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Friday, May 22, 2009

The Great Bacon Tastin' (Part 2)

[Continued from Part 1]

We have arrived, good reader. Our Most Exciting Endeavor Ever, The Porkchop Express Blind Bacon Tasting. Eight hand-selected products representing eight unique styles and geographic regions: a meat-stravaganza you can trust, with 110% more deliciousness than your average blind tasting.

The nitty gritty: three bacons rose above the rest to claim the top spots, but each of our entrants proved drool-worthy. So mull over their profiles, find something that piques your pork interest, and get to ordering. Because unlike Hot Steak Stock Tips or Robot Vacuums, these recession-proof luxuries will elevate you to Hog Heaven, Meat Mountain, Honey Ham Lane, and Flavor Country's porkiest pastures. Stimulus, indeed.A reminder: bacon is diverse stuff. Smoking and curing techniques yield wide variations on the sweet/salty clean/smoky spectrum. The first trick to finding your ideal bacon (per Plato, eidos bakonos) is to determine where your tastes lie. Introspection is the name of this game. Are you Footloose* and Fancy Free? Smoky Lah or Baby Bear? Decide, then consult our patent-pending Artisanal Bacon Flavor Map (above) to find a few possible suitors. And read on.

[*note: Kevin Bacon reference]Have you ever seen 20 pounds of bacon in one place at one time? Such was Porkchop Express HQ on the morning of the tasting, friend. Imagine visiting a Willy Wonka smokehouse, minus the musical numbers and mischievous little people. This was a lean, mean pork tasting machine, and we got down to brass tacks in a hurry: ballots in hand, mineral water for reprieve, and plates brimming with anonymous bacon slices. I left the tasters to their devices, and crunched numbers/tallied comments afterwards. As for the results....

[pork drum roll]The Fantastic Five
First up, and in alphabetical order, the 5 bacons that made it to the Big Event but didn't crack the top-3: noteworthy slices one and all.

Burgers' Country Cured Bacon
The pride of California (Missouri), Burgers' Smokehouse dates back to the twenties. It is still family-owned, and grandson Steven is one of the country's classiest pork men. He also makes an eminently solid bacon, hickory smoked slices that are more salty than sweet. For a “country” style slab the flavors are unusually balanced and restrained. Burgers' is sliced a touch thin – and therefore requires greater care when cooking – but still pairs great with eggs, pancakes and sandwiches. Tasty, versatile, and crafted with attention to detail, this is the sort of bacon any self-respecting pork purist should keep handy. It scratches multiple “bacon itches,” and you don't have to be in a specific mood to appreciate its finer points. Burgers' received a top-3 nod, along with a vote for “best BLT bacon.”
In sum: Judges enjoyed the versatility, salt/sweet balance and restrained flavor profile. It lost points on distinctiveness and complexity.
Strengths: Prototypical artisanal bacon; versatile, relatively balanced country style.
Suggested uses: Many, from soup base to breakfast to BLTs.
Price: About $14/lb including shipping ($27.75 for two 1 lb. packages); info here

New Braunfel's Smoked Comal County Peppered Sliced Bacon
New Braunfel's was a controversial bacon: some judges really liked it, others flat-out didn't. The “pro” camp gave it high marks for distinctiveness and complexity. Everyone was mesmerized by the uniformity of slices – it fries up something pretty, suggesting (per one judge) consistency in production and premium standards in selecting, rubbing, packing and slicing. Our panel was divided on the pepper (comments ranged from too much to not enough to just right), and the lack of balance (low on smoke and sweetness). That said, the salty cure and straightforward hickory smoking are well-served by a pepper rub. Nice girth and meat-to-fat ratio make it a satisfying mouthful. If you like Texas BBQ you will appreciate this bacon: meat-centric, not overly seasoned, big salty flavors. Just take care in preparing; pepper requires low slow heat to avoid burning.
In sum: Judges enjoyed the straightforward, meaty approach and distinctive pepper coating. It lost points on balance and overall deliciousness. Best for Texas BBQ enthusiasts.
Strengths: Prototypical pepper bacon; no-nonsense and meaty; beautiful slices.
Suggested uses: Whenever you want the goodness of smoked pork with an extra kick of pepper. If looking for a peppered bacon, we would be hard-pressed to turn elsewhere.
Price: $10.25/lb; info here

