What makes bacon bacon? There are a lot of things that make bacon the delicious food that it is. We’ve discussed a bunch on this site. But bacon shares a common source with a lot of other pork products, and they all taste very different than bacon. What then, makes bacon taste so bacony? The answer, as you might know, is the curing process.
Curing keeps meat tasting great!
Curing is the practice of preserving meat against natural decay. This can be done in many ways, such as drying, sugaring, salting, smoking and adding nitrates. The point of curing is to basically turn the environment inside of a piece of meat into one that is inhospitable to the microbes that cause decay. If they can’t live there, they can’t break it apart! Gross I know but I love bringing up the science behind bacon…makes me look smarter.
Salt is our best defense
Salt is a particularly effective preservative since – as we know – most animals can either live in salt water or fresh water, but not in both. Since most of the microbes in meat developed in a fairly unsalty environment, adding salt kills them. Salt also helps to dry out the meat, which can help make it more inhospitable to microbes.
The major benefit to using salt as a form of preservative is that it adds flavour. Salt makes things taste salty, but it also makes other flavours stand out. This has made the process of salting a popular preservation method around the world. Bacon, as we’ve said, has been around for hundreds of years.
What then is the curing process?
Before the invention of refrigeration, salted or preserved meat was one of the only ways for most people to get meat, particularly on long sea voyages. In a dry cure, the meat is simply dried out and salted at the same time. Unfortunately, the downside to this method was (and is) that the consistency of the meat got tougher as time went on. If you had “bacon” that had been dry cured for several months in the nineteenth century, it might have been the consistency of leather at the end of the process.
The wet-cure makes everything supple
That’s where those bacon-friendly folk in Wiltshire folk come in again. Around about the middle of the nineteenth century, they developed a “wet-cure” process. This process involved immersing the bacon in a saltwater solution or brine for a couple of days in a refrigerated pool. (They actually kept ice from the winter to do this in the summer!) The advantage to this process is that the meat retained a suppleness and tenderness that it lost during dry-curing. It was also less salty. Now the question must be asked, did I get an A+ in History. No, but if it was on the history of bacon. I probably would have.
Nowadays the salt in the wet-cure is not as required for the curing process as it used to be. Instead, processors use nitrates to preserve the meat and the salt more to flavour it. This can speed up the curing process so that the meat doesn’t need to spend days floating in water to cure it properly. After the curing is done, some bacon products are smoked as well. But, once again, although this was originally done to preserve the meat, nowadays this doesn’t do much beyond adding a smoky flavour to the meat.
How about them apples? …I mean bacon. Do you cure your own bacon or do you go to a store and buy it?
Image by p-duke