At our house, bacon is more than just a main dish for Sunday breakfast … it’s a condiment, a flavor enhancer, a cooking partner, and yes, a way of life. Fact is, there are few food situations that aren’t improved by the addition of bacon. Salads become treasure hunts with a little bacon. Burgers are really only complete when topped with a couple slices of salty goodness. And, as we’ve seen this week, sometimes even dessert is better with bacon.
Author Sara Perry took this belief to the extreme in 2002 when she authored one of my favorite cookbooks, the truthfully-titled Everything Tastes Better With Bacon. Inside its pages, Perry has created some unbelievable recipes that feature bacon as a central ingredient, but also as a savory flavor enhancer in a supporting role. There’s a fantastic meatloaf recipe (drape 3 slices of par-cooked bacon over the loaf while it bakes), a great halibut dish where the fish is cooked in parchment paper, and my personal favorite, Sizzling Herb Pasta with White Beans and Crisp Smoked Bacon.
This week, I tried two new recipes from the book that further reinforced my admiration for Sara Perry, one for Try-It-You’ll-Like-It Bacon Brittle (above), and another for Double-Crunch Peanut Butter Cookies (below) that actually used pieces of bacon brittle inside, in addition to a healthy dose of crunchy peanut butter. Both turned out fabulously, and well-balanced. There’s a bit of bacon present in both, but not in a starring role.
Through the magic of the internet, I was able to reach out to Sara, and she was kind enough to participate in an e-mail interview about bacon, cookbooks and bacon cookbooks, included below.
Sara Perry: Hmmm, which one? They’re all my guilty pleasures! The decision was easy … my Chronicle editor made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Truth be told: Bill LeBlond called me one day and asked if I was sitting down. “I have an idea for a book, but I know it’s going to sound odd.” So, when he told me bacon, I agreed. “Think about it,” he says. “Doesn’t everything taste better with bacon?” Could I argue? He’d been having lunch with a chef in San Francisco and the topic came up and the idea was born. I agreed, and since I LOVE bacon, I thought it would be a kick, but the only problem was a dessert chapter. “Oh, you’ll think of something,” said Bill.
It took awhile, but I immediately went back to my favorite sweet, porky taste . . . .the covering of a Honey Baked Ham. That brown sugary, salty, crunchy flavor was so adaptable and a chapter was born.
TCOB: Preparing the book, I’m sure you’ve sampled quite a few. What’s your favorite bacon?
SP: Good question. I go back to guilty pleasures here. Do you have any? Like, for instance, chocolate. Sure I love the very best, but put a cheap, chocolate-coated malted milk ball in front of me and I’ll jump you for it! So, as long as the bacon is meaty … good ratio of meat to fat; is fresh and is cooked RIGHT, I’ll snag it. When I was testing for the book, I enjoyed each and every sample I tried. I know there’s criticism out there about Neuske’s applewood bacon being too smoky (or something), but I really enjoy it. Believe it or not, Hormel makes an excellent thick-sliced bacon, but it’s only available to professional chefs. The guy at The Grateful Palate has a Bacon on the Month club that has lots of tasty delicious choices. OH WAIT. There is one kind of bacon I do not like. Period. That’s the ready to microwave bacon. One word for it: Cardboard facsimile with flavors imported straight from the New Jersey “aromatic” distilleries (not really, but it seems that way to me).
TCOB: What’s the weirdest bacon-related thing you’ve ever seen?
SP: Bacon Band-aids.
TCOB: Why do you think bacon has achieved such notoriety/infamy? What has it got that ham/prosciutto/jerky doesn’t?
SP: I go back to my book for this one: I think bacon did have a career slump, but now it’s entering it’s renaissance and it’s about time. Previously disgraced as a fat, preservative-laden meat, bacon now offers many healthier options. It’s learner; it’s tastier; and you can find it free of chemicals. Artisan-style farms are raising pigs without hormones or antibiotics and they’re producing natural organic bacons that satisfy an appetite for old-fashioned flavor.
Cooks have always known hat bacon adds shadowy richness, earthy fragrance and subtle nuance to elegant entrees and everyday comfort food. That’s because bacon has two humble but charismatic ingredients: salt and fat. Salt brings out the flavor and fat carries the flavor to our taste buds. BUT not only that: Bacon has bite! It’s chewy and crunch. Savory. Slightly sweet, and damn habit-forming.
To answer the second half of the question. It has a name. A familiarity to every American kid who ever woke up to the smell of it cooking in the skillet.
TCOB: Ever tried making your own bacon?
SP: When I wrote my first book, “The Complete Coffee Book, I tried roasting my own coffee. Over and over again. Never was very good at it, but I learned a valuable lesson. Leave it to the folks who have a passion for creating the food we love to eat. That goes for bacon too!
Okay, so what’s the best way to cook bacon???? SLOWLY. For crisp, as-you-like-it bacon, nothing beats cooking it in a cold cast-iron skillet. It’s also the best way to enjoy the delicious aroma? (Recall your first memory of bacon?) Mine is that rise-and-shine smell of weekend bacon on the stove. Bottom line: With a top-quality bacon, use a cold, heavy skillet; it’s the only way.
In a skillet large enough to hold the slices in a single layer, arrange the slices and cook over medium-low heat. Doest that seem too low? Are you used to hot bacon fat spitting a you? No more. Cooking bacon at a low temperature prevents shrinking, curling, and uneven cooking. It’s time to say “so long” to roller-coaster bacon blackened on the crest and barely cooking on the downhill.
ONE LAST SERMON: Whether you enjoy it by the pound or parcel it out by the slice, you probably think it’s really fattening. Here’s the skinny: One uncooked, meat-streaked bacon slice (a little less than an ounce) has 126 calories and 24% fat. Obviously, a lot of fat melts AWAY during cooking. That same piece COOKED has 36 calories and about 6% fat. Pretty good, huh? Sure, the values change depending on the leanness of your bacon and remember, if you use uncooked bacon in a stew or other dish, the fat has not been removed in the cooking process. CHEERS!
TCOB: Thanks, Sara. Bacon rocks, and so do you!