Monday, December 24, 2007

Reflections on No-Nitrite, No-Nitrate Bacon and Meat Quality

Our bacon is about to be sold in a specialty store, so I thought I'd better do some market research and see how our bacon stacked up against what they've got already.

They had two bacons:
  • Applegate Farm's Sunday Bacon - a no-nitrite, no-nitrate bacon, costing about $8.50/lb
Nitrates and Nitrites

First off - a lot of people are worried about nitrites and nitrates in their meat. So they seek out no-nitrite/no-nitrate products, and pay a premium for it.

However, if their goal is to avoid nitrates and nitrites, consumers need to do more than buy no-nitrate, no-nitrite bacon: many no-nitritte/no-nitrate products use sea salt and celery juice -- because they are natural sources of nitrates and nitrates.

The reason that manufacturers resort to this is simple: if you don't use nitrates/nitrites, the meat turns an unappetizing gray. People are afraid to eat the meat, which kills sales. This trick of using sea salt and celery juice is similar to companies using grape juice concentrate in a product and throwing "no sugar added" on the label.

I don't worry at all about nitrates or nitrites in my food. Almost all Austrian books - like Wagner's "Räuchern, Pökeln, Wursten. Schwein, Rind, Wild, Geflügel" start by explaining that you get more nitrites and nitrates in your tap water and vegetables than you do from cured meat products.

If people want to avoid nitrates and nitrites, you should go for the low-hanging fruit: just eliminate tap water from your diet, and stop eating vegetables. Then you can eat all the cured meat you want.

Taste Test

Here are the three bacons: Applegate, Organic Prairie and then Wooly Pig's bacon:

I put in two slices of the Wooly Pigs bacon because neither piece is very representative of what I sell. The right is too lean and the left has a few spots on it. I figure those spots are from the processing - but I don't know - I pull those ones and eat them at home, so that customers get bacon that looks as ideal as possible. Here is a prettier picture of my bacon.

First off, the top two bacons - the commercial ones - are from young hogs. You can see from how narrow the bellies are. That's because those hogs were probably 5.5 months, while mine was at least a year old. The reason is simple - older hogs produce the best cured products. If you want the best bacon, you need old hogs.

I've had people complain to me that the bacon was too wide. I can't remedy that right now. Historically, today's hogs are slaughtered a lot younger and smaller than they were in the past. In the future, we'll have Mangalitsa bacon, which, when produced from year-old hogs, will look a lot like the bacon made from 6-month old modern hogs. Looking at them side-by-side, I'm shocked at how wide my bacon is - but that's just how it is; bigger hogs have wider bellies.

Another difference is the thickness of the bacon: the commercial bacons are thin-cut. My processor likes to do thick-cut bacon, so mine is thicker. Mine doesn't crisp easily, due to the thickness.

Here's the bacons cooked:

When I tasted the bacons, here's what I noticed:

  • Applegate Farms is smoky, but there wasn't much meat flavor. Compared to most bacons, the fat tasted quite good.
  • Organic Prairie was less smoky. There was a little more meat flavor. The fat on this tasted better than that from Applegate Farms.
  • Wooly Pigs bacon had much stronger meat flavor than either commercial bacon. Older meat just tastes more meaty. It is tougher, but the curing and smoking takes care of that.


If I couldn't eat my own bacon, I'd probably not eat either commercial bacon - because they didn't have enough flavor. I'm not a die-hard carnivore; before I had my own hogs, I wasn't eating much meat. If I had to pick one of the two commercial bacons, I'd go with Organic Prairie, because it tasted a bit better - but I'd wish it had a bit more smoke, like the Applegate Farms.

When I brought home the other two bacons, I was really nervous. I figured that if my bacon didn't taste substantially better than them, I was going to be in big trouble. Having eaten them, I'm not afraid anymore - my bacon clearly has more flavor than theirs. And that's not due to any magic - if you control the breed, feed and raising of the hogs for maximum flavor, that's what you get.


Anonymous said...

The smoky flavor is what made the difference when I did a taste test, too. On pg 114 of "meat" by hugh fearnley-whittingstall he talks about good slow-grown pork made less by mediocre cures. I think, for a premium product, it's worth searching out someone who can do a good cure.

