Bacon is on a winning streak, but it’s not all about the streaky. Sophie Gilmour gets to know some of the less popular cuts and explains why you should buy them.
Bacon is delicious. This is not just my opinion; it’s not just a fact either, it’s science. Bacon holds a very special place in our hearts in New Zealand. And according to my recent poll in a foodie Facebook group, this has never been truer than in 2019. The comments read like Bubba’s list of wares from his family shrimp business in Forrest Gump – people declared their love for scallops wrapped in bacon, bacon and egg pie, devils on horseback, bacon butties, bacon with fried bread, fettuccine with bacon, BLATs, and my favourite, ‘just bacon’. I don’t think anyone even realised that my question was actually what people’s favourite bacon cuts were.
Perhaps we are so in love with bacon that we’re blind to the different cuts on offer. Why don’t we agonise over which bacon cut best fits our dish as we do with other cuts of meat? Personal preferences aside, if you think that streaky is always best for everything, then I’m here to bust some bacon myths for you and I really hope you branch out as a result.
Bacon is salt-cured pork. Typically a butcher will either wet cure it, by soaking it in brine, or dry cure it, by salting it and then hanging it in a temperature-controlled environment, allowing the meat to sweat and cure from the inside out. And then it’s smoked. This is why it tastes so good. The saltiness and smokiness and fatty flavour permeate deep inside the meat. And when you cook it, that’s the mouth-watering flavour that floats into the sky, sending shivers down even vegetarian spines.
In New Zealand, streaky bacon is very much in vogue. It features in many recipes that ask for bacon. But often it’s actually the wrong choice. And it’s important to look beyond the streaks of the belly for ethical reasons too. If we are buying only streaky bacon, then the other cuts of the pig will go to waste and the valuable energy invested in its production is wasted too. Below we look at the different cuts of bacon, where they’re best used, and how to cook them.
Shoulder bacon has a good amount of fat, which you can see in its beautiful marbling. It’s described as the least pretty cut of bacon – so lucky then that it tastes beautiful. You can mask its apparent ugliness by hiding it in soups, or adding it to risotto or pies to bring delicious depth of smoky flavour. The easiest way to use shoulder bacon, and my favourite, is in a sandwich, hidden between two slices of sourdough. Honestly, it needs little more than a thick swipe of butter, but it makes a great bedmate for tomato, avocado, crispy iceberg and lots of mayo too.
Loin, or eye bacon, is the posh member of the bacon family. It comes from the middle of the back of the animal and is much leaner. Loin has a distinctly strong ‘ham’ flavour and is perfect for dishes where the raw bacon is mixed in and cooks with the other ingredients, such as bacon and egg pie. It’s also traditionally served on its own, glazed and paired with a creamy mash and peas.
My bacon and egg pie tip: put a layer of eye bacon as a bottom layer against the pastry, then add the eggs, and finally put a second layer of eye bacon on top before adding the pastry lid. The more bacon the better.
Back bacon is the favourite of the only people who love bacon more than New Zealanders – the British. According to The English Breakfast Society, “a rasher of British back bacon absolutely needs to contain both pork belly and pork loin in order to even be considered suitable for a traditional full English breakfast”. This cut includes a meaty part of the loin with a fatty piece of the belly too. As you can imagine, it’s perfect for breakfast and goes well with fried eggs, sausages and a cup of tea.
Like back bacon, middle bacon is a hybrid of the eye and the streaky – but includes a full strip of the belly, wrapped around a piece of loin. Middle bacon is the most consumed bacon in New Zealand. It’s the best of all the bacon worlds, and when it’s cooked well, nothing beats that distinctly hammy flavour accentuated by rendered pork fat – it’s full of umami. It’s versatile, and it’s the cut that came to mind when I read ‘bacon is the king and queen of foods’ in response to my Facebook post. I love to use it in eggs benedict – you get the texture of the crispy belly and the chewiness and flavour of the loin.
Streaky bacon is trending for good reason – “fat is flavour”, after all. Streaky bacon comes from the pork belly and has long alternating layers of fat and muscle running parallel to the rind. Americans go crazy for it, and I think we’re all agreed that it’s absolutely delicious.
But I would argue that streaky bacon is the most ‘butchered’ of the bacons when it comes to cooking it well. Streaky bacon needs time under heat for the fat to render out and the moisture to evaporate, to allow it to crisp. Uncooked fat is an undesirable thing (flabby, chewy), and that’s exactly what you get if you don’t cook streaky bacon long and slow. I recommend laying it on an oven tray under the grill and watching it carefully.
Streaky bacon is perfect for anything that calls for a crisp texture (it’s great sprinkled it over salads, for example), or when you’re urged to wrap things in bacon (and I know you all are). My personal favourite is fresh asparagus wrapped in bacon, cooked on the barbecue in summer, then dipped into a lemony hollandaise. It’s also the best alternative to the relatively hard-to-find guanciale (cured pork cheek), traditionally used to make carbonara.
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At cookery school in Ireland last year, I was taught how to boil and glaze a piece of boneless bacon as one would a Christmas ham. I couldn’t possibly explain the flavour in words, so instead I will challenge you to ask your butcher for a 1.5kg piece of streaky or loin bacon, boil it for 30 minutes, remove the rind, score the fat, rub Demerara sugar and canned pineapple juice all over it, and cook it at 250ºC for 30 minutes, basting twice during that time. You can thank me later.
This content was created in paid partnership with Freedom Farms. Learn more about our partnerships here.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.