Archive for the 'Food and Drink' Category

Orange’s Edible Food Fest: “Celebrating Food From Earth To Table” on August 9th

At last year’s Edible Food Fest I discovered that I love goat cheese. Previously I’d been unimpressed (and rather revolted, frankly) by the grocery-store variety, so I was initially dubious about trying it. Still, you can’t claim to love cheese without being willing to sample every variety, so I reached for a Romano-laden toothpick and gingerly nibbled off the edge. And, that quickly, I was hooked. There was just something special about it. Maybe it was the simple, straightforward way it was presented, or maybe it was just that it was amazing, flavorful hard cheese, straight from the brine. Regardless, it was mouthwateringly good: strong, salty, and pungent. Needless to say, I took home a package—and a business card, so I could reorder.

This seems to be a common experience of many who have flocked to the Edible Food Fest during the past two years. Whether it’s a homemade granola, a locally made cider, or a line of jams and jellies, most people find something new and exciting they want to take home and talk about. Also extremely popular are the chef demonstration tents (they’ve added a second one this year!) which late-comers find to be standing-room-only.

The fest is a great chance to meet fellow foodies and get a hands-on look at some of the best local, organic, and homemade offerings the area is producing. Among the vendors this year: Plantation Peanuts of Wakefield, Bees n’ Blossoms (raw honey), Croftburn Market (meats), Spring Mill Farm (goat cheese), Wildwood’s Hickory Syrup, and Family Ties and Pies.

Located within walking distance of the festival, the Holladay House is the perfect place to stay if you’re planning to attend this year. If you book two nights with us, we’ll even sweeten the deal and provide free admission to the fest.

Orange’s Edible Food Fest is scheduled for August 9, 2014, and will be open 10AM—6PM. See complete schedules and vendor lists at ediblefest.com.

Hops & Chops 2014

Like fastidious cooks everywhere, the “Chef-In-Chief” of Holladay House’s annual Hops & Chops couldn’t help but regard the food with a critical eye. However, judging by the enthusiastic response (and the scarcity of leftovers!) at the July 5th event, innkeeper Sam was alone in his severe evaluation of his own cooking. The general consensus: 2014′s edition hit the mark yet again.

The family-style dinner went off without a hitch. CBlog--Hops&ChopsFollowup--FamilyStyle--7-16-14onversation flowed throughout the evening, the food selections were well-received, and the festivities wrapped up just in time for guests to venture out for fireworks.

The “chops” for this year were “cider-brined pork rib chops with dried cherries and apple chips.” Rounding out the menu were fresh vegetables from local gardens, such as “spicy honey-lime radish slaw” “just-picked cucumbers in a yogurt and fresh dill sauce” and an assortment of freshly baked breads – Sharon baked them “from scratch” and the aroma delighted everyone in the house! Wrapping things up were several types of dessert, including a blueberry cheesecake and Sharon’s freshly-baked “amazing all-american apple pie”.

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Diners also enjoyed the beer selections, “hops”, complementing each course. All the beers were carefully selected to pair with the flavors of the meal, and all were craft microbrews from Virginia. Of special note was the Hardywood Park Cream Ale from Richmond, VA, picked for its distinctly American origins. Cream Ale has a long history in America. Until the late 19th century, British-style ales and porters dominated the US beer market. Then, in the mid 19th century, German immigrants began to arrive in larger numbers, bringing with them a tradition of their own: lager-brewing. Lager quickly became popular, forcing British-style ale makers to up their game. Their answer to the lager-craze was an all-new beverage, unique to America: cream ale. According to the menu, “this flavorful style of beer has the characteristics of a great lager, but is brewed like an ale.”

A quick (and probably over-simplified) distinction for anyone out there as unfamiliar with beer-brewing as I am: ale-brewing uses a type of yeast that performs best in a warm fermentation environment. Lager employs yeast that ferments best in a colder environment.

