No hogs allowed
When I think of bacon, I think pig. That’s the way I imagine most people feel, conjuring an image of a fat hog and the salty, smoky magic that will ultimately become of his pink belly. Well, it turns out that, for many, the term bacon is elastic. This is evidenced by the many non-pork bacon products on the market, which now seem to come from every conceivable protein source on the food chain, from beef to poultry to plants. No alternative bacon will ever be ever considered bacon by this Bacon Critic, not outside of some serious quotation marks. But still, pork-free bacon alternatives exist in abundance, and as such they must be reckoned with. My duties as Bacon Critic, therefore, logically extend to being a “bacon” critic. Because if you’re going to call something bacon, it falls within my purview, and it’s my duty to take a good hard look at what it’s all about, for good or ill. Hence, I decided to round up six varieties of non-pork bacon and give them a shot. Maybe they would be great; perhaps they’d be horrifying. Clearly, none of them could stack up to pork bacon, but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have positive qualities. Or at least I hoped.
Schmacon: Smoked, uncured beef slices
Billed as “beef’s answer to bacon,” I was tickled by Schmacon if only because of the name. Hey, a company called Schmaltz Retail Products has to have a sense of humor, right? As as far as pork-less bacon alternatives go, the cow seems like a natural fit for creating something baconesque with any appreciable sense of authenticity. Raw, the Schmacon looked remarkably similar to actual bacon, with hearty ribbons of fat running through the pink, marbled lean. If you saw this and nobody told you it was beef, you’d no doubt think it was the real deal.
Cooked per the recommended package instructions in the oven at 425 F for seven minutes, the Schmacon seared and curled up like pork bacon, although with a bit more curl to the ends, and there was a fair amount of shrinkage. A first taste revealed a deep, earthy flavor keenly reminiscent of steak, with a pleasurable amount of salt and smoke. And, like steak, it was delicious. The consistency was more like an English rasher than traditional American bacon. Even when cooked a second time for good measure, it never got truly crispy, maintaining a chewy but not unappealing mouth-feel. If you happen to be kosher or halal, or if you just don’t “dig on swine,” as Jules from Pulp Fiction claimed, Schmacon would be an outstanding alternative for you. And even if you do love the pig, I’d still recommend this stuff, if only for a novel and tasty departure from your standard breakfast routine.
You’re definitely not going to find this in stores, at least not the one I sampled. It was gifted to me by my father-in-law, who got it from a friend who is a judge, who got it from a friend who hunted the animal. By law, it’s illegal to sell meat that you kill, since all meat products must be inspected by federal authorities before hitting the market. You can’t legally sell meat of dubious provenance that might contain buckshot in it. This is what’s known as “bushmeat,” and in the deep South, there’s plenty of it. A deer produces a lot of meat, and hunters enjoy sharing it with friends and family. One of the joys of living in Louisiana is that every now and again you’ll find yourself in possession of some locally hunted deer, duck, and even wild boar.
In this case, a guy named Joey shot the deer in Alabama. “It was around Christmas,” he said, “cold weather. The deer came out in the morning time, and it was a nice size, a six pointer. I shot it with a thirty aught-six, and it ran off a little bit and then dropped. We butchered it quickly, deboned and cleaned it, packaged the meat and wrapped it up.” Joey then brought the hind-quarter meat to WhiteTail Butcher Shop in Independence, Louisiana, for processing. The result? Thick cut slices of dark, fragrant venison bacon.
Owing to the fact that I had no package instructions, I decided to simply skillet fry the venison until brown and crispy. As soon as it started cooking in the pan, I realized that it had more in common with sausage than with bacon, since it was essentially ground up deer meat formed into bacon-shaped rectangular strips. I had to be careful with its crumbly consistency as it cooked so it wouldn’t break apart, but with some gentle spatula work, it came out nicely.
If someone gifts you venison bacon, consider yourself lucky. While bearing little resemblance to the real thing outside of the vague bacon shape, the flavor was salty and wild, with a distinct depth of character you’ll only find in a hunted animal. I’d hardly call it “bacon,” but damn if it wasn’t something special. Mad respect for Joey, and for the butcher, and for the deer.
