Bacon…it’s the ultimate team player. From its simple use as a side to breakfast eggs or as a burger topping, bacon’s versatility makes it the perfect partner to sweet (donut topping) and savory (chip dip) foods, as well as the unexpected, including popcorn, vodka and even mouthwash.

Many bacon fans call the “cured belly of a swine carcass,” USDA’s definition for bacon, “meat candy” because it’s “satisfying and delicious.”

In the past decade, bacon enthusiasts have learned that bacon has the innate ability to function as a carrier for innovative ingredients. “We’ve learned that with bacon, the flavor possibilities are really endless,” says Jason Reicks, market manager-spice products, Flavorseal, Avon, Ohio.

Catherine Armstrong, vice president of corporate communications, Comax Flavors, Melville, NY, says consumers are demanding more flavors in foods. “The most telling trend is toward intensity and experimentation, boldness and clout,” she says. “What that means is unusual pairings, unpredictable and unlikely combinations that deliver enhanced mouthfeel and more impactful flavor pop, while delivering artisanal, heirloom and homemade quality and uniqueness.”

Bacon has what it takes to deliver what consumers want.

Salt, sweet and smoke

Bacon flavor has three main components: salt, sweet and smoke. Flavor innovation can occur in one or all three.

“The salt component is added to the meat by either injection of a brine solution or the curing salts are applied topically and the meat is dry cured,” says Gary Uram, director-research innovation, Nu-Tek Food Science, Minnetonka, Minn. “The sweet comes from sugar, which is often included in the brine or the rub, and is added to reduce the harshness of curing salts. The meat is then smoked after curing to impart a desirable ‘smoky meat flavor.’ An alternative is to add liquid smoke flavor to the brine or dried smoke flavor to the rub.”

The treated meat is then aged to allow migration of flavors and curing agents through the meat, turning the meat to bacon.

“Salt adds a lot of flavor to bacon,” says Meredith Bishop, principal developmental scientist, Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings, Cranbury, NJ.

But the trend is to reduce the sodium content of foods, including bacon.

“The primary sodium contributor to bacon is added salt,” Uram says. “But removing salt negatively impacts flavor by reducing saltiness as well as altering the flavor balance of salt, sweet and smoke.”

Jim Anderson, technical coordinator-meat, poultry and seafood, ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis, Mo., adds, “Beyond the typical flavor associated with salt, sodium chloride also provides functionality. Salt influences the swelling and binding of meat fibers, which impacts purge, flavor and color, as well as safety, since salt – a well-known preservative – can inhibit undesirable microbial growth.

“We offer low-sodium phosphates, which when used with an optimized salt level, yield highly functional and flavorful bacon products with attractive sodium levels,” he says. “Our phosphates have a very clean flavor and do not mask or interfere with flavor development.”

When lowering salt, the assumption is flavor will suffer. “Flavors added to the brine and topical spice rubs can assist with building back flavor when salt is reduced,” Bishop says.

Dafne Diez de Medina, vice president Innovation-research and development, Innova, Lombard, Ill. , concurs. “Flavors help overcome salt reductions by providing the umami taste,” she says. “Our savory taste modulation systems can assist with reducing the sodium content of bacon.”

As mentioned, adding umami also helps with sodium reduction. “We recently introduced a low-sodium kelp extract-based ingredient that delivers umami to a range of applications,” says Joseph Formanek, director-new product development, Ajinomoto North America Inc., Itasca, Ill. “It is a liquid product that can be used in brine. The umami delivery from this product can help overcome the lack of flavor that is common in reduced-sodium products where salt is typically a primary taste.

“We also developed a dry-powder ingredient that is designed to enhance the meaty, savory flavor of processed meats,” Formanek says. “This product utilizes technologies developed through proprietary in-house flavor research on what makes a cooked-meat product succulent. It works well in a wide range of meat products, especially cured products such as bacon.”

Layering flavors

All three of these flavor components – salt, sweet and smoke – present an opportunity to introduce layers of extra flavors.

“Bacon fat is a great carrier of layers of flavors,” says Rocco Loosbrock, CEO, Bacon Freak, Moorpark, Calif., a home-order bacon delivery business that even offers a “bacon of the month” club.

“Historically flavors were added to brine and injected into the meat,” Anderson says. “For the cure to be most effective, the brine should have a relatively neutral pH. If flavor and functional ingredients are too acidic or too alkaline, it will impact the cure and finished product quality and potential food safety.”