Also on the beer menu this year was the Chin Music Amber Lager from Center of the Universe Brewing (http://www.cotubrewing.com/) and the Woodbooger Belgian-Style Brown Ale from Strangeways Brewing (strangewaysbrewing.com). Sam grew up in Ashland, VA, (locally known to be the “center of the Universe”), and was eager to try this new brewery’s selections. Strangeways Brewing provides a unique and eccentric twist to the Virginia craft brewing business, and the Woodbooger brown ale was a favorite at the table, particularly during dessert.Blog--Hops&ChopsFollowup--Herbs--7-16-14

Bold Rock’s Virginia Draft hard cider rounded out the list, appearing not only in bottled form (“balancing soft sweetness with a bright apple taste”) but also serving as the main ingredient in the brine for the pork-rib chops.

All in all, a good evening with good people and good food. We’re looking forward to next year!

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5th Annual Hops & Chops Set For July 5th


The menu is short-listed, the beer is delivered, and the meat is awaiting marinade. In a little over a week there will be a lot more crackling in Orange than just fireworks—and there’s still time  to save yourself a seat.

Hops & Chops is our favorite way to celebrate Independence Day here at the Holladay House. For five years since 2009 (no, that’s not a typo; there was a hiatus in 2012) the Elswick family has pulled out all the stops every 4th of July weekend to share this holiday dinner with their family and friends.

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Hops & Chops steps the traditional Independence Day meal up a notch, bringing to the table food that’s not only delicious, but strictly local. Everything on the menu was produced within the state, and most from within Orange County. From the medley of Virginia beers (many so up-and-coming they’re not yet available in supermarkets!) to the herbs (harvested from our garden out back) flavoring the locally-sourced meat, the celebration brings together our top picks of the area’s offerings.

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The full menu isn’t yet finalized (local availability will play into that) but the sneak peek I received involved things like “Cider-Brined Pork Chops With Dried Cherries and Apple Chips” and “Holladay House Made-From-Scratch Buttermilk Biscuits” as well as a number of just-picked, garden-fresh sides. Complimenting the dinner will be a selection of beers chosen to pair perfectly with the flavors of each course.

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Wrapping things up (my favorite part!) will be a selection of dessert favorites, including “Sharon’s Amazing All-American Apple Pie”.

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Everything is served indoors, away from the humidity, sunburn, and pesky flies that normally go hand-in-hand with the holiday. Not to worry, though—you can still wear your flip-flops. We’ll be serving beer in the dining room starting at 6PM, and dinner just a bit later at 6:30. Afterwards you’re invited to attend the Celebrate Orange fireworks display, located just 10 minutes away at Booster Park. This family-friendly event showcases half-an-hour of “the rockets red glare/the bombs bursting in air” and begins at 9 PM.

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July 5th—-come out for good food, great hospitality, and a laid-back, family-style atmosphere. Get to know everyone, celebrate our nation’s birthday, and, best of all—the kitchen clean-up is on us. Give us a call to check room availability!

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Our First Crop of Herbs Is In (Or Should I Say, “Inn”)

 

When I walked into work today, I was greeted by the sight of Sam teetering on a step-ladder, stringing fishing line across the ceiling in the kitchen. Sharon supervised from the floor below, offering constructive criticism and ostensibly ready to catch him if a strong wind rendered it necessary.

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I’ve worked at Holladay House for four years now and seen lots of projects underway, so I knew if I waited long enough an answer would come to me. When the answer arrived it came with a bag of goodies to take home with me–one of the best perks of working at the b&b.

 

To clarify: the first crop of fresh herbs came in from the garden today! The garden has been an ongoing labor of love here at the inn, so we’re very excited about it.

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So far we have fennel, thyme, lemon balm, and winter savory drying across the ceiling, coloring the air sweet and pungent. We’re looking forward around here to seeing where the dried flavorings turn up. If you’re lucky, you should be able to catch their appearance at the breakfast table: maybe sprinkled across the ham-and-cheese quiches, or adding savor to Sharon’s already delicious Holladay-family-recipe biscuits. I’ve just heard from Sam that they’re definitely billed to make an appearance at our annual July 4th “Hops & Chops” event as well. (I’ll have info on that, and recipes to share, coming up soon!)

