Start With A Quality Product
Can there be any doubt about the allure of bacon? Or the oft repeated fact that bacon makes everything better?
Bacon happens to be the first food I learned to cook. Back when I was about seven years old, I used to beg for bacon at breakfast, lunch, and supper. Finally, my long-suffering mother broke down and taught me how to cook it myself so that she wouldn't have to deal with my constant demands for what the USDA defines as “the cured belly of a swine carcass.” Such an inelegant description of ambrosia!
Since I intend here to instruct on the cooking of bacon rather than to expound on its character, I won't go into the different types of bacon (back bacon, jowl bacon, cottage bacon, middle bacon, streaky bacon), or the different curing processes (dry cured, wet cured, sugar cured, applewood smoked, hickory smoked, unsmoked). Let's just assume we're dealing with ordinary strips, slices, or rashers of good old grocery store bacon.
Well, let me stop myself there for a minute: the best way to cook bacon is to start with a quality product. Generally speaking, that means looking beyond the meat counter at the grocery store. That's not to say you can't find good bacon at the supermarket. In the U.S., Oscar Mayer is probably the top of the line national brand, but Hormel makes some good stuff and there are lots and lots of other fine quality national and regional brands to choose from. Local and store brands are an "iffy" proposition. Publix has an excellent private label bacon, but I have not found many other store brands that compare favorably to the more expensive name brands. And none of the local, regional, or national brands compare with the exceptional product being produced by artisans like Tennessee's Allen Benton. Benton's Bacon, procured only online or at the Benton's SmokyMountain Country Hams smokehouse in Madisonville, Tennessee, will change your life. There's a reason Michelin starred chefs from coast to coast swear by the stuff. Iowa's Vande Rose Farms also produces a superior bacon as do the folks at Neuske's in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, these products – when and where you can find them – are gonna cost you more than the common brands. You can't buy quality bacon for a dollar a pound.
Case in point: I have a relative who is absolutely, positively convinced that store brands and economy brands are every bit as good as name brands. I can't convince him that saving pennies on the cheapest stuff he can buy sometimes winds up costing more in the long run. So when I went shopping with him, I bought a pound of Hormel Black Label bacon and he bought his usual cut rate store brand. I cooked up batches of both and laid them out side by side on a plate. My bacon had minimal shrinkage. Each piece cooked up to a length of between five and six inches. It retained a nice even strip of lean meat throughout. It cooked evenly and had a wonderful, rich, smoky flavor. His bacon shrank down to uneven little pieces of curled up fat barely three inches in length with practically no lean meat on them. And it was absolutely flavorless. But, by golly, it was sixty-five cents cheaper than my Hormel! You get what you pay for.
Okay, back to the kitchen. You've chosen your bacon, now choose your cooking medium. I learned to cook bacon on a steel flat top grill plate, and I've used everything from electric griddles to toaster ovens to broilers to non-stick cookware. And, of course, there is always the microwave. But for my money, nothing works better than frying up your bacon on the stovetop. And for that, nothing beats cast iron. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet or griddle and bacon are just made for each other.
Begin by taking your bacon out of the refrigerator ten or fifteen minutes before you intend to use it. The slices will separate a little easier. If you must use fresh from the fridge cold bacon, a rubber spatula or the dull side of a butter knife slid along the length of the slices with a slight rocking motion should help separate them neatly.
Start with a cold pan. This will help reduce the amount of splattering. Splattering occurs in part because of the quick salt-brining wet-cure method used by most of today's meat processors. The liquid soaks into the meat, and when water hits hot oil – well, you know what happens. Starting cold and cooking low and slow will keep the snapping, crackling, and popping to a minimum.
Low and slow is always the way to go. Never exceed medium-low to medium heat. Bacon can go from barely cooked to barely edible in about two seconds if you're not careful. Watch it carefully and turn it frequently. Now, some people use tongs or a fork to turn bacon. I use a standard kitchen turner. Some people call it a pancake turner, others just call it a spatula. Whatever you call it, here's why I use it instead of a fork or tongs; not only can I turn the bacon over cleanly and easily, I can also press it down. Pressing the bacon while cooking it keeps the slices from curling up and produces nice flat, evenly cooked slices. They sell bacon presses to do the job, some of them cutely shaped like pigs, but I just press down with my turner to get the same effect.
