Bacon is more than just a cut from the belly of a swine.
It has made its way to our breakfast, lunch and dinner tables in more forms than butchers from years past could have imagined, popping up in salad dressings, cookies and even dog biscuits.
It has become a pop culture icon, its image emblazoned on T-shirts, entire festivals (the Bacon and Beer Festival in Boston and the Bacon and Bourbon Expo in New York) celebrating its saltiness.
Warning — this not a vegetarian-friendly story.
This is a story for the people who say, “I’ll have bacon with my bacon.” This is about the journey pigs take from farm to plate.
Where your bacon comes from
A large sow wandered around behind Mountain Farm in Sutton on a recent morning.
“This one will be at the butcher Friday,” said farm owner Arthur Mountain. “We’ve got to catch four of them.”
Fortunately for Mountain, catching his pigs does not require much effort as most of them walk themselves right into the truck that will drive them to a butcher in Sanford, Maine.
“We don’t get sad,” Mountain said of the pigs’ departure. “This is our living.”
Mountain and his wife, Jessica, raise pigs at their farm year-round on four acres of land and take orders for them to be purchased as halves and wholes. In years past, they offered a Pick-a-Pig program to allow customers to select the swine that would one day make it to their kitchen table. The Pick-a-Pig program began so customers could pay for their purchases in installments but “it became too close” for people to know their pigs before they were butchered, said Jessica.
Mountain’s sows give birth twice yearly; the gestation period for a pig lasts for three months, three weeks and three days. The pigs are raised to an estimated 250 pounds, which Mountain said they usually hit at around six months. After 250 pounds, he said the pig is just putting on fat. A 250-pound pig can produce 10 to 12 pounds of bacon.
The Mountains do not sell their pork commercially but instead take orders at local farmers markets. This year they are participating at five, including the Weare Winter Farmers Market.
“We only sell what we raise, so we know what’s in it,” Mountain said of his farm’s uncured pork products, which he said have less salt than commercial bacon sold at the supermarket.
Two smokehouses, one mission
Mike Satzow opened North Country Smokehouse, the largest smokehouse in New England, in Claremont in the 1980s. His family has been in the meat business since 1912. The pigs are purchased from a packing plant in Quebec that oversees 13 pig farms.
“We are very concerned about the environment and the way pigs are handled and treated,” Satzow said. “We feel very comfortable with that supplier.”
Since he began smoking his own bacon, Satzow has seen it grow from mere egg accompaniment to full-fledged feature food. His pepper bacon has been used as a swizzle stick in the Bloody Mary at a restaurant in Las Vegas.
“There are lots of chefs using our bacon in different applications,” he said. “Bacon is just one of those things — if you use just a little bit it enhances the flavor of the dish.”
Locally, North Country bacon is used at Bedford Village Inn in Bedford and Z Food and Drink in Manchester and is sold at The Meat House and Hannaford Supermarket.
North Country Smokehouse bacon is also used in macaroni and cheese at a Boston restaurant, in chowder made at a seafood company in New Bedford, Mass., and tempura-style at the Red Cat in Manhattan. It has been featured on The Today Show and is served on the world’s largest private yacht, docked in Palm Beach, Fla. — “It has two helicopters, a submarine and our bacon,” Satzow said of the boat owned by bacon-lovers.
Satzow is even developing a bacon hot dog: he would put bacon into the casing with the meat to give it a nice smoky profile.
“In Europe people wrap their hot dogs with bacon, so instead of the labor, packing and cooking, we decided to put the bacon inside the hot dog,” Satzow said. “We decided to add convenience to a convenience item.” The bacon dog would be distributed to upscale delis in New York, he said.
Satzow’s bacon is slated to appear in the next edition of the book Seduced by Bacon by Joanna Pruess.
Another long-standing smokehouse in the Granite State is Fox Country Smokehouse in Canterbury, built by Charley Fox in 1969 and now run by his son Matthew. A small stone and wood house on Briar Bush Road, the building looks a little like something out of a fairytale, but inside it looks like a traditional general store — except instead of penny candy, its shelves are lined with vacuum-sealed smoked meat products.