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I, for one, am already eagerly awaiting leftovers to take home with me.

The smell of homemade biscuits . . .

Made-from-Scratch Buttermilk Biscuit Recipe from Orange, VA

When we bought the Holladay House Bed and Breakfast in Orange, VA, the Holladay family bestowed upon us the secret of their success: their family buttermilk biscuit recipe! 

Buttermilk Biscuit recipe from Orange, VA

Holladay Family Buttermilk Biscuits baked fresh in Orange, VA!

The Holladay family owned our home for over a century, from 1899 to 2000.  In 1989, Pete Holladay (the grandson of Dr. Lewis Holladay) and his wife Phebe (yes, that is spelled correctly), turned his family’s Main Street historic home into a Virginia Bed and Breakfast.  In a small historic town like Orange, Virginia, an innkeeper simply has no “street cred” unless they are capable of producing the best-tasting biscuits around.  So, Pete kept his family’s buttermilk biscuit recipe alive, and these biscuits probably have been made in this house as long as his family owned it.

We are happy to keep the tradition alive, and our guests are glad we are!  Sharon has delighted many out-of-town guest as well as Orange, Virginia locals by learning this historic buttermilk biscuit recipe. While I get a chance to sleep in a little, she gets up early to bake these buttermilk biscuits fresh for our guests. As I said in my post on how to cook bacon, one should seek instruction from the masters of previous generations.  For your breakfast-eating pleasure, we are passing this recipe along to you.  Enjoy!

Holladay Family Buttermilk Biscuits from Orange, VA

Ingredients:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 T baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 stick of butter chilled, plus 1 T butter, melted
3/4 cup buttermilk

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 400F degrees.
2. Sift together flour, baking powder, sugar, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt into a bowl.
3. Cut in the 1 stick of chilled butter until mixture resembles large coarse crumbs.
4. Make a well in the center of flour mixture; add buttermilk all at once and stir just until dough clings together.
5. Gently roll out, fold over and roll out dough about 9 times on a floured surface.
6. Pat dough out to 1/2-inch thick. Cut dough with a 2-inch biscuit cutter or glass.
7. Brush biscuit tops with 1 T melted butter.
8. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden.

Chef Cooper’s Whisky-rubbed Cured Salmon in Orange, VA

After writing my previous post about Virginia-made single malt whisky from the Copper Fox Distillery,  I thought I’d continue the Virginia spirits topic with a recipe.  I consulted one our region’s finest chefs, Randy Cooper, from Elmwood at Sparks.  Elmwood at Sparks is one of several outstanding fine dining restaurants in our region, but it is the only one of its kind right here on Main Street in Orange, VA, just a block away from our Virginia Bed and Breakfast!

Our guests thoroughly enjoy Elmwood at Sparks. We have never recieved a negative review, and Chef Cooper puts his extensive experience with French and American style cuisines to good use. We recieve the best comments about the delectable sauces and scrumptious soups Chef Cooper crafts.

Since I have been exploring the many options for Virginia-produced whisky and other spirits, I asked Chef Cooper to recommend a recipe using whisky as an ingredient. The recipe below is what he provided, and I can’t wait to try it!  Please try it yourselves, and tell me what you think!

“Whiskey Rubbed Cured Salmon”

 2# Fresh Salmon

375 ML Your favorite Whiskey

4 oz ginger- sliced

2 sprigs rosemary

2 sprigs thyme

3# salt

3# Sugar

1T black peppercorns

Cheesecloth as needed

  1. Combine in sauce pot over high heat : whiskey, thyme, rosemary, half of peppercorns,  and ginger.
  2. Reduce by half- CAUTION- this may flame (remove from heat and allow to reduce over lower heat)- allow to cool.
  3. Wrap salmon in cheesecloth and place in a deep baking dish.
  4. Pour ingredients over cheesecloth-wrapped salmon  and allow to marinade for up to 24 hours.
  5. Combine salt, sugar, peppercorns- blend thoroughly
  6. Remove salmon from marinade (reserve liquid).
  7. Using fresh cheesecloth, rewrap the salmon.
  8. Place a shallow bed of salt mix into deep dish- add salmon, cover with remaining salt mixture.
  9. Reserve under refrigeration for 24 hours; check salmon for firmness, when firm, cure is complete.
  10. Remove from curing mix and wash under cold running water; pat dry with paper-towels.
  11. Serve with Boursin cheese, fresh baguette and pickled red onions.

