Rachel Ray Has No Idea What She’s Talking About
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
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.
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.
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?