Dressed in layers to battle the cold temperatures he works in, smokehouse clerk Bill Annis splits his time between smoking and slicing the pork and manning the counter.
“Everyone once in a while I will cook some bacon up while I’m here,” Annis said.
Also behind the counter sits the original smoker built by Fox, but its days of smoking pork are over. The smoker is now designated for smoking cheese, as it is set up with a smoke producer rather than a heat source.
In addition to smoking and selling its own smoked meat products, made using pigs from Hatfield, Penn., the shop has kept up its tradition of smoking custom meats. Custom meats are hung, unsliced, waiting to be picked up. Annis uses a knife to mark each cut with a letter of the alphabet to identify its owner. Fox Country does not slice customer orders, so as to be able to keep up with its own. From September to Christmas, Fox Country probably produces an estimated 800 pounds of bacon weekly; in the off season, the smokehouse produces about half that, Annis said.
Let’s get smokin’
Bacon is smoked at North Country using applewood (trimmings from apple trees) and corncob (a traditional New England style), but bacon can also be pecan, hickory, beechwood or maple smoked. Only the uncured bacon at Fox Country is smoked with applewood, and hickory is used to flavor the rest.
Black pepper is hand-rubbed on the fat side of the pig belly for the smokehouse’s pepper bacon, and bacon is rolled in cornmeal to make peameal bacon, a popular choice in Canada.
“It might have been popular here at one time but the style probably died in the late ’40s — a lot of old-fashioned cuts are back again,” Satzow said. “Different recipes and cuts of meat are indigenous to different areas.”
Fox Country also offers a Cajun-style bacon, which is rubbed with cracked red and cayenne pepper.
Also at North Country, before the bacon is smoked it passes through the injector where it is infused with maple syrup from Sullivan Farm in Cornish (North Country is the largest user of maple syrup in New Hampshire), brown sugar and salt. A 2,000-pound tumbler then equalizes the cure.
Bacon is brined on a smaller scale at Fox Country, with vats filled with salt, water, white sugar, “flavoring spices,” nitrites and monosodium glutamate for extended shelf life and flavor. Bacon is then brined in the vats for seven to 10 days in a 34-degree room before it goes to the smoker.
Both North Country and Fox Country offer uncured versions of their bacon, which are both nitrite- and MSG-free.
“[Uncured bacon] fits a market,” Satzow said. “People are concerned about commercially generated nitrites.”
A pipe travels from one smoke generator into the four smokers run at North Country and high-speed fans inside the smokers are used to move the smoke around the bellies and to drive smoke into the meat.
“Most companies now use a liquid smoke spray — they spray it on and call it bacon,” Satzow said. “We use a natural smoking process … we don’t cut any corners.”
A crackling sound can be heard when the smoker door is open at North Country. Satzow starts his bacon smoking at 80 degrees before bringing it up to 135.
Smoke is applied between 80 and 100 degrees to open up the pores of the meat and the heat puts the bellies in position to receive the smoke. A key to smoking any meat, Satzow said, is to ensure that the surface is dry before applying the smoke. Otherwise, a water barrier will form, which he said is difficult for smoke to penetrate.
Bacon at Fox Country is smoked overnight at 160 degrees.
“For bacon … we try to get the interior to 144 degrees,” Annis said.
There is a United States Department of Agriculture regulation requiring that all pork products be trichinella-free. Extra steps, such as keeping a sudsy floor and running an air cleaner, are taken at North Country to ensure that any bacteria carried by pork are eliminated from the products.
Smoked bacon hangs from rungs on racks in the chiller at North Country waiting until it is cool enough to be sliced. The bacon at Fox Country spends 24 hours in the cooler; Annis said it needs to cool to less than 40 degrees in order to be hard enough for slicing.