Single Malt Whisky Comes from Scotland—or Does It?

Lodging near Orange, VA

Copper Fox Distillery, only about 45 minutes from Holladay House Bed and Breakfast in Orange, VA

Be prepared, dear readers, for this is my “coming out” day.

 I’m a whisky man.

 There– I said it. Out loud and in the heart of genteel Virginia Wine Country.  This may come as a shock to Virginia Wine enthusiasts who have come to know our Bed and Breakfast in Orange, VA as a place that exclusively serves fine Virginia Wine from local wineries, such as Barboursville, Keswick, Old House, Prince Michel, Gray Ghost, and quite a few others.  We’ve held Virginia wine tasting events, hosted receptions with Virginia wine, offered tours to Virginia wineries, tasted hundreds of Virginia wines ourselves, and generally do all we can to promote Virginia Wine, especially those crafted on the Journey Through Hallowed Ground and the Monticello Wine Trail.

 But I prefer whisky. I’m sorry, I just do. Don’t hate me because I like spirits.

Copper Fox Distillery, 45 minutes from Orange, VA

Barrel of Virginia whisky at Copper Fox Distillery, only about 45 minutes from our Bed and Breakfast!

 In my formative years of alcohol consumption, a man of dubious character said to me: “If you’re going to drink, drink like a man.”  He then handed me a bottle of George Dickel No. 12, suggesting that it was a finer beverage than Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7.  I wouldn’t have known the difference at the time, so I took him at his word.  The first sip went down like a razor blade, but after that my taste for alcohol was a whisky taste—George Dickel No. 12 in particular.  Then, I made it my mission to educate my college roommate—God rest his soul—in the same tradition. He did me proud. I’ve tried to uphold that tradition ever since.

 George Dickle no. 12 is certainly a fine beverage, and nary a disparaging word will be said about it in my written musings. Bourbon is still my drink of choice, preferably from Tennessee or Kentucky. Perhaps that’s my Tennessee mountain roots sprouting from within, I’m not sure (hmm…the thought just occurred to me that most folks probably do not know the difference between bourbon, whisky, or scotch—I guess that’s an excellent subject for a future blog). But, the subject for today is not Tennessee bourbon—it’s Virginia Single Malt Whisky.

 We make every effort to serve local Virginia products any chance we can, and whisky has a long history here in Virginia.  In fact, one of George Washington’s primary sources of income was whisky, which he produced at Mount Vernon (this casts the 1790 Whisky Rebellion in a whole new light).  The generous researchers at Washington’s venerable home have been kind enough to rekindle Washington’s passion for spirits, and they now sell Washington’s whisky.  Bless their little hearts.

 Washington’s whisky used three grains: corn, rye, and barley. It was not a single malt.  Traditional Scottish-style single malt whisky from Virginia has been hard to come by, even today. Until now.

Visit our bed and breakfast in Orange, VA!

The official greeter at Copper Fox

A few weeks ago, I had the extreme pleasure oftaking a tour of a nearby Virginia distillery called the Copper Fox Distillery, where the Wasmund family has been making fine Scottish-style single malt whisky since January 2000.  Single malt whisky is traditionally produced in Scotland. Like my own taste, America’s taste for whisky spirits tends to lean more towards bourbon.  So,  Copper Fox’s production of single malt whisky in the heart of Virginia wine country is kinda special.

