Don’t Go Bacon My Heart, By Christina Bakker Assistant Professor and SDSU Extension Meat Science Specialist

February is National Hot Breakfast Month, and the goal of this celebration is to encourage more individuals to take time to prepare a hearty breakfast to start their day.

While it can be enjoyed any time of the day or night, bacon is one of the first foods many think of when describing a classic hot breakfast. But how much do most consumers really know about this quintessential pork product? Let’s explore some bacon basics to help you understand this delicious product.

Bacon Basics

Where does bacon come from?

The type of bacon most American consumers are familiar with comes from the belly of a pork carcass. The belly is located in the middle of the carcass, below the loin. Before it is processed, belly can be sold at retail under the names of “fresh side” or “side pork.” Once it is processed into bacon, it can be sold as slab or sliced bacon or even bacon ends.

How is bacon cured?

The two main ways bacon can be cured are pumping or dry-curing. Pumping involves creating a brine, which is a mixture of water, salt, nitrite, sodium erythrobate or ascorbate (to help speed up the curing reaction), and commonly sugar to help cut through the saltiness of the bacon. The brine is then injected into the raw bellies. Dry-curing is when a belly is completely covered with a mixture of salt, nitrite and sugar and allowed to sit for several days. Because it dries out in the process, dry cured bacon can taste saltier than pumped bacon.

What does “cured” mean?

According to the USDA, when a meat product is cured, it is preserved using salt, and nitrite is also commonly used. Salt preserves meat by inhibiting the growth of some types of bacteria and can also help remove moisture from the product. As bacteria are living organisms, they need moisture to survive, so drying meat out can prevent bacteria from thriving. Nitrite is used to inhibit the growth of Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism. It can also be used to slow the development of rancidity and off odors or flavors.

What makes it bacon?

The USDA Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book defines bacon as “the cured belly of a swine carcass.” If the product is not made with the belly, the portion of the carcass used must be identified. For example, if the picnic shoulder is used, the bacon will be labeled as “Pork Shoulder Bacon.”

What is the difference between applewood smoked and hickory smoked?

Many bacon products in the United States are smoked before they are sliced and packaged. Because the flavor of pork is much more mild than other proteins, such as beef, hardwoods with lighter flavors are generally chosen for smoking so they don’t overpower the flavor of the meat. Common types of smoke advertised on bacon packaging include hickory, apple, maple or cherry. Each type of wood imparts a slightly different flavor into the bacon, so it is completely up to the consumer to choose which flavor they like the best.

How to safely handle bacon.

Bacon can be a heat-treated product, but unless the package says it is fully cooked, it should be treated like any other raw meat. If it is frozen, you can thaw it by putting it in the refrigerator, putting it under cold water (change out the water every 30 minutes) or using a microwave. If you use a microwave or cold water, you should cook all of the bacon immediately after it has been thawed. If you use a refrigerator for thawing, you can safely wait to cook the bacon for up to seven days. If you do not freeze the bacon, pay attention to the “use by” dates on the package and cook or freeze it by the date listed. When preparing bacon, it is important to wash your hands after handling the raw product and to avoid cross contamination on your kitchen surfaces.