D’artagnan Uncured, Smoked Duck Bacon
D’artagnan offers some of the best specialty foods in the country, everything from Wagyu beef to caviar and foie gras, on top of their duck offerings, which range from sausage to smoked breast, rillettes, and whole ducks in four varieties. Their logo is a swashbuckling duck, for heaven’s sake. So you know their duck bacon is something you should look forward to, if you happen to be in the market for porkless bacon, and especially if you care about the wellbeing of your food animals. Their ducks are raised without growth hormones and all vegetarian feed, and the bacon contains no animal byproducts or added nitrates or nitrites, with the exception of “naturally occurring celery powder.”
When it comes to eating birds, it’s difficult to beat duck. With that dark, rich meat and exquisite fat, it all but defines culinary decadence in the animal kingdom. I can think of few things that duck fat will not improve, especially when it comes to frying or sautéing. If you’ve ever had duck fat french fries, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It stands to reason, then, that duck bacon, is probably not going to be terrible.
And, it turns out, it’s not. Far, far from it. The strips are fashioned from duck breast smoked over applewood, which the company says “are slightly smaller than traditional bacon, but are thick and meaty and full of flavor.” Amen to that. In its raw state, the product has all the hallmarks of thinly sliced magret de canard, with a deep reddish brown lean and a thick white ribbon of pure, glorious duck fat clinging to the edge. Part of me wanted to eat it raw, it looked so good. Skillet-fried over low heat, turning frequently, the fat kind of peeled away from the lean, but the ultimate experience was nothing short of heavenly. You get a little salt and some lovely fat at first, a nice toothsome quality to the meat, and then a big honking hit of duck flavor on the back end. I wanted to devour the entire package, but had to beg off knowing there was so much more to taste.
Wellshire Farms Classic Sliced Turkey Bacon
Allow me to start with this: I love turkey. I’ve always loved turkey. I eat a turkey sandwich at least three times a week for lunch, sometimes as much as five or six. In the “what is your desert island food” thought experiment, it’s turkey sandwiches for me, all the way (occasionally with bacon, of course). Thanksgiving roast turkey is my favorite meal of the year. And a real Louisiana turducken? Fuhgeddaboudit. I’ve even had one wrapped in bacon, elevating it to some serious carnivorous heights.
Now that that’s settled, I’ll add this: I’ve never met a turkey bacon I’ve fallen in love with. To me, turkey bacon has a self esteem problem. Turkey bacon is the short kid in class who wants so desperately to play center on the basketball team. A nice dream, but it’ll never happen. Join the chess team, turkey bacon.
Wellshire’s effort in this realm is no different. You have to give them credit for their product, which, like the duck bacon, is antibiotic-free, fed an all-veggie diet, and contains no added nitrates or nitrites. But here’s the distinct difference: Where the duck bacon was all breast meat, this turkey bacon is made from chopped up, molded turkey thighs. And though it’s “minimally processed,” it tastes processed, even after diligently frying on low heat and turning frequently until browned. There’s some salt there, but the ultimate result doesn’t taste like turkey, and it certainly doesn’t taste like bacon. It tastes more like fried bologna. Actually, I would have preferred fried bologna… at least it’s not trying so desperately to be something it’s not. Where this turkey bacon, like all turkey bacon, also ultimately fails is that is has almost no fat content. That means it doesn’t truly crisp up, nor does it have any of that great, greasy flavor we all love about bacon. The entire experience is just one great big disappointed sigh.
Trader Joe’s Smoked Salmon Bacon
You have to hand it to Trader Joe’s for always having fascinating snacks with interesting flavor profiles. Pickle-flavored popcorn? I’m in. Ghost chili potato chips? Sign me up! To these we’ll add their house brand smoked salmon bacon. As a lifelong lover of Jewish food, smoked salmon piled on an everything bagel with cream cheese, tomato slices, red onion, and capers is high on my list of perfect breakfast foods. But of course it falls behind bacon. Smoked salmon bacon, then, seems to be the best of both worlds. It would either prove to be an ideal marriage of two universally loved day-starters, or an unholy, Dr. Moreau-esque amalgam of creatures unintended by the almighty that needs to be killed with fire. I didn’t see much room for compromise.
