The Best Bacon in America
One of the most difficult parts of being America’s Bacon Critic is that I haven’t been able to lovingly catalogue every single bacon that I’ve tasted. My notes are legion and mostly scribbled on paper smeared with pork fat as well as ink. When you’re on the hunt for the best bacon in the country, you sample a shitload of bacon. And I ate some fantastic bacon that, while worthy in many ways, fell slightly short in one category or another. Or in some cases really short (yes, there is bad bacon out there, I’m sad to admit). So, here, finally, is your answer. Your verdict. I have decided what I feel is the best bacon in the United States.
But! There are some other bacons that bear mentioning, if only to show you that I haven’t been slacking off in my pursuit of smoked-pork sublimity. Here, then, before we get to the best of the best, are what I like to refer to as the Bacon Superlatives. It’s like your high school yearbook: best-dressed; wittiest; most handsome; most ambitious, etc., but for the best bacons. If you're curious, I was voted “most likely to wind up writing commercial jingles with Jesse from Full House” (true story). So here are ten bacons that, while not reaching the top tier, still deserve a tip of the cap for one of their notable qualities. After those, I'll get to what you came here for: the best bacon in America.
Worst Bacon: Aberdeen Farms Irregularly Sliced Value Bacon
This is only bacon I regret eating. I suppose the $2.68/pound price tag and “value bacon” label should have been a giant red flag. What made it so bad? It was stringy, gooey to the touch, and diaphanously thin to the point where there’s basically no way to cook it without either eating it half-raw or burning it to death. Avoid at all costs.
Best Non-Belly Bacon: Uncured Loin Bacon from Mangalitsa by Møsefund
Møsefund is one of very few American producers of Mangalitsa pork. While I found their American-style bacon delicious, especially with that luscious, creamy fat, it skewed a little too salt-forward for my palate, and I lost the pork in the process. However, their loin bacon, which is the tenderloin section of the hog sliced thin and fully cooked, was outstanding.
Best “Wild” Bacon: Buffalo Gal Wild Boar Bacon
There are two compelling reasons to avail yourself of wild boar meat. First, feral hogs are a serious ecological menace, and they’re tearing up huge swaths of the Southeast United States, including my home state of Louisiana. Secondly: It’s delicious. My first encounter with true wild boar meat was from a shoulder of a hog hunted by a family friend near Shreveport, and it was a revelation: leaner than domestic “white” pork, and darker, too, but much more fragrant, with a tremendous depth of character that you’ll never find in factory pork. Extending that logic, bacon from such an animal should be equally delicious. And friends, I’m happy to inform you: It is! It really is! It was lovely on its own, but truly took my B.L.T. (or W.B.B.L.T.) to the next level.
Best Kurobuta Bacon: Snake River Farms
Kurobuta is the designation of a Japanese heritage breed of hog also known to westerners as “Berkshire pork.” Like other heritage breeds, it’s generally raised in better conditions than mass-market pigs, with natural feed, no crating, and, usually, no antibiotics or growth hormones. As a result, they have juicier, more flavorful meat and creamier, richer fat. If all that sounds good to you, look to Snake River Farms for their stellar selection of Kurobuta products.
Best Bacon Burger in Tokyo: T.Y. Harbor
When I travelled to Japan recently for my brother’s wedding, the last place I would expect my soon-to-be Japanese extended family to bring us for a meal in Tokyo would be an American-style brew pub. Turns out, that pub, the only floating river lounge in the city, offers one hell of a good burger. Skeptical I was to add the bacon option, the “this is my job, buddy” factor kicked in and I went for it. Glad that I did, too; that bacon burger could easily do well on the menu of pretty much any brew pub stateside, with a proportionate patty , a perfectly soft but resilient potato roll, fresh avocado and tomato, and, the kicker, three slices of thick, smoky, juicy-yet-crispy bacon.
