I actually learned a whole bunch about it looking into the topic and probably only scratched the surface of all the nuances. But yeah! It’s a very tasteful topic when all is said and done and I hope you enjoyed going down that rabbit hole with me.
Until next week!
-= george =-