Life's a Strip

Apple- or hickory-smoked bacon: Is there a difference?

The Burning Question crew hates to pry into someone's personal, um, habits. Really.

All we did was innocently ask for comment on the subject of pork slabs streaked with fat, cured and smoked and cut into strips. But Nick Badovinus, chef for such hotspots as Hibiscus and Fireside, dragged the subject down to a more guttural level. "Based on experience," he explains, "bacon fat will render at 98.6 with a little friction."

Ewwww.

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Not that we weren't intrigued, mind you. Back in junior high, one future crew member ended up in detention thanks to a pork fat-related wardrobe choice--i.e., a T-shirt reading "Makin' Bacon." So the lubricant properties of the stuff, well, it's been a point of curiosity. This week's topic, however, was intended to cover more appropriate aspects of America's favorite meat. We could explore bacon's role in stirring up tension between the world's leading religious faiths, for instance. Denied the comfortable, crunchy perfection of pan-fried strips...it's enough to send any bearded madman into a tizzy against bacon-munching countries.

Or perhaps we should just answer the original question.

Menus around town list bacon as apple-smoked, hickory-smoked, cob-smoked, brown sugar-cured, maple-cured, thick-sliced and so on. But this is the stuff mom picked from a Hormel wrapper and dropped onto the skillet. Does anything else really matter?

"There's a huge difference," says David Holben, chef at Del Frisco's. "The quality of bacon, the flavor profile, the fat content--you taste all of it." Curing and smoking slabs of meat adds depth, but the choice of wood, the ingredients used in the curing process, determines much of the flavor profile. "Hickory is acrid smoke," points out David McMillan of 62 Main in Colleyville. It almost dominates the meat and can easily mask everything else in a recipe. Chefs prefer hickory-smoked product in BLTs or other items dependent on the taste of crisp pork. Either that or they must blanch out the harsher elements. "Apple and other hardwoods are cooler-burning woods," McMillan continues. "It gives you a softer, silkier taste."

"With seafood or chicken, use apple," Holben suggests. "You get a hint of smoke, but it doesn't mask what you're doing."

Keith Thielen, sous chef at Sambuca's Addison location, describes apple-smoked bacon as almost sweet. But he's more adamant about size. "I like thickness," he says. It allows more of the basic, meatier flavors to emerge from the smoke.

"I hate thin bacon," he adds.

Bacons cured in salt or sugar, or even just left alone, show distinct character differences, as well. Blythe Beck, chef at Hector's on Henderson, placed an unadorned pork belly on the menu. "It is fabulous," she claims, "very deep, dirty South Texas." Unfortunately, no one ordered the stuff until she renamed it "naked bacon" braised for several hours. "Next night we sold out." And she's been experimenting with maple-cured slabs, leaving her kitchen at home smelling like pancakes and maple syrup. "One of my favorites was cider-braised," McMillan adds. "It's simmered 12 hours in cider--a bacon pot roast."

Hmmm. How does that taste? "It's a cross between candy, drugs and sex."

Here we go again. Like Godiva chocolate, hooking up on Saturday night and a shot of penicillin (we assume that's what McMillan meant), bacon is something so fundamental to those familiar with the back half of the Bible that our inquiry seems to end up in a discussion of life's baser pleasures. "I consume a taste of bacon every single day," says Badovinus. "It's a brief 'be good to yourself' moment."

Oh, by the way, he later clarified his original comment. Turns out chefs at times must cope with the failure of kitchen equipment by improvising--or so he says. Anyway, we appreciate his mantra: "Life's too short for bad bacon." And that's a good way to close out this week's Burning Question. There are artisanal labels, foreign takes on the product and even a bacon-of-the-month club for those wishing to sample the various presentations.

Just one more question for McMillan: Have you ever smoked your own?

"Smoked my own? Sure . . . Oh, bacon? No."

 
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