Best Fruity Bacon: Tender Belly Cherrywood-Smoked, Dry Cured Bacon
Tender Belly was highly recommended by one of my food writer friends in Denver as their great local bacon. It has a lovely, dark lean to it that you’ll only find in quality pork, and good striations of fat without being overly unctuous. It also boasts an excellent thickness quotient, right there in my favorite “Goldilocks” zone. Most distinctively, though, is that Tender Belly opts for cherrywood in smoking their signature bacon, and while you can hardly taste the apples in applewood-smoked bacon, you can actually taste the cherry here. It might not be for everyone, and it’s certainly unique among the bacons I’ve sampled, but I enjoyed the bold decision to go with such a heavily flavored fruitwood for smoking.
Best Dinner Bacon: Burger’s Smokehouse Cajun Bacon Steaks
On most occasions, I shy away from super-thick bacon. It comes off food that has something to prove. I was surprised, then, when I found out how much I enjoyed the Cajun-flavored “bacon steaks” from Burger’s Smokehouse. At ¼-inch thick, they are roughly double the cut-size of most bacon I prefer, but it’s important to take them at face value and realize that this is bacon that you can have on a dinner plate instead of, say, a pork chop. Adding to my skepticism was the boast of Cajun spices, which, when applied by Yankees (Burger’s is based in Missouri), almost always results in an abundance of cayenne pepper and little else. Not so here. I could detect distinct but not overpowering hints of onion, garlic and both red and black pepper, rounded out by a hearty pork flavor. Nobody would fault you for serving them a couple of slices of these beasts as their dinner protein, for sure. Well, maybe those who would opt for your mushroom bacon.
Best Bacon for Smoke Lovers: North Country Smokehouse Maple Cured, Center-Cut Bacon
Smoke is essential to making American bacon American bacon, and those who produce this fine product tinker with the smoke element like Alan Turing trying to beat the Nazi Enigma machine. For those who crave the smoke in the way that barbecue enthusiasts do, look to North Country Smokehouse’s applewood-smoked bacon. I mean, c’mon… the word smoke is in the name of the damn company! It’s not a balanced bacon, by any means—the smoke is aggressive—but that doesn’t mean it’s not great. Enjoy this one like a fine cigar.
Best All-Purpose, No-Frills Supermarket Bacon: Smithfield Thick Cut Bacon
Smithfield makes a staggering amount of pork products, so no matter where you live, you’ll be able to find it, believe me. Of all the ubiquitous bacon brands by large companies, this particular bacon impressed me in its versatility. It’s thick, but not too thick; certainly not “dinner bacon” thick, but hefty enough to wrap around shrimp or scallops, chop up for a Cobb salad or deviled eggs, or just to fry up when you have a wicked hangover. Simple, easy, and no fuss. This is the kind of bacon your mom made for your family on Sunday morning in the ‘80s while you watched cartoons. Well, at least if you were me.
Best Bacon for Crispy-Bacon Lovers: Niman Ranch Uncured, Applewood-Smoked Bacon
Niman gets a good rep for treating their pigs well while simultaneously supplying to large chains like Chipotle. Consider it “commercial hippie bacon.” Despite trying to come off as the Prius of pork products, Niman actually does make a quality bacon. While again I miss the curing element, you can taste the pig, and it is a good taste, a big greasy hug in the mouth. But most importantly, I noted on several cooks that it tends to crisp up really nicely, with a great crunch without coming off as cremated, as many standard cut bacons do when you leave them sizzling in the fat a bit too long.
The Final Four
Before restaurants started bragging about farm names, heirloom titles, and heritage breeds (“The chicken’s name was Colin, here are his papers…”), bacon was just, well, bacon. You didn’t have to know what hill in Kentucky it came from, or whether the hog was fed soft winter wheat and sweet summer corn. You just ordered the bacon and you ate it. Then came Benton’s, and it was as though the magnetic poles of the planet reversed. Everyone in the food world started talking about it lovingly in hushed tones, as though it were the secret to end all secrets.