The Copper Fox Distillery is nestled in a charming community at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains, not far from Gray Ghost winery, and about 45 minutes away from our Virginia Bed and Breakfast.  The distillery itself is an old building that was once part of an apple-packing and cider production facility. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by a kind-hearted old soul, the distillery’s friendly yellow Labrador retriever whose name now escapes me. The tour was fascinating, and the wholesome smell of smoked barley was warm and inviting.

 

Visit our Bed and Breakfast in Orange, VA!

Wood stove used to heat the malt kiln, adding fruitwood flavors to the process.

The folks at Copper Fox perform all tasks by hand themselves, including the bottling and wax-sealing. Our guide, Sean McCaskey, showed us how they malt the barley, turn it on the floor with rakes, and then dry it in the kiln. The kiln uses a woodstove for heat, and the smoke from applewood, cherrywood, and oakwood adds some special flavor to the barley.  They hastily avoided detailed discussions of the distillation process (so as not to reveal their secrets!), and then took us to their barrel racks where they showed us the used barrels in which their whisky ages (by contrast, bourbon must be made in new oak barrels, or it can’t be called bourbon). An important feature of Copper Fox whisky is that they add toasted applewood, cherrywood and oak chips to the batch while it ages, to give it a special flavor.  This is particularly appropriate considering they are located in Virginia’s apple country!

Visit our bed and breakfast in Orange, VA!

Malting Virginia-grown barley on site

Virginia law prohibits an on-site tasting (although you can get a nosing sample) but we did buy two bottles to savor in the privacy of our bed and breakfast in Orange, VA. Savor them, we did!  We purchased a bottle of the Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky and a bottle of the Copper Fox Rye Whisky. The Rye Whisky is  2/3 rye and 1/3 malted barley, while the single malt is obviously 100% hand-malted barley. The Single Malt came from Batch 46 (the latest batch), and the rye whisky was freshly bottled on 28 October 2010.

At  96 proof, the single malt has a bold flavor, but not obtrusive one. Whereas most whiskys of a similar proof I have tried are nothing but “burn,” Wasmund’s had rich, complex, and identifiable flavors that make it pleasant to drink.  My theory is that this comes from the fruitwood chips used during the aging process. Undoubtedly, the bold, pleasing auburn color comes from this as well. This single malt whisky has some excellent characteristics worthy of recommendation.

Visit our Virginia Bed and Breakfast

Wax for sealing the bottles, melted and carefully applied by hand.

The Rye Whisky is similarly strong (90 proof), but  is slightly lighter and more amber than the single malt. Although it has some bite up front, the finish has some definite earthy flavors. The rye has  discernable toasted grain flavors, whereas the Single Malt had more of a charcoal/wood characteristic.

Lodging near Orange, VA

Products at the Copper Fox Distillery store

Certainly, one would not mistake these excellent Virginia whiskys for Appalachian-style bourbons. They have their own unique taste, and both would pair excellently with a Virginia-style barbecue, chocolate mousse, or even a pot of home-cooked beans (I know the latter is true because I just had that for lunch—black beans and lentils slow-simmered in a cast iron pot  with a country hambone, salt, and pepper—simple, wholesome, and delicious).

Holladay House Bed and Breakfast innkeeper

The Innkeeper tasting the only 100% local Virginia Single Malt Whisky

The next time you visit our historic bed and breakfast in Orange, VA, be sure to ask for directions to the Copper Fox Distillery. Even if you are not a self-proclaimed whisky drinker like I am, a discerning palate will appreciate the complexities of this fine local spirit. We also have it available to our guests for a winter evening toast by the fire!

Of course, there are a number of other Virginia whiskys one should try, and even a legal moonshine produced right here in Culpeper, Virginia. In the future, I’ll write more about each and every one of them.

Now, I think I’ll have a drink!

Walking a Mile in Their (Civil War) Shoes: The Perils of Living History

Biblical parables and shop-worn cliches aside, my feet hurt. I simply cannot imagine marching hundreds of miles with these medieval torture devices on my feet, only to be thrown into some of the most brutal combat our country has ever seen.