The high-speed German slicer slices three to four tons of bacon a day at North Country, with some bacon sliced almost an inch thick. The smokehouse produces 16-, 18- and 22-count packages; the thinner the bacon the more slices. A large roll stock machine removes the air from the packaging and vacuum-seals it shut.
As Fox Country is a smaller-volume producer than North Country, the smokehouse only began using an automatic slicer two years ago. Before that, Annis used a manual slicer for 10 years. The smokehouse originally offered bacon only in one-pound chunks, but since slicing, their volume has gone up.
“Every year we would get busier and busier and have more wholesale accounts, so we definitely needed to step up to a bigger machine,” Annis said, adding that he still has to stack the sliced bacon by hand.
To smoke your own meat at home, you need to start from the ground up, said Steve Cybulski of Blackwater Farm in Contoocook. Cybulski began raising and smoking his own pigs in 2000 and stopped only a few years ago.
He built his smoker, which looks similar to an outhouse, using old wooden crates and dug a hole, four feet by four feet wide and two to three feet deep, six to eight feet away. He then laid an eight-foot stove pipe down to connect the two. He stapled newspaper inside the wooden structure to slow the draft down.
First, the hole should be filled with a wheelbarrow full of maplewood; that wood then needs to be burned down to embers. “You don’t want to use charcoal because it would taste terrible,” Cybulski said.
Five gallons of applewood chips, first soaked in water for 20 minutes, should be piled on top of the coals and then the whole thing covered with plywood to keep the applewood from burning. “You don’t want an open flame; it would taste like you cleaned a chimney with it,” Cybulski said. He also recommended putting sand around the edges of the plywood to further slow the burning.
To prep uncured bacon for smoking, hand-rub coarse kosher salt and brown sugar on both sides, let it sit for two to three days, then repeat the process. The bacon should be cured in the refrigerator for a total of five days, Cybulski said.
“If you do it for less, it won’t be as flavorful,” he said. “If you do it for more it will be too salty and too sweet.”
In the smoker, bacon should be hung on wooden dowels or cotton string and left to smoke for 12 to 16 hours. Cybulski suggested choosing an evening where the barometric pressure is low to allow the smoke to “just hang there.” Fall weather, he said, is optimal.
Pig on the plate
Around Manchester, Richard’s Bistro executive chef Matt Provencher is known as “King of the Pig,” and while he uses pork across the board, it is his unique bacon dishes that get noticed.
In September, he cooked up chocolate, peanut butter and bacon wontons for the Taste of Downtown Manchester. Duck confit risotto with candied bacon was offered as a recent special at the Bistro. The regular menu boasts a lobster tail wrapped in bacon (to keep it moist and add saltiness to the dish).
“People laugh about it but our regulars are used to it by now,” Provencher said of his smoky creations.
Provencher orders already-butchered pork from Kellie Brook Farm in Greenland and Hopewell Farms in Newbury.
“I try to use as much of the pig as possible, even the head cheese — that’s the [part] no one wants to use but it’s so good,” he said.
Provencher prefers his traditional belly bacon applewood smoked with a little bit of fat.
“I hate it when it’s really smoky — you lose the pig in it,” he said.
Bacon, Provencher said, is easy to work with as long as you do not forget about it. One recent afternoon, he said, his staff was making three pans of bacon because two ended up burned the first time. “We got distracted and it was up in flames again,” Provencher said of the second burned bacon batch. “It only takes five minutes to burn bacon and it is an awful taste.”
To make candied bacon, the bacon has to be cooked in the oven between two sheet pans so it remains flat. You then dust it with sugar and go over each slice with a blow torch to get it brulee-ed, Provencher said.
He estimated that he uses 20 pounds of bacon a week by including it in all courses offered at the restaurant — appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts. The fat of the bacon also gets used to add more flavor to non-bacon dishes but nowadays people seem to be afraid to eat fat, Provencher said.