In the imitation bacon game, salmon has one thing going for it that turkey does not: fat. Granted, it’s not mammal fat or avian fat, but fish fat, which is about as far from pork fat as it gets. Still, everyone knows that fat means flavor, and I happen to enjoy the taste of fatty salmon, so I thought “bring it.”
The slices of TJ’s salmon bacon looked, out of the package, not unlike long strips of pale pink lox. As suggested, I layered them in a lightly oiled pan and fried on low, turning frequently. Surprisingly, after a couple of turns the strips plumped up and started to sweat some of that nice white fish fat. When finished, the first thing you notice is a jolt of salt on the palate, more so than any of the other bacon alternatives. I found the texture surprisingly meaty, much less delicate than I imagined, and there was a pleasant hint of smoke, along with that unmistakable salmon flavor. Sure, this wasn’t anything close to pig bacon, but it wasn’t trying to be. This was salmon through and through, and for that I have to give it credit. It would be fantastic on a bagel with cream cheese and all the fixins, and outstanding in a (ss)BLT. The only thing you should note is that it does not reheat well. If you try this, eat it hot right out of the skillet. Trust me on this.
Applewood Smoked Dulse
This was the weirdest bacon analogue I’ve tried, and possibly one of the weirdest foods I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve eaten bull pizzle and guinea pigs. You may not have heard about dulse, and that’s not surprising. It’s a little obscure. I sought it out because it’s now being touted as “the bacon of the sea,” and that got me curious. Dulse is a wild sea vegetable similar to kelp that people say, when smoked and fried, tastes just like bacon. There’s a scientist in Oregon who claims to have done just that: created a plant-based food that can serve as a suitable bacon substitute. To which I say: fat chance, pal.
But if you say it tastes like bacon, I’m game. I ordered a package of the stuff online from a company called Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. When the package arrived, I was intrigued by its claims. “Cooking with dulse is a treat,” it boasted, and included a recipe for a “D.L.T.” sandwich. “You’ll never miss the bacon—or the nitrates and cholesterol.” This, I remember thinking, is some hippie bullshit. Yes, I’m going to miss the bacon. Don’t patronize me, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables!
On opening the package there was a powerful, vegetal odor. Make no mistake, this wasn’t fake bacon; this was fish food. Being an objective journalist and a good sport, I still decided to make a go of it. I removed the densely packed dark brown leaves from the package and set them to fry in a well-oiled pan. They crisped up quickly, and resembled nothing if not flash-fried spinach, which I happen to really enjoy.
It was a powerful, bizarre flavor, but I couldn’t immediately tell if it was pleasurable or horrifying. My brain was confused by the stuff. No, it didn’t taste like bacon, but there was a kind of smoky umami note there, followed soon thereafter by an acrid bitterness. My wife gagged and spit it out immediately, but I continued on. Part of me loathed this weird smoked seaweed, and another part of me wanted to keep eating it. I decided to stop eating it, which my wife deemed a good call.
Highly Scientific Conclusion
Only bacon can be bacon. This is an immutable universal truth, and one that I’ll go to the grave believing. If you’re not going to eat bacon, however, you still have some solid options. For verisimilitude, beef bacon is where it’s at, and enjoyable for its own merits and not as an imitation or substitute. Duck bacon is fantastic and you should eat it forthwith, because duck bacon, QED. As a quirky alternative, you can do worse than salmon bacon, especially as an ingredient in a composed dish like a sandwich or salad. Turkey bacon will always be meh, and should you feel like giving your tastebuds a confusing afternoon, try dulse. But in the end, I’ll just take some good old fashioned pork bacon and call it a day.
Vive la pig!