Nueske's Smoked Thick-Sliced Bacon
The pride of Wittenberg, Wisconsin and pioneers of applewood smoking in the United States. For those unfamiliar, the wood imparts a unique sweetness that sets it apart from, say, husky hickory or overbearing mesquite. Yet contrary to popular bacon nerd opinion, this is not a particularly sweet slice. Our panel appreciated Nueske's strong, unique smoking, and they scored well on distinctiveness and complexity (despite relatively light seasoning). They also have one of the most knowledgeable reps in the country in Marlys Connor, who does her product proud.
In sum: Judges enjoyed the distinctive smokiness, complexity, and meat-to-fat ratio. Detractors found the smoke too heavy and the sweetness lacking.
Strengths: Unique applewood smoking; distinctive flavor profile; bold yet approachable.
Suggested uses: French toast or pancakes; brussel sprouts and shallots; cob salad.
Price: $10/lb; info here

Oscar's Smoke House Hickory Smoked Bacon
Our sole New York entry hails from the Adirondacks, and still uses founder/granddad Oscar’s original 1946 bacon recipe and red-brick smokers. No wet cures or injections here: just a five day dry-rub and 18-20 hour smoking over chunks of maple and hickory. The result is robust and husky – think “country style” with a northeast twist, a bold approach reminiscent of traditional Vermont cob smoking. Oscar’s also boasts the best bacon label in the country, giving Piggly Wiggly a run for their money. Our tasters appreciated the salty, fatty flavor. Proponents praised the meatiness and creaminess, whilst the less impressed noted relatively thin slices and somewhat harsh flavors. As one put it, “tastes ultra-processed… but in a remarkably delicious way.”
In sum: Husky smoke; bold, straightforward flavor; old school charm.
Strengths: No-nonsense Northeastern style; fantastic label brightens any day.
Suggested uses: with scrambled eggs or Johnny Cakes; wrapped around baked Trout.
Price: approx. $5/lb. ($25.95 for five 1 lb. packages; $24.95 for one 4-5 lb slab); info here

J. Samuel Whiting Sam's Prime Hickory Smoked Bacon
Sam Whiting was our youngest entrant, but he comes by the field honestly. A 3rd generation meat man weaned on the slaughter by his forebears, he is a truly humble, funny guy. His bacon combines the juiciness of ham with the irresistible sizzle of smoked pig belly, making this the freshest entrant of the lot. Comments ranged from “hammy” to “porkchoppy” to “not very bacon-y,” but when all was said and done Whiting's scored fourth in our “overall” grading, with a top-3 nod to boot. Judges appreciated the bacon's freshness, meat quality, versatility and cleanness. Skeptics noted the sweetness and conspicuous seasoning. At under $4/lb (!!!) it’s worth finding out for yourself. (Just don’t let the very low-key website discourage you – phone orders are your best bet.)
In sum: Low smoke, fresh meat, sweet and juicy flavor profile; discreet whiff of smoke on the finish; plump Christmas ham in bacon form.
Strengths: Freshness, thickness, hammy-ness.
Suggested uses: Breakfast; grilled cheese; pea soup.
Price: $3.65/lb; call 724-946-8633 or 800-946-8609; info here
And now, the final three...
Folks who finished a hair above the rest.