“Years ago people didn’t shy away from using fat; now everybody is scared of it,” he said. “When I was young I used to go to my mémé’s house and she kept a coffee can of bacon fat under the sink. She would scoop some out with a cast iron pan and off we’d go.”
“Everything is good made in bacon fat,” he said.
Thirty years ago, bacon was 50 percent fatter than it is now, said Marc-Damian Hartley, owner of How’s Your Onion? in Derry, but “because of cholesterol reasons people here want it leaner.”
There are actually health benefits to eating bacon, Hartley said. Bacon, he claims, is a good food for pregnant women to eat as it contains choline, a nutrient that helps develop the brain of the baby. And bacon has become a good source of Omega 3, which helps prevent heart attacks, improves cholesterol and circulation, as pigs are now being fed with grain, he said.
Hartley, too, uses applewood smoked bacon on every level at his restaurant, both on the plate and in food preparation. He uses an estimated 100 pounds of it a week, an amount that astonishes even his own kitchen staff.
“The flavor, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Fat is flavor, that’s all there is.”
“There are not too many recipes without bacon in them,” he continued. Hartley uses bacon on his hamburgers, in omelets and quesadillas, and even makes a bacon ranch salad dressing as a dip for spiked potatoes, which are also made with bacon. He uses bacon fat in his roux, the base that thickens soup.
“You don’t taste the bacon so much, but the flavor is in there,” Hartley said. “The soups that are not are designed to cure a cold are the ones [in which] we use bacon fat.”
Hartley said he uses so much bacon that some customers ask why he does not change the name of his restaurant to “How’s Your Bacon?”
Don’t do the ’wave
Local bacon users and bacon professionals recommend staying away from the ready-to-go microwave bacon varieties.
“There are some excellent bacons on the market and that is not one of them,” Satzow said.
“They use everything they can to accelerate [the smoking] process. Some companies just slice it, run it through the microwave and then pack it,” he continued, adding that some bacon producers can make and ship their bacon in one day, whereas his bacon can be kept at his plant for a week before it is shipped. “Ours is not quick easy preparation; our market is for when somebody wants to make a statement using bacon.”
Unfortunately for those looking to add some pig to their pints or swine to their screwdrivers, bacon beer and bacon vodka (yes, such things do exist!) cannot be purchased in New Hampshire. However, Bert Bingel, owner of Bert’s Better Beers in Hooksett, said there are a few brews available in the Granite State whose hints of smokiness almost give them the characteristics of the real deal.
“Whatever the beer is smoked with, it usually lends itself to a meaty, hammy kind of smokiness,” Bingel said. Bingel has been fortunate enough to try bacon beer a few times. While judging a homebrew competition three years ago, he tasted a beer that had bacon bits floating it.
“It was absolutely breakfast,” he said. “It was delicious.”
For those seeking a bacon-like brew, Bingel recommends German-style rauchbier, smoked beer that “tastes like ham or bacon in a bottle” that is available in Massachusetts. Alaskan Smoked Porter and Stones Smoked Porter also have a similar smoky flavor, he said.
The closest beer to actual bacon, though, is the Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen, which Bingel said is available commercially in New Hampshire.
Bingel suggested pairing bacon and bacon-like beers with cheese and, “even to the point of being redundant,” with smoked sausage or brisket.
“It’s a great outdoor tailgate kind of beer,” he said.
When it comes to bacon, Satzow said he is a traditionalist and while he does not pay much attention to “cutesy” things like bacon beer or vodka, he said his favorite cut of the pig will never go out of style.
“Bacon will never be penalized for being overexposed,” Satzow said.
Bacon and the nation
The bacon market fluctuates tremendously, Satzow said adding that the cost of pork bellies is expected to increase 50 percent this summer as farmers can no longer afford to put pigs on the ground because of the high cost of feed. Satzow attributed the rising feed cost to the fact that one-third of the U.S. corn crop is being used for ethanol to make fuel.
“Everyone in our industry is upset about this … we are concerned it will be a long-term problem and food costs will skyrocket throughout the world,” Satzow said.