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General Discussion

In Praise of Cheap Bacon

Burke and Wells | Dec 6, 200112:24 AM     5

Thick, dense, flavorful bacon, of the highest quality, applewood smoked and cured in exotic regional salts, prepared from the best pork bellies raised under the watchful eye of the artisan farmer. Delicious. But it is time to sing the glories of cheap, industrial-grade, cafeteria-worthy bacon and its terrible lowbrow delights.

I've nothing against quality bacon, with its complex, multi-layered textures, meaty flavors and reduced saltiness. I enjoy the taste of good smoke and the toughness of well-cured meats. I wouldn't dream of using any but the best for fine cooking: the better the bacon, the better the canape. Anything that requires bacon for moisture, such a gorgeous filet mignon begging for a good wrap, deserves quality.

Then there's breakfast in a little coffee shop, or a BLT at a diner. You won't get anything better than bulk bacon from somewhere less than Safeway. Try to cook this stuff like quality bacon and all you get is a greasy strip of potential heartburn. But there's another way to cook it--blast it on high heat until it changes, until it becomes something you couldn't get from the good stuff.

Cheap bacon cooked hard and fast on the griddle, because it's so thin, because its meat is hardly distinguishable from its fat in the first place, becomes something entirely new: crispy, light, salty, carbonized but not burnt. When it comes to you, let it cool for a few minutes and it becomes fragile and brittle, liable to break into a million pieces. I call it "shatter bacon." Every bacon bit wishes it could grow up to be shatter bacon.

You can't do this with quality bacon, it'll just get tough and hard, ruined. But cheap bacon treated this way adds texture to any sandwich. It's the perfect foil to mushy sauteed potatoes, soft scrambled eggs and butter-limp toast. It's like a chip or pork rind, impossibly thin and rendered into oblivion.

Shatter bacon is the triumph of technique over ingredient. It proves that almost anything can be delicious if cooked right. As Alton Brown said, the obsession with freshness and quality ingredients isn't a bad thing, but where does that leave your leftovers, your dried goods, granulated spices? If you know how to exploit it--thin, meager, over-processed though it may be--even cheap bacon can become something extraordinary. I think this is the hidden truth behind those fabulous regional foods people love and swear to: the Philly cheesesteaks and pushcart gyros of the world.

It almost gives hope to boxed mac & cheese.

Peter
wells@emusic.com

A Burke and Wells essay

Link: http://www.burkeandwells.com

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