Civil War shoes worn by the author

Shoes of a Confederate Infantryman Worn by the Author

Ok, so I’m overstating the case. But, these shoes are not Nike Air Jordans (Yes, I’m dating myself here).  They are authentic recreations of the typical nineteenth century footwear worn by Confederate soliders on Civil War Battlefields during one of America’s darkest times. The soles are thin but hard, and they are fastened together by iron nails, as you can see in the photo.  The nails create the contact point with the ground, which makes the shoes slippery on hard, smooth surfaces (such as the ubiquitous hardwood floors of that era), as well as hard and inflexible on the bottoms of one’s feet.

After about 30 minutes of wearing them, my feet felt like I had hiked on a concrete path for 10 miles. The souls of the men that wore these on long marches and into battle had to be harder than the soles on their feet.

This, of course, is the point of Living History Civil War Re-enactment is much more than playing dress-up and fantasizing about daring adventures in the days of yore. Re-enactment is about treading where the people of the past have tread and experiencing what they experienced as best as one can with our modern sensibilities. In its purest form, Living History is about empathy and education. To an observer it may seem silly. To a participant, it is often quite serious.

I wore these shoes during a happy and light-hearted affair, but when I sat down after the fanfare was over, rubbing my sore feet while relaxing in one of our whirlpool suites, I reflected on the people that have come before. Something as simple as a shoe, and the very real pain it caused, was enough to help me appreciate the hardened force of will that must have permeated the armies of the Civil War, both Federal and Confederate. Tough men in tough times doing tough things.

This is why the work of those who would educate us about the historical mileu is so important. Mort Kunstler, for example, is a renowned artist of Civil War scenes. His work is authentic, inspiring, and evocative. He brings out the human and emotional element of some of the quieter but more poignant moments of the American Civil War.  We were honored to host this eminent artist at a reception in our historic inn, especially since the scene Mort Kunstler depicted in Unconquered Spirit occurred just two blocks from our house, which was standing at that time. In fact, only a few months after Generals Lee, Hill, and Longstreet came together in front of the courthouse in the Town of Orange (the scene from Unconquered Spirit), a number of Lee’s officers, including the famous J.E.B Stuart, attended a wedding party right in our parlor! Thus, with several folks (including Sharon and I) dressed in period-appropriate clothes, the reception took on a meaning and a flair akin to that of the Civil War wedding reception that, according to one contemporary diarist,  continued until 4 o’clock in the morning!  Town and County officials, local residents, historians, and friends celebrated Mr. Kunstler’s work with food, wine, and good cheer. The following day, Mr. Kunstler signed his prints on the historic steps of the Orange County Courthouse, which was the backdrop for his recent painting.

We would like to extend a special “thank you” to Steve Silvia of J.S. Mosby’s Antiques and Bill and Nancy Graham for providing authentic period clothing, as well as Brian Pratlow for serving as part of our honor guard and as a greeter. Our favorite local caterer, Chef Paul Diegl from Real Food provided some of the food. Also, thank you to Frank Walker, emminent local historian and Civil War tour guide, for helping to organize the event!

For anyone who is interested, we served wine from Barboursville, a popular Virginia winery. The Cabernet Sauvignon was the clear favorite!

Rachel Ray has no Idea What She is Talking About…

Rachel Ray Has No Idea What She’s Talking About

or

How to Cook Perfect Bacon

 Except for Rachel Ray, you generally won’t find celebrity chefs expounding on the nuances of good bacon-frying technique. In fact, many folks probably remember learning how to cook bacon about the same time they learned how to boil water. Remove the battery from the smoke detector, heat up a pan, throw on the bacon, and keep flipping it until it is cooked. How hard could it be?