Third Place: Vermont Smoke and Cure
“What you think of when you think of good bacon.” Thus spoketh one judge, and most agreed. The Freedom and Unity State rallied our panel around their exceptionally clean, uniquely sweet product. Detractors found the maple a touch cloying, and points were detracted for a lack of complexity and distinctiveness. But the pristine flavor profile made this a winner, an appealing and notably versatile bacon. Neither sweet nor smoke hang heavy in the mouth, which means this is a product handsome enough for the living room yet versatile enough for the kitchen. They also do terrific ham steaks, if that sort of thing strikes your fancy.
In sum: Maple sweet, clean and light, mild smoke. An elegant approach with a New England twist.
Strengths: Prototypical breakfast bacon; clean flavor profile; versatile.
Suggested uses: Go nuts, we're hard-pressed to think of a use that wouldn't work.
Cost: approx. $9/lb. ($13.95 for two 12-ounce packs); info here

Second Place: Vande Rose
The union of three Dutch farming families who migrated to Iowa in the 1850s, Vande Rose began selling their bacon retail only a year or so ago. Which makes this truly slow food, about 150 years in the making. According to most of our panel, the wait paid high dividends. Vande Rose is applewood smoked and impressively balanced. Their duroc pork bellies have a fine meat to fat ratio. Hand-rubbed cracked pepper and light brown sugar yield just a hint of spice and sweetness. It also fries up unusually clean. Tasters liked the rich mouth feel, succulence, and flavors that don’t overstay their welcome. (Making this the Perfect Houseguest of bacons, a/k/a “The Sinbad.”) Only one taster dissented, citing a “bland” approach and “contrived” packaging. But everyone else was on board, propelling Vande Rose to a strong second place finish.
In sum: Cleanness, versatility, balance. Great thickness. More sweet than salty. Appropriate for breakfast and BLTs alike, but using it to cook might not serve the delicate flavor profile. Also won best breakfast bacon, and took second place for “sexiest” bacon.
Strengths: Balance, balance, balance; something for (almost) everyone: a touch of pepper, sweet, smoke and salt; thickness of cut; meat-to-fat ratio.
Suggested uses: Breakfast; BLT; bacon cheeseburger; romantic evenings.
Cost: approx. $17/lb. ($12.95 for 12 ounces); info here

And finally... The 2009 Porkchop Express Blind Bacon Tasting Champ...First Place: Benton’s
If you read our earlier profile you already know what we think of Allan Benton, bacon and ham man extraordinaire. As chance would have it, our panel overwhelmingly agreed. This is an American classic. One judge put it best: “too salty, too sweet, too delicious.” The essence of country ham elevated to new heights, and reigned in by creamy ribbons of fat. Benton's was the only bacon in our tasting to receive unanimously positive reviews (including “top 3” votes from every single judge). It also won on overall ranking and deliciousness. In other words, Benton's was the clear favorite. Our panel loved the distinctiveness, complexity, and intense salt/sweet balance. The only category it didn’t take was cleanness/naturalness of flavor. On the flip side, it won “Best BLT” and “sexiest” bacon.
In sum: Not for the faint of heart; the essence of country ham in bacon form. Those who dare take the plunge will be rewarded. More here.
Strengths: The unanimous favorite, and only bacon every taster loved; bold flavor profile; unique, and uniquely delicious.
Suggested uses: BLT; eggs over easy; romantic evenings; first dates; anniversaries, weddings, confirmations, bar mitzvahs; soups and vegetables; spaghetti alla carbonara (no joke)
Cost: approx. $5/lb ($21 for 4 lbs, minimum order); info here

And there you have it, friend.

[Applause]

If not the best bacon tasting ever, then certainly the finest we have ever been a part of: a trustworthy springboard for new flavor heights; Greatness Within Reach; and a suitable springboard to the Honking Bacon Lifestyle.

Thanks again to our terrific panel: Rupa Bhattacharya, Jay Cheshes, Peter Meehan, Eric Sherman, and Ryan Skeen. Cheers also to Skeen for opening up his kitchen at Irving Mill; and to the good people at Lodge and Le Creuset, for making some fantastic griddles; and to Norma Ortiz and all the folks at Grateful Palate.

And of course, to all the wonderful folks making some serious bacons around the country. This tasting is for you.

One for all, all for bacon.

–J. Slab

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