Bacon is the new chocolate (according to Dan Philips, the founder of the Bacon of the Month Club, www.gratefulpalate.com), or maybe the new olive oil (according to Ari Weinzweig, of Zingerman's, the country's leading olive-oil purveyor). A search for better bacon is under way in this country, reminiscent of the one for better beer, and with a similar lure of the forbidden.
The cult—and bacon love is still at the cult stage—won't come as a surprise to people who have looked for artisan-cured bacon over the years, although even they will be pleased by the recent improvements and wider selection. To anyone still buying supermarket bacon, the difference in flavor will be remarkable. Standard bacon tastes tinny and one-dimensional compared with the deep, subtle, lightly smoky flavor of good artisan bacon. After getting beyond the wonderful crisp of supermarket bacon you notice the typically heavy hand with often synthesized flavorings and even egregious "liquid smoke." Artisan bacon retains the flavor of cured meat—familiar to anyone who has eaten Canadian bacon, which is taken from the lean back loin rather than the fatty belly, and is cured but unsmoked. It shows that there's a middle ground between the comparatively bland Canadian bacon (which to me tastes like thin, dried-out cooked pork) and the blast of salt, sugar, fat, and artificial flavorings that is supermarket bacon. You can see in artisan bacon the relation to country ham, which is the meaty leg, cured much longer (good ham is cured for more than a year, as Peter Kaminsky lovingly recounts in Pig Perfect). And as with everything that has real, nuanced, lasting flavor, you need much less of it to be satisfied—a particular virtue with a food that is anywhere from one to two thirds fat.
Artisan bacon is both less messy and easier to cook than supermarket slices; its lower water content means that fewer scalding specks of wet fat will shoot out of the pan. It contains less water because it is cured with a mixture of salt, sugar, and spices either rubbed into the meat dry or dissolved in a marinade, rather than cured with brine injected by hundreds of needles (large manufacturers do this to save time and labor and to add water weight—you pay for that pool of water in the tight plastic pack). Less fat collects in the pan, because during the longer curing and smoking process—a week or two rather than a few hours—a good deal of fat disappears.
Even the shape is startling. The first time I saw a slice of Niman Ranch bacon, from the cooperative that has helped many family farms survive by producing and selling better pork, I thought it must be textured soy protein. The color of the meat was a perfect cherry-wood brown, and the long rectangle was flat and so straight-edged that it looked cut with a ruler.
There's no denying that bacon is good in pretty much anything. Sara Perry called her 2002 book Everything Tastes Better With Bacon, and Ann Hodgman gave her secret for making anything delicious in her very funny Beat This!: "I just double the chocolate and add some bacon." Even Jews who have a horror of fresh pork can happily consume multiple slices of bacon, perhaps because the curing process produces a very different sort of meat from the frankly pink, bluntly sweet, and very un-beeflike pork (as Elissa Altman, who was brought up in a Jewish home, theorized in a 2003 paean to Connecticut pork in The Hartford Courant).
Despite my taste of Niman Ranch's impressive rashers, I was a latecomer to the new baconmania. Last spring I began to catch up by arranging to taste a number of the country's most highly regarded artisan bacons. I learned both how far artisan bacon has progressed beyond supermarket bacon and how little I agree with many bacon-raters. Specifically, I found that seemingly innocuous flavors such as pepper and maple, and smoking over special woods or double-smoking, create bacon that is both less satisfying on its own and less useful as a flavor component than applewood bacon (the only kind Niman Ranch makes), which is relatively mild but by no means wimpy. This is much closer to French bacon, generally sold in slabs and diced to create little rectangular lardons, which are fried before being added to, say, coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon. (Italians don't even use bacon as we know it. For them pancetta—cured but unsmoked pork belly—is a ubiquitous flavor enhancer in sauces, soups, vegetables, and stews. Chinese cooks use fresh pork belly almost as often. African-American and southern cooks use fatback, the strip of fat above the loin.)
I tasted a half dozen bacons blind, and was gratified to find that my favorite was cured and smoked not in the backwoods of Kentucky (currently the national repository of ham wisdom) or in rural Wisconsin (home of Nueske's, a frequent winner at tastings) but an hour from the small northern-Connecticut town where I grew up. Nodine's Smokehouse is just a few miles from the very posh Litchfield, but the prefab-looking building where the bacon is made is not at all reminiscent of the expensively quaint New England houses close by. I learned on a recent visit that Nodine's gourmet shop, in a weathered barn familiar from long-ago family excursions, is on the farm where Ronald and Johanne Nodine first tried their hand at meat smoking as a second career, in 1969. Their business was chiefly custom-smoking meat that local farmers and hunters brought in; even today, in the vastly expanded facility Nodine's now occupies, various carcasses hang in the "custom" room, to be cured with secret rub recipes and smoked over special logs.
Ronald Nodine is a former engineer who found tinkering with cure recipes and smokers to his liking. His scientific training led him to record every new recipe and slight variation in temperature or timing, and to refine experiments that pleased customers. Though Connecticut cannot claim, like Kentucky, to have generations of tradition or the classic climate for curing ham (hot and damp during the summer, cool but not freezing in the winter—also great for aging bourbon), the Nodine family has evolved a method for making "apple-smoked" bacon that stands up quite well, I think. My only regret is that their meat is neither organic nor, like Niman Ranch's, guaranteed to be raised by family farmers. Nodine's buys pork from one distributor in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and does not specify feed, antibiotic use, or raising conditions.
David Yurgelan, the marketing manager for Nodine's, showed me (and my non-pork-eating but curious father) the stacks of neatly trimmed rectangular bellies waiting to be cured, all a soft pink and with a surprisingly thin coating of fat. The bellies arrive skinned, and Nodine's trims them to size. The cure for apple-smoked bacon contains just salt, sugar, water, and nitrites; the company also makes a nitrite-free version, which does not have bacon's characteristic reddish color and tastes more like uncured cooked meat. (Nitrites have largely been cleared as a health concern in curing meat, but alarm lingers from the 1970s over their possible role as a carcinogen. They set the red color and also much of the cured flavor.) The cure is not hand-rubbed but put into a steel vacuum tank along with the bellies, which are tumbled with the tank tilted like a carnival ride. Yurgelan explained that the vacuum-tumbling cuts time and the amount of marinade required, and said that even though the company uses a wet rather than a dry rub, the method produces nothing like the amount of water in commercial bacon. In fact, like much artisan bacon, Nodine's yields about a third more cooked bacon per pound than most supermarket brands.