Does it live up to the hype? Yes. Yes, it does. And it does so by keeping things staggeringly simple; the only ingredients listed on the package are a cure of salt, brown sugar, and pepper. Notice that there’s no mention of sodium nitrite, i.e., “curing salt” or “pink salt” (not that I’m against it in the least). This is some old school stuff, and it shows. Thick slices of porcine wonderfulness just exuding an aroma of sexy smoke. That’s what makes Benton’s Benton’s: heavy smoke, but not enough to throw the entire slab out of balance. If you’re not into smoke—you hate Islay whiskeys and barbecue, say—this isn’t the bacon for you. But for pretty much everyone else, the smoke is what really stabs you in the heart. Add to that a perfect amount of salt, thickness, and piggy flavor, and you have one of the finest examples of American bacon in the world.
Among even high-end artisanal bacons in the States, Bill E’s is a cut above. Bill E. Stitt’s years of studying bacon (the guy basically went to Bacon Harvard, and even consulted with Benton’s) show in his product. I don’t need to tell you too much more about this brilliant bacon that I haven’t already covered in detail here. But what I will say is that, slab after slab, I was dazzled by the consistency of the product, from the uniformly thick rectangular slices that seem as though they were factory tooled, to the always immaculate balance of the holy bacon elements. The salt dances with the hickory smoke, then trades off to the creamy fat, and finishes with pork that has clearly been sired from royal hogs. Bill’s endgame is to have his bacon as a standalone dish on restaurant menus across America. I, for one, cannot wait for that to happen, and if it’s going to happen for any bacon, I’m rooting for Bill E. Stitt’s.
While many bacon producers specialize in a single product upon which they can dedicate their entire attention, Broadbent’s makes several different styles of bacon. They do hickory, apple, and maplewood smoked versions, as well as a peppered bacon and one that’s nitrite-free (an unnecessary addition to the line, in my opinion—nothing wrong with a little curing salt to get things going). Among these options, it was the maplewood-smoked version that stood out. The others were lovely too, but there was something about the sweetness of that maple that complemented the salt, smoke, pork and fat in a way that I didn’t find in their apple or hickory-smoked bacon, or in many of the other bacons I tasted from across the country. While normally a maple bacon would tend to be too sweet, if not cloying, this one hit that note square on the jaw and knocked it the hell out. There’s a reason people dunk their bacon in their pancake syrup.
I ordered Vande Rose on a whim from a reputable online bacon purveyor, and after tasting that first slice, I knew instinctively that this wasn’t run-of-the-mill smoked pork. Like a great lover, something about this bacon touched my soul.
The interesting thing about Vande Rose is that it’s kind of shrouded in mystery. They’re not a single farm, but an Iowa-based niche marketing collective that sources Duroc pork from a number of farms throughout America’s Cornbelt. They use “all natural vegetarian feed,” have a marked disdain for antibiotics and growth hormones, and boast that each individual hog is “hand-inspected for ideal profile and weight.”
You can immediately sense all of this attention to detail upon taking a bite of this stuff. Whether you fry it in a skillet or bake it in the oven, one taste will make your eyes reflexively close as you take a deep sigh of amazement and appreciation and think, “Now THIS is bacon.” The applewood smoke rides nicely in the background as the cure and pork take over. As will Bill-E’s, Vande Rose is a sublimely balanced product, with no single aspect never overtaking another. They all work in harmony, an orchestra of flavors and textures that make this bacon nothing short of brilliant. If you think I’m waxing rhapsodic, you’re right. I am. But trust me, try this bacon and you’ll realize why.
So there you have it. Vande Rose Farms. That’s your best bacon in the United States. It’s a supremely beautiful product that will delight and dazzle anyone who tries it.
To you, my dear readers, the bacon-loving masses of America and beyond, thank you for following along on my wild bacon ride. This is my final dispatch as America’s Bacon Critic. Don’t worry: You haven’t heard the last of me, not by a long shot.
I haven’t even talked to you about ham yet.
Your friend in bacon,
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