Refining bellies

by Bruce Aidelss
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There’s no doubt that bacon’s popularity has exceeded our wildest imagination. How about bacon vodka, ice cream, cookies, chocolate, syrup, lollipops, baby food and flavored salt just to mention a few places where bacon flavor has appeared? But do we really need bacon-flavored envelopes, air fresheners, diet cola, toothpaste, mouthwash or condoms?

Obviously, people love the flavor of bacon and gobble up the novelty items, but there are many more ways to use bacon that I find more acceptable, and delicious. Even during the time when bacon’s most-common appearance was alongside eggs or pancakes, cooks have been using bacon to enhance their cooking in all occasions and dishes from appetizers, salads, soups, pastas, sandwiches, stews, sauces, dressings and stuffings to desserts and garnishes.

But with the huge and growing popularity of bacon, savvy cooks have expanded and innovated their use of bacon even more. Unless you never eat out, buy a cookbook or read food magazines and newspaper food sections, you can’t ignore the widespread use of bacon. At the foodservice segment, bacon’s appearance on menus has grown steadily for several years and grew 7 percent in 2012.

What about the bacon?

I will allude to various flavor profiles to change the flavor of the bacon and there are many choices. But to make the finest bacon, you need to turn back the clock to the old methods. This is what I have done for Vande Rose Farms, a small Iowa company specializing in pork from Duroc pigs.

For me, great bacon begins with great pork and the Duroc breed couldn’t be a better candidate. The bellies are large, thick and have a great ratio of fat to lean meat. The Duroc pigs I use are raised on small family farms without antibiotics and they are fed an all-vegetarian diet.

The raw bellies have a deep-red color, great flavor and exceptional tenderness. Let’s just say the pig has made the largest contribution to ensure great-tasting bacon. All that is left for me is to apply the right mixture of salt, brown sugar and a little black pepper to the bellies adding a bit of saltiness and sweetness without masking the inherent porky flavors.

Finally, the bellies are smoked with a mixture of applewood, maple and oak to give a rich smoke without overpowering. Bacon like this is ideal to cook with because it adds rich bacon flavor to a dish without being overpowering with too much smoke, saltiness or sweetness. Whole slabs are the preferred choice sold to chefs while 12-oz. packs of thick-cut slices (10-12 slices per lb.) are preferred at retail.

Opportunities for innovation

There are so many uses for bacon. I’m only going to mention a few specific ones and instead make suggestions to help the savvy-bacon processor to find new opportunities and product innovations that can help expand their bacon sales by fulfilling the growing applications.

Breakfast|brunch opportunities – Besides the many egg dishes that incorporate bacon, such as omelets and shirred eggs, small cubes of bacon are incorporated into pancakes, waffles, muffins, turnovers, quick breads and breakfast pizzas. These small cubes are particularly desirable in corn pancakes and waffles, potato pancakes and hash browns.

The opportunity here is to produce small cubes (about one-quarter inch square) of lightly browned bacon, not crumbled bacon, which lacks character and texture. Once browned and drained, they can be individually quick frozen (IQF) and sold frozen in bags. These cubes can also be coated with various sweet glazes using maple syrup, brown sugar, fruit juices, soy, sweet mustard or many other flavors.

Appetizers/Hors d’oeuvres – Thin-sliced, narrow strips of bacon can be wrapped around small chunks of sweet or savory foods. The classic is rumaki; chunks of poultry liver and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon with a sweet soy glaze. Other popular choices are dates, prunes, figs, dried apricots or pineapple.

Strips of bacon or pancetta (Italian spice-flavored bacon) can also be wrapped around seafood, such as shrimp, scallops, oysters or mussels plus wrapped around chicken cubes, sausage or chicken wings. Vegetables such as squash, asparagus or even radishes are also good pairings. The opportunity for the bacon producer is to sell thinly sliced, narrow bacon strips one-half inch wide by 5-inch long in small packages.

Other popular appetizers are kebabs consisting of small chunks of bacon skewered with seafood, meats, vegetables, fruits and even bread. Since the bacon often takes longer to cook than the other ingredients on the skewer it would be great to have bacon chunks one-half inch by 1-inch by 1-inch that have already been fully cooked and lightly browned at the processing plant. They would be sold IQF and bagged. For those wanting to cut their own pre-cooked and browned, half-inch thick, fully cooked bacon slices could be sold as well.

Salads – Bacon has found its way into many different salads from the classic spinach salad to the French salad, Frisee Lyonnaise. Many combinations of salad greens, kales, fruits, eggs, nuts and vegetables made into a salad can be greatly enhanced with the addition of bacon.

The classic form for using bacon is what the French call Lardons, which are small rectangular finger shaped strips of bacon. In France, they are sold in every supermarket in sealed plastic trays. Not only are Lardons used in salads, they are also popular in soups, stews, braises and used to flavor cooked vegetables. I think there is a real opportunity to sell bacon as Lardons in the US because they now have so many uses in popular American recipes as well. Since most recipes call for a small amount of bacon (one-quarter to one-half of a lb.), the most practical idea would be to sell them in small 8-oz. trays.

Sauces – Bacon-flavored mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, mustard and dips are already sold in the retail marketplace. Unless you, as a bacon producer, want to get into the sauce business, it would be better to sell bacon as an ingredient to an existing sauce company or work with them to produce a co-branded sauce. This could also be a possible market for rendered bacon fat.

Soups, pastas and stews – Bacon is used in many versions of these dishes from the classic Italian Pasta Carbonara to the French Coq au Vin. The opportunity is to provide pre-cooked lardoons either partially or fully cooked.

The other opportunity is to vary the flavor profile of the bacon to accommodate a particular cuisine. For Chinese dishes, add hoisin, soy, ginger and five spice to the cure. For Italian dishes, add balsamic vinegar, garlic and rosemary to the cure. And for Spanish dishes, rub down the pork bellies with Spanish paprika (pimento de la vera) and add sherry to the cure.

Endless options

Turkey breast is still one of the most popular luncheon meats. Why not smear a mixture of ground bacon on double butterflied turkey breast then roll and tie so when cooked there will be a jelly roll look of bacon.

Some companies have already hit the market with bacon-flavored hot dogs and sausages. But instead of mixing bacon in the meat blend, which makes it difficult for the bacon flavors to be expressed, why not make a co-extruded sausage with ground bacon in the interior? For variation, the bacon could also be mixed with cheese.

It seems that the bacon craze isn’t going anywhere for now, which means chefs can continue to create most delicacies featuring bacon.

Bruce Aidells founded Aidells Sausage Co. in 1983. He left the company in 2002 and is a food writer for consumer publications and the author of 12 cookbooks, including, “The Great Meat Cookbook.” He also works as a consultant to food companies, and hosts “Good Cookin’” on the Live Well Network.

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