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The Science of Bacon

The Science of Bacon

A closer look at one of the most delicious and tempting foods: bacon. Why is it so delicious and irresistible? Science answers.

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Bacon can be used to add flavour to any dish, whether simple potatoes or turkey, a meat generally considered to be rather tasteless. What we are talking about here is real bacon, the sliced variety which, as very few people know, is actually a “modern” version.

In fact it was invented by Oscar Meyer who, in 1948 started to sell it sliced and arranged on cardboard sheets. In 1962, the same Meyer came up with the intuitive idea of vacuum packing sliced bacon to extend its shelf life. Since then, bacon as we know it has undergone a few changes, for instance the way it is salted and, in some cases, smoked but these have nothing to do with its real secret. Before finding out what it is, there is something that has to be said first.

Bacon vs Pancetta: What's the Difference?

Bacon is obtained from pork belly and the two should not be confused. Pancetta is a cut of meat that corresponds to the belly. It's largely deprived of its fat, except for what lies between the muscle fibres. If pancetta is craft-made, at this point the piece of meat is immersed in a highly concentrated brine.

Otherwise, in an industrially made product, the brine is enriched with sugar and sodium nitrite, which are injected between the fibres. The meat is then hung and left to dry for a few days. Then it goes into the smoker where, as well as being cooked, it takes on its characteristic aroma, which varies according to the type of wood used. During this phase, craft bacon benefits from a slow smoking process possibly lasting for days and with particular attention to the choice of wood.

The latter is mainly composed of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, compounds which, when burnt, become smaller molecules such as carbonyls and organic acids. But lignin is responsible for doing most of the work: thanks to the heat, it generates phenolic substances that are liberated in the air and, when they come into contact with the meat, give it the “smoky” flavour we are familiar with. This taste is slightly contrasted by the carbonyls which, with a hint of sourness, contribute to triggering the famous Maillard reaction, responsible for the typical brownish colour of bacon.

The real secret? Smoking Process

The above considerations will have enabled you to understand that the smoking process is the real secret of excellent bacon. So long as it is a craft product, of course. A bacon of this type also benefits from an attentive selection of the wood used for smoking. Wood varieties may be classified as hardwoods or softwoods, even though their actual hardness has nothing to do with it: the former come from angiosperm trees, while the latter come from pine trees. For quality smoking, hardwoods are used, owing to the clean and aromatic smoke they generate.

Of these, the most prized species are apple, beech, cherry, birch and oak. Once smoked, the bacon is either sold in a whole piece or cut into slices: many say that it is better when hand sliced with a knife, but this is just an old wives' tale. In this case, a modern piece of equipment like a slicing machine provides better results.

The perfect bacon

But how do you recognise a quality bacon when you see it? First of all, the percentage of meat and fat should be respectively 40% and 60%. The meat should be of a pinkish red colour, while the fat should look nice and white without spots or streaks. Meat and fat should lie roughly in layers for the entire length of the bacon so that each bite has the right texture and creaminess. To choose bacon with a correct balance between proteins and lipids, there is a simple rule to follow: the width of the slice should not exceed one inch (2.54 cm), to avoid getting too much fat.

At this point, it would be a mortal sin to cook the perfect bacon slice wrongly. After studying the question at length, researchers have come up with the optimal cooking method: on an oil-greased pan, seven minutes in an oven pre-heated to 250 °C. Try it and see.

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