Not Worth All The Internet Hype
Every now and then, some well-meaning somebody attempts, with varying degrees of success, to reinvent the wheel. Take bacon, for example. (And I'll take bacon whenever I can get it!) Seems like you can't turn around anymore without somebody telling you they've come up with yet another “perfect” way to cook bacon.
I'm sorry, but as I've written before and will write again, there is only one “perfect” way to cook bacon: slap it down on a flattop or in a frying pan, turn the heat up to medium, and let it fry. Baking it in the oven is fine if you're making massive quantities and microwaving it is okay if you're wanting to cook it up for bacon bits or some kind of garnish. But if you simply want to lay a few strips of perfectly cooked, crispy, divine, heavenly bacon out on a plate next to its natural companions, eggs, hash browns, and toast, there's really only one way to go.
Unfortunately, the otherwise reliable innovators at America's Test Kitchen have attempted to introduce a “better” way to cook everybody’s favorite porcine ambrosia: in water. Yeah, you read right; the test geeks want you to boil your bacon.
Seems the point of this pointless exercise is twofold: to appease those odd people who object to the smell of frying bacon permeating the entire house and to satisfy the clean freaks who don't like bacon spattering up their stovetop. To achieve these desired (?) results, the test cooks first immersed the bacon in water.
Why would you do such a counter-intuitive thing? According to the test kitchen experts, writing in Cook's Illustrated magazine, “The addition of water keeps the initial cooking temperature low and gentle, so the meat retains its moisture and stays tender. By the time the water reaches its boiling point (212 degrees), the bacon fat is almost completely rendered, so you’re also much less likely to burn the meat while waiting for the fat to cook off.”
And here's how they say you should proceed to accomplish this feat:
“Place the bacon (in strips or cut into pieces) and just enough water to cover it in a skillet over high heat. When the water reaches a boil, lower the heat to medium. Once all of the water has simmered away, turn down the heat to medium-low and continue cooking until the bacon is crisp and well browned. This way, the meat plumps up as it cooks instead of shriveling, leaving the bacon pleasantly crisp, not tough or brittle.”
Since this radical information hit the streets, the Internet has gone absolutely wild with reprints of the technique. I must have seen at least ten websites and blogs touting the glories of cooking bacon in water. But does it work?
I read articles in news.com.au and in Epicurious in which testers were less than impressed. Aussie testers found that bacon cooked by this method wasn't all it was cracked up to be. For instance, as the water began to boil, the lovely, unctuous bacon fat began to dissolve into an “unappetising [sic] white foam” that floated on the surface of the water. The foam eventually disappeared once the water had evaporated, but it left a sticky sludge behind that coated the now somewhat plumper bacon. According to the Australian testers, the water method ultimately produced a drier, darker finished product that was, indeed, crisper, “but in a way that made it less enjoyable to eat.” In their opinion, “It had developed the consistency reminiscent of beef jerky.”
Epicurious testers agreed that the water-cooked bacon was crispy, but found it to be thinner and less salty in the end and recommended that you only employ the “improved” method when you want to use bacon as a garnish on another dish.
After seeing these results, I was ready to dismiss the entire silly “water cooking” notion out of hand. But I knew that in the interest of honest evaluation, I had to try it. So I did.
First off, I usually cook my bacon on a flattop. I learned to cook it that way about fifty-five years ago and through decades of home and restaurant cooking, nothing has convinced me to change my ways. But since that obviously wouldn't work for this test, I got down my reliable old cast iron skillet.
I wanted to be fair, so I didn't use highfalutin specialty bacon like my favorite from Benton's. I just used commercially produced bacon from the grocery store. I laid out two strips in a cold pan and covered it with about four tablespoons of water; just enough to cover the bacon without making it swim. I turned the heat up to medium high (I seldom cook anything at "high" heat) and waited. Sure enough, the water started boiling and the fat started floating in that “unappetising” way noted by the Australian testers. After the water boiled away, there was, indeed, a sticky residue; mostly in the bottom of the pan and not so much on the surface of the bacon. From there on I reduced the heat to medium and cooked the bacon as I normally would until it was “crisp and well browned.” I then cooked a couple of strips the “regular” way and plated both samples for my wife and me to taste and test. Here's what I discovered.
There was considerably less spattering with the water-cooked bacon. But you know what? Spatter has never been a deal-breaker for me. It's bacon! Spatter is part of the process. I learned long ago not to cook bacon naked. I learned to wear an apron and I learned how to wipe down the stovetop. In short, not an issue.
As far as not “smelling up the house,” the water method was a fail. The bacon smell, thank God, was very little diminished by the submersion technique. And, I mean, it's bacon! Along with fresh-baked bread and fresh-brewed coffee, it's one of the most exquisite, delectable, alluring aromas on the planet. What kind of misfit doesn't like the smell of bacon?
When it came to texture, neither my wife nor I could detect an appreciable difference between the two samples. Maybe – maybe – the water-cooked sample was a tiny bit moister, but not enough that I would have noticed if I hadn't been looking for it. And although the test kitchen folks claim “the meat plumps up as it cooks instead of shriveling,” I'm here to tell you my bacon shriveled and shrunk up just as much as it would have without the added water.
And there was a noticeable difference in flavor. The water washed away the salty bite that most people enjoy in bacon and left behind a rather dull, listless taste. Perhaps that's part of what the Aussies meant by “a way that made it less enjoyable to eat.” It wasn't bad. It wasn't like I was going to throw down the test strip and cry, “Omigod! That's terrible!” But it wasn't all that appealing, either.
And the water-cooking method takes longer. Even at a mere two ounces of water, the cooking time increases because you have to allow time for the water to boil off before you finish cooking the bacon in the regular way.
So, all-in-all, was it a worthwhile experiment? Was the new, “improved” water-cooking method worth all the Internet hype? Meh. Not really.
Bottom line, I suppose if you're such a clean freak that a few grease spatters send you into a tizzy, then by all means drown your pork! Make them rashers bubble instead of sizzle! You won't save any time, your house will still smell, and your bacon will be crispy in a way that makes it “less enjoyable to eat” and it'll be bland to boot. But you won't have to waste a paper towel wiping down your stovetop, so I guess that's something. For me, it's back to the flattop or the frying pan. It may not be trendy but it's close enough to perfect for me.