It's hard to fathom now, but there once was a time when Americans wanted nothing to do with bacon.
This dark age was known as the 1980s. A wave of anti-fat hysteria swept the country, and no self-respecting adult would be caught dead with greasy fingers from rich, crispy, pan-fried pork bellies. Instead, some consumers turned to dubious breakfast alternatives like Sizzlean, a purportedly healthier, but still highly processed meat product, promising 50% less fat—and no shrinkage from cooking.
Thankfully, those days are long gone. Bacon is chic again and has been for quite some time. Yet, in some ways, we're still grasping for its purest expression, but just going about it in a very different way. Rather than removing the fat, contemporary pork producers are eliminating other things, like nitrates and artificial ingredients.
Modern better-for-you bacon is available from many brands in many varieties, often at a higher price than the classic, additive-laden pork strips of yore. They all clearly promote their quality standards on the packaging, but which ones taste the best?
To find out, I recently rounded up a thick stack of various bacons from several reputable producers and packed them up for a camping trip with a large group of dad friends. We cooked the bacon on a large cast iron grill top, placed over a hot fire pit. I later followed up by frying the same brands in a skillet for my family back at home. Both my friends and my family had a lot of opinions.
Here's how each kind of bacon fared, ranked in order from the least impressive to the very best. To be clear: none of these bacons tasted bad. (Does real bacon ever taste bad?) But some smoky flavors simply stood out above the rest.
Applegate Organics Hickory Smoked Uncured Sunday Bacon
One way that you can tell your bacon is high quality these days is by looking at all things it excludes. No nitrates. No preservatives. No antibiotics. No asterisks… OK, maybe a few asterisks, but when you see these caveats listed in fine print, noting the possible presence of some "naturally occurring" nitrates or the like, you should probably take comfort in knowing that the supplier is giving you the full story.
This hickory-smoked bacon from Applegate Farms is a classic example. Cut from pork "raised exclusively on organic feed," according to the label, the bacon is prepared with minimal ingredients: just water, sea salt, and a tiny amount of organic cane sugar and cultured celery powder. An eight-ounce package costs $8.99 at Whole Foods Market.
My youngest child loved this bacon, raving about the way its salty, savory flavor lingered in her mouth, but others described it as "very basic" and "good, but not great." My issue with this particular bacon is the flimsy cut. The delicate slices ripped apart too easily when I tried to remove them from the package, and overcooked far too quickly on the hot grill top. They did fare much better in a skillet.
Wellshire Thick Sliced Dry Rubbed Uncured Bacon
If you're a minimalist, then you'll probably be interested in this thick-sliced dry-rubbed bacon from Wellshire Farms. "Less Is More!" the package proclaims, noting only three ingredients: pork, sea salt, and raw sugar. The bacon is further described as all-natural, made from pork raised without antibiotics and fed a vegetarian diet. Regularly priced at $8.99, I picked up this 12-ounce package on sale for $6.49.
Tasters around the campfire appreciated the "nice and chewy" texture of the thicker cut and "classic" bacon-y taste, but the minimal approach doesn't really do much to help this particular style stand out from other, more complex flavors we tried.
Whole Foods Organic Uncured Applewood Smoked Bacon
In addition to stocking all kinds of name brands, Whole Foods sells bacon under its own label, too. This uncured applewood-smoked variety carries the USDA Organic logo and is also Animal Welfare Certified, signifying the hogs are treated and processed with a higher standard of care. Flavored with organic cane sugar, sea salt, and celery powder, the store brand is priced slightly lower than some of the others at $7.49 for an eight-ounce pack.
I really liked the firm cut of this particular brand. The slices easily separated from the pack and crisped up nicely in the skillet, particularly around the edges, which took on a dark caramelized color. Tasters enjoyed the depth of flavor, as well. One described it as having a certain "honey-ness." Another said, "Kind of feels like a party in my mouth." Trouble is, we enjoyed two other brands even more.
Nature's Rancher Hickory Smoked Uncured Bacon
The ranchers at Pederson's Natural Farms in Hamilton, Texas, describe this hickory smoked bacon as "the real deal." They're not lying. It has all the hallmarks of a well-made, high-quality contemporary pork product.
The packaging spotlights the lack of curing chemicals and growth stimulants up front, with the Animal Welfare Certified logo on the back. (The company's website goes into even further detail about the bedding, flooring, and amount of pen space each pig is provided.) The ingredient list is small but not scanty. Flavorings include brown sugar, salt, vinegar, and celery salt. Made exclusively for Whole Foods, the 12-ounce package costs $7.99.
Tasters around the campfire raved about the strong, sweet hickory flavor, which "really shines through," one said, yet is "not overwhelming." Another noted, "You can taste the bacon but with something extra." One taster described it as "less salty" than the others, too, though the label indicates it's not quite the lowest in sodium of the entire group.
Nature's Rancher was the clear favorite at the camp site, and came in a close second back home. My observant wife described it as a "good hearty, classic bacon," adding, "It doesn't surprise me it was the dad fave."
North Country Smokehouse Cob Smoked Uncured Bacon
This variety from North Country Smokehouse is made a little differently than all the others. It's smoked over a bed of corn cobs, "rendering a stronger smokiness than hardwood for a traditional flavor that's well-loved throughout New Hampshire and Vermont," according to the company's website.
It carries both Animal Welfare Certified and Certified Humane logos, and pledges no antibiotics, no added hormones, no liquid smoke, fillers, or dyes. Ingredients include the usual sea salt and celery powder, but also turbinado sugar and maple syrup.
Holy smokes! It is good—striking an impressive balance of sweet, smoky, savory, and salty flavors, with a subtle but noticeable hint of maple. My youngest child described it as "like a canon of really good flavors, bursting into your mouth." The missus called it "so rich and delicious," adding, "I had half a slice and had to go back for more." The campfire crew really liked it, too.
Both the Nature's Rancher and North Country Smokehouse varieties are exceptional and either would significantly enhance your breakfast spread or BLT. But, as the only taster to try each brand multiple times, I give the edge to North Country for its extra layers of flavor and uncommon corn-cob approach. Look for it at Whole Foods, Wegmans, Target, Stop & Shop, and other retailers.