Adding flavor to enhance quality and consistency with bacon.

Everything is better with bacon. And flavored bacon, well, it just takes everything up a notch to premium status. By itself, flavored bacon is the deluxe version of its previous taste, providing more smack for the same amount of calories. It’s one of life’s little pleasures and a growing segment of the $4.4 billion retail bacon sector. Flavored bacon is catching on in foodservice, too. It’s a way to differentiate and add value.

The Oink Café, with multiple locations in Arizona, specializes in flights of bacon in varieties such as apple cider, applewood, hickory, honey, jalapeño, pepper and sugar cured. The culinary professionals at ZED451 in Chicago, often experiment with adding different flavors and toppings to bacon dishes. For example, the restaurant served grilled maple Cajun-flavored bacon topped with gorgonzola dolce sauce and apple slaw at Bacon Fest 2017.

The Arby’s Restaurant Group, Atlanta – with the tagline, “We Have The Meats” – gets bacon. The chain sold about 55 million items with bacon in 2016, including limited-time offers and menu classics. The culinary professionals at Arby’s are continuously reinventing bacon. For example, as a limited-time offer this past summer, the chain sliced bacon thicker and sprinkled on brown sugar, making it the star ingredient in the Triple Thick Brown Sugar Bacon Sandwich lineup of a BLT, club, roast beef and turkey, all on a brioche bun. For the fall, that same bacon flavor, just sliced a little thinner, is topping the limited-time bourbon barbecue sandwich line up.

The chain also offers a thick-cut pepper bacon. Currently it’s a mainstay add-on for many of its sandwiches.

“We are really proud of our pepper bacon,” says Neville Craw, executive chef at Arby’s. “It’s a big piece of pork belly that we season all on the outside with black pepper. It goes in the smoker. It smokes. Then we make big cuts and put it in a bunch of our sandwiches.”

Processing makes perfect

Describing the process and explaining the time investment into making flavored bacon contributes to its premium status.

“Consumers today, more than ever before, recognize and appreciate the authenticity behind traditional cooking preparation methods,” says Jacquelyn Schuh, market research and consumer insights specialist-meat, Kerry, Beloit, Wisconsin. “Fire, the original preparation method, has definitely made its mark across all food and beverage applications in the last few years, but perhaps most pronounced is smoke’s proliferation across meat, bacon, in particular.”

Indeed, wood smokes are a leading driver of flavor innovation in bacon. The top bacon flavors by volume at retail are smoke, hardwood smoke, applewood smoke, hickory smoke, and also variations on maple and pepper flavors, according to data from Nielsen, New York. In foodservice, among all smoke varieties, oak (+86 percent), cherrywood (+73 percent) and applewood (+32 percent) have shown the greatest growth in the past four years, according to Datassential, Chicago.

Some culinary professionals are taking smoke to the next level, according to Juliet Greene, corporate chef, Mizkan Americas, Mount Prospect, Illinois. “Infusing bacon with herbal smokes, such as ‘fired rosemary’ can add a nice warm, smoke flavor. Smoky balsamic brown sugar delivers sweet, tangy and savory notes to please the palate.”

Culinary professionals are embracing the fact that the savory and fatty flavor profile of bacon melds well with other flavors. Consumers are often willing to explore unfamiliar and ethnic flavors when they are delivered on a familiar food, such as bacon. Bacon’s composition and form functions as an ideal vehicle for flavor innovation.