Taste Test: Bacon

Pork belly and healthy cooking are not mutually exclusive. A little of the smoky-best bacon goes further than any other kind.
Jason Horn

Yes, bacon is fatty. (Cooking Light recipes didn’t even feature bacon until 1997!) And it’s been faddishly popular for years now. Bacon salt, bacon gum, bacon whiskey, bacon chocolate, bacon ice cream, Baconnaise, bacon-of-the-month clubs―we’re waiting for bacon mouthwash. But the porky, smoky taste of great bacon can be central to the fat-cutting idea of using meat as a flavor agent rather than a main ingredient in all kinds of lighter recipes. We tasted 23 bacons and found such wide variation in quality―from wet and bland to the Benton’s and Dakin smokehouse miracles―that it reaffirmed our buy-best, use-less strategy yet again.

OUR TOP PICK: Dakin Farm  Cob-Smoked Bacon, $18 (2 [1-pound] packages)
This Vermont-made bacon is smoked over corncobs, which gives it sweetness and a more subtle smokiness than its wood-smoked cousins. Ideal for BLTs or wrapped around scallops. Bonus: Dakin Farm had the second-lowest sodium level of all bacons tested, with just 93 milligrams per slice­―even less than some of the lower-sodium bacons.

BEST STORE BRAND: Farmland Hickory Smoked Bacon, $2.50 (1-pound package); available at supermarkets
Not only did this bacon look perfect (it didn’t curl at all and turned an even golden brown), but it also had a great balance of sweet, salty, and smoky that makes this an all-purpose bacon―equally at home atop a burger, crumbled for a crisp salad topping, or as the base for a pot of lentil soup or chowder.

BEST FOR BREAKFAST: Niman Ranch Uncured Applewood Smoked Bacon, $7 (12-oz. package); available at select Whole Foods and Super Target stores and at nimanranch.com
Instead of nitrates or nitrites (see Nutritional Considerations), this bacon uses a blend of celery juice and spices as a preservative, which allows the natural sweetness of the pork to shine through, along with gentle applewood smoke flavor. It’s well suited for a hot breakfast.

BEST FOR RECIPES: Benton’s Hickory Smoked Country Bacon, $21 (4 [1-pound] packages)
The bacon and country ham from Allan Benton’s Tennessee smokehouse have won justifiable fame among top-tier chefs for unbelievable smokiness and incredibly rich flavor. Just one slice (or even half) is enough to season a whole pot of beans, peas, soup, or any other dish that needs a flavor kick.

HOW WE TEST

Method: We conducted a blind tasting of 23 bacons in three separate sessions over two days. Each bacon had been pan-fried over medium-low heat until crisp.

Nutritional considerations: Bacon is a concentrated source of saturated fat and sodium, but we use small amounts in Cooking Light recipes. Most bacon is cured and preserved with sodium nitrite, which ­converts to nitrosamines, a group of potentially cancer-causing chemicals. Most bacon also has added vitamin C or erythorbic acid, which may reduce the risk of nitrosamine formation. If you’re concerned, look for nitrate- and nitrite-free ­bacon, such as the Niman Ranch ­uncured option at right, a taste-test ­favorite.