From the “did you know” department; did you know that older bacon cooks – and burns – quicker than fresh bacon? So watch the stuff from the package you opened last week. And, obviously, thick sliced bacon cooks more slowly than thin.
Don't overcrowd your pan. Cooking in small batches might take longer, but it will yield better quality results. Some people cut the slices in half. Meh. Leave 'em long. They're gonna shrink anyway. If you're going to make several batches, drain off the excess grease in the pan after each batch. Or after every other batch at most. Otherwise, you're basically shallow-frying the bacon in its own grease and it won't come out as nice and crispy that way.
As with most cooking techniques, practice makes perfect. Only you know how soft or crisp you like your bacon. It's a real challenge when I make breakfast for a particular couple of friends. He likes his bacon really soft, barely cooked. She likes it crisped, but not overdone, which is the way I prefer it, too. My wife, however, likes hers cooked really crisp, almost to the point of burning. I usually manage to please everyone. It's all a matter of watching and timing.
Finally, remove the bacon from the pan and lay it out on a double layer of paper towels. Allow the towels to absorb the grease and blot it off the top of the slices, as well. If the cooked bacon is going to have to sit for awhile while you cook eggs, make toast, or whatever, you might try setting your oven on "warm" and sticking the bacon in there on a plate to keep it nice and warm for serving.
Another increasingly popular method involves the oven for actually cooking the bacon rather than just keeping it warm. I've done it this way and I am not a real fan of the method. It's commonly done in high-volume restaurant kitchens and it is cleaner and more convenient if you're cooking a lot of bacon. But there's something about the texture. I can always tell pan fried bacon from oven baked.
If you really must cook your bacon in the oven, set your rack in the middle portion of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°. Lay your bacon out on a rimmed baking pan lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Better yet, a slotted broiler pan, if you have one. If not, a wire rack placed in the baking pan works, too. Using the rack or the slotted pan allows the grease to drip away as the bacon cooks rather than having the bacon poach in its grease. The bacon will be crisper when cooked on the rack and softer directly on the pan. Your preference. Once the oven once reaches temperature, place the pan on the center rack and cook the bacon for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on it. If too much fat starts to accumulate, take the pan out and drain it off. When it's done, remove the bacon and drain it on paper towels.
The advantages to this method are many: you can cook a lot of bacon at once – a whole pound, if you want; the bacon will cook absolutely flat with no curling; you don't have to turn it or tend it; there's more space on the stovetop for other things; and cleanup is a breeze. All that said, it's still my second favorite method. Call me stubborn and old-fashioned.
My least favorite way to cook bacon is the microwave. Yeah, it cooks in a jiffy, but the results are.....unpalatable at best. The only time I cook bacon in the microwave is if I'm going to crumble it for “bacon bits” in a salad or on a baked potato. The microwave excels at making bacon dry and crunchy.
If you really, really must use the microwave, you can either employ one of those nifty, grooved microwave bacon cookers you see on TV or you can just use a microwave safe plate. Either way, lay the bacon out so its not touching. Otherwise it will fuse into a large, crispy mass and be very difficult to separate. Cover the bacon with a paper towel, unless you're really into cleaning the microwave. Just lay the towel over the bacon gently. Don't press it down or you'll have loads of fun trying to remove the little bits of paper towel that will invariably cook into your bacon. Rule of thumb; one minute cooking time per slice. But, as all the microwave instructions disclaim, microwave temperatures do vary according to the power of the oven, so watch it carefully. If it looks like it needs a little more cook time, do so in 30 second intervals. You'd be surprised how much difference there is between 30 and 45 seconds. I've had bacon go from soggy to rigor mortis in that little interval. Watch it. No need to drain, but get the cooked bacon off the paper towels as quickly as possible. The bacon is likely still cooking for a few seconds after you take it out of the microwave and it will cook itself right onto your paper towels if you don't remove it quickly. And be careful; that plate and those greasy paper towels are going to be hot.
There you have it: fry your bacon for best results, bake it if you're cooking a lot and want easy cleanup, and microwave it only when you're desperate.
James Beard said it: “There are few sights that appeal to me more than the streaks of lean and fat in a good side of bacon, or the lovely round of pinkish meat framed in delicate white fat that is Canadian bacon. Nothing is quite as intoxicating as the smell of bacon frying in the morning, save perhaps the smell of coffee brewing.” But that's another subject entirely.