As a four-year veteran innkeeper of a busy bed and breakfast in Virginia, I can tell you that the line between a perfectly cooked strip of breakfast heaven and a sun-dried leather bootstrap crusted with creosote is not as wide as one might hope. Nothing will disappoint a bed and breakfast guest faster than pork in the form of a soggy, undercooked chewing-gum strip or a charcoal briquette flattened into a shape that vaguely resembles a meat product. Perfect bacon makes a perfect breakfast.  A good innkeeper simply must know how to cook bacon. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The Innkeeper's Grandfather, early 20th Century

The Innkeeper's Grandfather, early 20th Century

Although I do not claim to be able to go toe-to-toe with Rachel Ray in a Food Network Cage Match (if such a thing existed—and, if it did, it would make the Food Network much more interesting), I respectfully submit that on the subject of cooking bacon, she should leave the instruction to the experts. For true “baconistas,” this article will describe how to cook perfect bacon.

My grandfather was a carpenter and he understood that success at one’s craft requires the proper tools and the proper technique. And, as with my grandfather’s carpentry, cooking bacon is a task best learned from the masters of previous generations.

 Equipment

Tools for cooking bacon at a Virginia Bed and Breakfast

Tools for cooking bacon at a Virginia Bed and Breakfast: cast-iron skillet, tongs, and an optional cast-iron bacon press

To reach bacon Nirvana, you will first need to acquire a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet that is large enough to allow an entire strip of bacon to lay completely flat. This is not a subject for debate. Forget the over-priced $120 non-stick waste of money you just bought at a gourmet kitchen outlet, and go to an antique store, flea market, or yard sale to find the perfect seasoned-by-decades-of-use cast-iron skillet for $40 or less. The benefits of cast-iron are too numerous to detail here. It will suffice to say that cast-iron imparts a “down-home” smoky flavor to the bacon, and allows for the application of steady and consistent heat. You will also need metal cooking tongs—the spring-loaded kind shaped like a “V,” not the scissor-type tongs you find in Target’s barbeque department. A fork just won’t do.

Optionally, you might want to buy an antique cast-iron bacon press when you buy your cast-iron pan.  A bacon press is simply a flat iron weight that you can put on top of your sizzling bacon to ensure even browning.

 Selecting the Right Bacon

Not all bacon is created equal, and one cannot achieve perfectly-cooked bacon without first selecting the right product. When shopping for bacon, look for thick slices. Take the time to actually compare slice thickness among various brands because they all say “thick-sliced” whether they actually are or not. I typically use bacon slices that are consistently 1/8 inch thick, but 5/32 inch would be better. Avoid packages that advertise flavors or characteristics such as “maple,” “smoked,” “hickory,” or similar adjectives, because these typically mean artificial flavor chemicals that really don’t taste much like real “hickory” or “maple.” In fact, you can mostly ignore the label and just focus on the meat.  Many people (including Rachel Ray) regard very lean bacon as the best quality and worthy of higher prices. This simply is not true. Extremely lean bacon tends to burn or cook unevenly because it does not have enough fat to melt in the pan and properly aide the cooking process (you can alleviate this by adding more oil to the pan, but that defeats the purpose of getting lean bacon, doesn’t it?). Extremely lean bacon also lacks the flavor and texture that the fat provides. Similarly, bacon that is nothing but fat is equally problematic because it tends to shrivel up once the fat has melted away.  The best-cooking bacon has proportional segments of both meat and fat.

 Cooking Technique

As with anything related to cookery, once the bacon is in the pan the two keys to success are time and temperature.

Here’s the executive summary: low to medium heat and plenty of time.

Here are the details: I’ve heard a number of folks comment that they like bacon but never cook it because doing so is a messy hassle. These clearly unhappy souls say that they do not like standing over a hot stove with grease popping in their faces, and clean-up is a chore. First, I will respond by saying that I personally would not let a few minor burns deter me from nurturing my spirit with a slice of home-cooked paradise. Most folks probably do not share my level of zeal on the subject, though, so I’ll address the problem by saying that proper cooking technique can minimize these difficulties.

First, having bacon for breakfast is a luxury for most people, and should be treated as such. By “luxury” I mean that it’s something you cook on the weekends after sleeping late and when you aren’t stuffing a bagel in your mouth while running to catch the Metro. Evidence of this fact is that when our bed and breakfast guests awaken to the smell of bacon cooking, they usually descend into the dining room in a hypnotic trance, lured by the soothing call of a hearty home-cooked breakfast that they actually have time to enjoy. Some of them (God help them) don’t even like bacon, but the smell of it returns them to a simpler time when life was both happier and slower.

