What's the Deal With Smoked Bacon?
Though the internet's obsession with bacon may have receded a bit in the past decade, there's still no denying that cured pork belly remains an ongoing source of culinary fascination and delight. While bacon is beautiful in all of its permutations, curious carnivores may have encountered applewood smoked bacon and wondered what makes it so special. As it turns out, there's a lot more to making bacon — and the importance of a good wood — than you might realize.
How long have people been smoking meat?
While most people envision Big Green Eggs or fancy barbecue joints pumping out brisket when they think of smoked meat, the practice has decidedly prehistoric origins. At some point after the discovery of fire (though how long is unclear), prehistoric man realized that hanging up meat near the fires that burned in poorly-ventilated caves helped to make the meat last longer while keeping away pests.
The practice has stuck in the thousands of years since. While it's not quite as necessary as it once was before the age of widespread refrigeration and artificial preservatives, smoking meats ranging from fish to beef and far beyond remains a popular cooking technique, especially in the context of barbecue.
How do you smoke bacon?
Understanding how bacon is smoked boils down to the difference between hot and cold.
First, there's "hot" smoking, which exposes a meat to not only the smokiness of a fire, but a sufficient amount of heat to actually cook it enough for consumption. Whether we're talking about going low and slow on a grill with the help of wood chips or using one of those giant BBQ pit smokers, hot smoking is more or less what's going on.
Smoked bacon, on the other hand, comes from "cold" smoking pork belly (or pork loin, in Canada's case). Done in a smokehouse at temperatures ranging from 86ºF all the way down to 68ºF, the smoke purely exists for flavoring purposes. If a pack of bacon's labeling notes that it was "hardwood smoked" or "naturally smoked," that's your indication that it was placed in a smoker and subjected to a real wood-burning fire.
Not all bacon is necessarily smoked naturally, however. Liquid smoke, essentially the byproduct of condensing smoke from a fire, can inject some of that smoky feel through less conventional means. When it comes to mass producing smoked bacon, going the liquid route is far from uncommon.
What makes smoked bacon safe to eat if it hasn't been cooked?
In order for cold smoked meats like bacon to be safe to eat, a preliminary process called curing comes into play before the smoking gets started. Curing is when meat is coated with salt, sugar, and/or nitrites (most often sodium nitrate, sodium nitrate, or potassium nitrate) to strip away the moisture that serves as a breeding ground for food-spoiling microbes. Jerky follows a very similar process.
Similar to "hot" and "cold" smoking or regular and liquid smoke, there's also "dry" and "wet" curing. Dry curing is the straightforward process of rubbing down meats like pork belly with those curing ingredients, letting them hang out in that state for a week or two. Conversely, wet curing takes those same ingredients and mixes them into a brine that meat is either soaked in or injected with in a process called "pumping." Because it works faster than the more time-honored (and time-intensive) dry curing method, it's also more common in mass bacon production.
Does the wood used to smoke bacon make a difference?
Any barbecue pitmaster worth their weight in beef will tell you that choosing the right wood is essential to the practice of their culinary art form. Broadly speaking, hardwoods get the job done when it comes to smoking. Evergreens tend to have resin that leaves an unpleasant flavor behind. For cold smoking, wood pellets or wood dust is often used, since the amount of heat generated is less important than the smoke itself.
While we humans may not think that wood has a "flavor," wood from trees that bear tasty fruit (or nuts, which are technically fruits) can often exude some of those qualities through their smoke. That's why you'll see pecan, hickory, cherry, and applewood as popular chip options for smoking.
Where does applewood come from?
You're never going to believe this, but applewood is sourced from the wood of an apple tree, whose technical name is the Malus pumila. Though apple trees are (unsurprisingly) more often valued for their fruit, you'll still see it harvested for wood often enough that it's use in smoking isn't all that uncommon. The Malus pumila is a hardwood tree, giving it the kind of strength and density that make it an excellent wood for burning.
What does applewood add to bacon?
Given the fruit this tree bears, meats smoked over an applewood fire are often said to invoke the sweetness of an apple, while also saving room for savory notes as well. That sweet taste isn't just a placebo either: Compared to other wood types, applewood is marked by a relatively higher concentration of sugar molecules, which can have the effect of almost caramelizing the meat its smoke comes in contact with.
So next time you reach for bacon in the supermarket, deploy your newfound understanding of smoking, curing, and wood to be a more discerning pork procurer. Knowing the difference between hot and cold smoking may not make eating salty cured pork belly any healthier, but opting for the good smoked stuff can take your enjoyment of an already tasty treat to a new level.