Here’s the reason bacon is so delicious – and why it’s hard to fake
Bacon is delicious. Very few people have ever argued about that. What people do ponder and discuss is why bacon is so delicious. And why its deliciousness cannot be copied to the satisfaction of bacon lovers around the world (especially those that have decided to go on a meat-free diet).
Bacon has three of the five basic tastes — salty, umami and sweet — plus the added scrumptious taste of fat (which, by the way, is rumoured to be the new sixth basic taste). Salt is a natural nutrient we’re drawn to as mammals; it combines and enhances the umami taste while at the same time complementing the sweetness. The sweet notes in bacon linger with the umami, making the taste change from “palate” to “finish.” The fattiness of the bacon can be subtle, especially if most of the fat is burned off in the Maillard reaction, or prominent; it works with the other three tastes, putting the cherry on top of bacon’s unique taste.
The way bacon tastes can be changed based on the type of pork used, where on the pig the meat comes from and how the strips are cured/made.
Type: Large black hogs’ short muscle fibres and Tamworth hogs’ big bellies make great bacon.
Where: American bacon cuts stripes from the fatty sides of the belly while Canadian bacon is cut from the back.
How: Thin strips of meat are soaked in brine or rubbed in a salt mixture, then smoked dry with hickory, oak or other types of wood smoke. Though some producers don’t use smoke — they dry it by leaving it in a cold place for a couple of months.
There are a few molecules and fatty acids needed to make that bacon taste. If any of these are missing, the result isn’t quite bacon-y.
Furans, Pyrazines and Thiazoles: Sweet, nutty and caramel-like in flavour, these molecules exist in the bacon prior to cooking and are created during the Maillard reaction.
Aldehydes: These give bacon that grassy, green note.
Ketones: Responsible for the buttery, fatty flavours.
Maple Lactone: Sweet-smelling compound that gives bacon that smoky, sweet note.
The biggest contributor to bacon’s yummy goodness is the Maillard reaction: the combination of sugars and amino acids under high heat. The more fat a bacon strip has, the better it tastes when it’s cooked because the sugar in the fat is necessary for Maillard reaction.
Everything, from the furans to the lactone, from the umami to the fat, is needed to make bacon, bacon. That’s why it’s so difficult to make a believable bacon replacement. If your bacon flavour is missing even one molecule, it won’t convince anyone.
The closest recipe for fake bacon we’ve found uses shiitake mushrooms — a close match when it comes to the combination of salt, umami and sweet (it’s just missing the fat).
1/2 lb shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps sliced
Preheat oven to 400˚F.
In a bowl, coat mushrooms with soy sauce. Dab with liquid smoke and olive oil. Allow to marinate for about 10 minutes (mushrooms should absorb all liquid).
Lay mushrooms on a baking sheet; bake for between 10 and 30 minutes (monitor them during the process to ensure they don’t overcook).