My point?  Take it slow. 

  • Begin with a cold pan. Add just a little bit of oil, enough to lightly coat the entire pan. Any oil is fine, and is a matter of taste.  Regular grocery-store variety vegetable oil works fine.  In a pinch, you can even use a non-stick cooking spray, although I prefer to not do this. Also, I prefer oils that do not impart additional or foreign flavors to the meat.
  • Many chefs say that one should begin cooking the bacon in a cold pan. This is fine and will work well, but I like to warm the pan just enough so that when you add the bacon, the fat begins to liquefy within a few seconds. Do not heat the pan to the extreme sizzling point, though.  When you add bacon to the pan, it should not immediately snap and hiss and sizzle—this will cause it to shrink and curl too quickly, complicating the cooking process.
  • Gradually let the pan warm up so that the bacon starts sizzling and the fat starts melting. Manage the heat so it stays even, and do not allow the heat to exceed the minimum level required to sizzle the bacon.  Cook the bacon uncovered. Turn the bacon with your tongs regularly, but not too frequently. Give the meat a chance to start browning before you turn it.
  • Do not over-heat your pan—doing so is a kitchen disaster. If the melted bacon fat in the pan starts to pop and splatter a lot, your pan is too hot. The pan is also getting too hot if you notice smoke. Both the seasoning of the cast-iron and the bacon grease itself will start to burn if your heat is too high, and this burning will produce smoke. Light, thin smoke (in small quantities) or steam are both normal. If you start to see dark, thick smoke wafting out of the pan, reduce the heat immediately. Remember—cast-iron holds heat, so even after turning off the heat, food in the pan will continue to cook.
  • A cast-iron bacon press can help immensely, but is not required. A bacon press helps distribute heat to the top side of the bacon, while compressing the meat in the pan to cook it evenly.
  • Cook the bacon until it is a nice rich brown, but avoid allowing any part of it to blacken.  Remove the bacon from the pan and let it rest on a paper towel for a minute or so.  The grease will drain off and the bacon will become crispy. For happy taste buds, serve the bacon fresh and hot.

At our inn, I usually have to cook bacon for many people at one time.  Since I usually only use one large pan to do it, I typically cook multiple batches in succession. After each batch is finished, I leave its hot oil in the pan and just add new bacon to it.  I have found that the bacon cooks best after the pan has accumulated enough oil to just cover the top of the bacon strips. The bacon cooks more quickly, more evenly, and requires less flipping. So, if you are cooking only for yourself and don’t cook enough at one time to accumulate this amount of oil in the pan, you may want to pour your bacon grease into a metal can after each batch and store it in the freezer.  Then, the next time you want to cook bacon, you can just return the grease to the pan and start ahead of the game.

 Frying vs. baking

Frying bacon is an art, not a science, and you will probably have to do it a few times before you get really good at it. Like Rachel Ray, many chefs, innkeepers, and foodies will tell you that the best way to cook bacon is in the oven, because “that’s how they do it in the restaurants.”  Yes, I suppose you can do it that way, and, frankly, most of the few dozen innkeepers I know do it that way.  But, at our bed and breakfast in Orange, Virginia, I choose not to.  It certainly has its benefits, but most restaurateurs and innkeepers bake instead of fry because it is easier on them, not because baking makes better bacon.  Baking does provide consistent, even heat and a predictable cooking experience, and allows the fat to drain away during the cooking process. You can also do more things with it, such as sprinkle brown sugar or maple syrup on it. I am more of a purist. At our Virginia inn, we believe that bacon is an indulgence, and should have the best flavor and texture possible. In my view, the method described above is not just the best way—it’s the only way. Of course, there are plenty of folks who will have a different opinion, and that’s ok, too.

Have you stayed with us and savored our bacon?  If so, what did you think? Do you know of any other techniques or recipes we should try?