Because we eat with our eyes first, there is a trend toward applying flavors topically, which is Bacon Freak’s strategy. “Ground herbs and spices are not suitable for injection, as they can clog the needles and filters,” Anderson says. “If flavorful particulates are desired, they should be applied topically, with or without an injected cure.”

Bacon Freak skips the brine step altogether. Unlike most industrial curing operations that involve injecting brine into the meat for a rapid cure and increased yield, Bacon Freak’s meat is dry cured, according to Loosbrock. “This means most of the water is extracted,” he says. “One lb. of our bacon yields about 14 oz. of cooked product, as compared to the standard 6 oz. that many mainstream bacon brands produce.

“We also build real hickory fires to smoke our meat,” he adds. “We light the fires, get the coals hot and roll the coals under the bacon to smoke it.”

Then the fun begins. “Each piece of bacon is hand rubbed with flavorful ingredients to ensure that you get a burst of flavor with every bite,” Loosbrock says. Innovative offerings include Apple Cinnamon, Cajun, Honey BBQ, Jalapeño, Sun-Dried Tomato and Vanilla Bourbon.

One of the company’s recent innovations is Apple Bottom Gene’s Plump Rump Herb Bacon, which is hickory-smoked bacon smothered in savory, tasty herbs, including pieces of dried garlic, rosemary, tarragon and thyme.

“Wet rubs are a bit more challenging because they need to be designed to be visually appealing,” Loosbrock says. “Our maple wet rub is a thick syrup that is finger-licking good. For the vanilla bourbon, we thicken the wet rub with brown sugar so it provides a caramelized effect.”

Bacon Freak offers two other smoked varieties – applewood and maplewood – neither of which has any topically applied flavors. Both smokes exert a mild flavor, with the applewood being lightly fruity while the maplewood is slightly sweet.

Other woods can be used for smoking bacon. Pecan wood delivers a mild, sweet nutty flavor, while cherrywood provides subtle fruity notes. Mesquite is popular as a stand-alone smoke flavor, supplying a hearty, savory taste.

Earlier this year, McCormick & Co., Sparks, Md., released its annual Flavor Forecast identifying upcoming flavor trends.

“Don’t be surprised if in the next few years Japanese Katsu, a tangy cross between BBQ and steak sauce, and cajeta, a Mexican caramel, gain the broad appeal that once-regional tastes like Asian hot chili sauce have achieved,” says McCormick Executive Chef Kevan Vetter.

Some innovative flavor combinations from McCormick Flavor Forecast 2013 that have potential in bacon include: Decadent Bitter Chocolate, Sweet Basil & Passion Fruit, Black Rum, Charred Orange & Allspice, Cider, Sage & Molasses and Smoked Tomato, Rosemary, Chile Peppers & Sweet Onion.

“Recently, we’ve been getting requests for spicier flavors for bacon, such as buffalo, chipotle, habanero and jalapeño,” Reicks says. “There’s also interest in combinations of flavors, such as Fiery 5 Peppercorn and BBQ Chipotle. Of course, there are matchups of sweet flavorings like maple, honey or brown sugar.”

Cinnamon is a spice that complements both heat and sweet. When it comes to bacon, crushed cinnamon stick can be used in glazes, such as honey and maple, or combined with crushed peppers for an added layer of flavor.

Ground coffee beans and cocoa nibs can be used in a similar way as a ground peppercorn rub. The same is true of various nuts, especially those with sweet, nutty profiles, such as hazelnuts, macadamias and pecans.

Future flavors

Hand-rubbed bacon for the packaged retail channel is not economically feasible for mainstream America. Seasoning transfer sheets, which are applied to the bacon after smoking and slicing, can assist in this process.

“Seasoning transfer sheets deliver visible spices to bacon, which consumers find appealing,” Reicks says. “In an industrial manufacturing setting, mechanically applied rubs pose numerous challenges, including seasoning loss on the floor and in the air, as well as concerns with seasoning falling into the seal areas of packaging, causing leakers. The seasoning sheet provides controlled application.”

Because the seasoning is applied to the sheet and the sheet is placed on the bacon prior to packaging, there is minimal loss. “The sheets keep the seasonings out of the seal areas while packaging at high speeds,” Reicks says.

Loosbrock believes the future of flavored bacon is bright. “Bacon is evolving into an artisan food, with chefs and home cooks making bacon the star ingredient of a dish. A little bacon adds so much flavor to recipes. It makes them satisfying and delicious, which is why, in moderation, bacon can be a part of a healthful diet.”

Donna Berry is a contributing editor from Chicago and is the owner of Dairy & Food Communications.