You'll notice that the bacon pieces you showed cooked in the pan are very different in size to the uncooked -- I'd guess that if you weighed them, even though your slices start larger, what actually goes onto the plate will be very similar. That's the shrinkage I experienced as well. I love bacon; and I use the bacon grease in cooking, so the resulting fat is not wasted, but for the times when I'm after some bacon I want the highest percentage to get there, not be left in the pan.

It'd be ok for barding -- the larger amount of fat is good -- but I'd be better off using back fat, or caul fat, if I'm consuming the whole hog, as they're similar in taste and result, but much less expensive.
for "presentation" bacon, I want as much of the net weight to hit the plate as possible.

Heath Putnam said...


I don't think my bacon shrank much. I didn't cook it very long, and there wasn't that much grease in the pan.

If you look at the picture, my stuff curled a bit - but that's not shrinkage.

The next time I cook the bacon, I'll weigh it. Assuming you have figures for other bacon, you could do some sort of analysis.

You said you tried to crisp my bacon. That tells me you cooked it differently than I did.

Anonymous said...

In my test I fried all of the bacon as identically as possible, and the results were visually pretty similar to what you show in your pictures. There will be some shrinkage of bacon when you cook it -- that's expected. What wasn't expected was that yours shrank more. that could be because of a higher water content, different composition (fat vs lean) or some other factor. If I'm going to make a choice on bacon, I'd prefer one that shrank less.

If it's the fat/lean composition, shrinkage could be addressed by a closer trim to increase the lean percentage, for instance. Or trying a dry cure instead of a wet cure, if it's the water content. the results were good - just suggesting they can get even better.

In a previous entry you note that you can take all the care in the world to produce great pork and then have it lessened by poor slaughter practice, for instance. This is no different. No matter what the input is, the cure can make it worse, or better.

Heath Putnam said...


One thing I didn't mention - when I did my test, the Organic Prairie (OP) bacon released more grease and shrank more than the Applegate Farms (AF). I suspect the three bacons have different fatty acid compositions and hence different melting temperatures.

I liked the AF bacon the least, despite it having the least shrinkage, because it had the least meat flavor.

I haven't read enough about bacon shrinkage to know what the important factors are. Even if I did know, there's only one processor around here that makes bacon, and they only do it their way.

While I think that the processing, just like the slaughter, is limiting my meat from being all that it could be, I'm counting on some consumers, like me, prioritizing flavor over other factors.

bob mcgee said...

I have not yet been fortunate enough to taste the bacon...kind of bumming me out. what I'm hoping for is a great lean to fat ratio first off...the smell of smoke, but the taste of pork, and just enough sweetness, to balance out the salt.
I definitely have seen, as the chef in a natural foods market, this customer base who will eat factory hogs as long as they have no preservatives. I've also tasted far too many perfectly good small farm hogs shot to crap with a lousy cure.
You and your rancher are raising, what I'm figuring are exquisite hogs. Keller cooks them, I mean c'mon. If there is someone that could cure your product, of that caliber, within a days ride of Spokane, It seems worth it to give it a try. one guys opinion.

Heath Putnam said...


Although I would prefer to do everything properly, it just isn't possible.

Spending time and money to try to improve the bacon just doesn't seem worth it right now.

It is very hard to see how making a better bacon would lead to increased revenues that would cover the extra transportation costs.

And there's no sign that the processing of the bacon is what is holding us back right now.

If you really want to try the bacon, you might want to visit us in Seattle at the market. If you visit 1/19, you should also get to try Mangalitsa, when we'll be selling Mangalitsa to the public for the first time. Pork like Mangalitsa hasn't been available to Americans for about 60 years, so I consider this to be the national debut of lard-type pork.

bob mcgee said...

Buisness is buisness, these are logical decisions. I am spoiled by my location and access to facilities. It must be quite an encumberance to take on, this buisness of hoggery. I can appreciate the decision one makes for the product one delivers to market. Keep on doing what you do.
Have plans to be at the market in Seattle on the 19th...any dinner suggestions? was thinking about Union.

Heath Putnam said...

boberica - It will be neat to see you on the 19th! Please stay tuned though - if we hit a snag, you'd want to know.

At the market, I hope to grill some ground Mangalitsa and sample it. Mangalitsa is really neat - people can normally tell after the first bite (or smell) that it is very different from typical pork.

I haven't been to Union, but I've read good things about it.

I expect that some of Lark, Le Gourmand, The Herbfarm, Sitka and Spruce, Stumbling Goat or Crush will have Mangalitsa on their menu on the 19th.

If you go to one of those places and try Mangalitsa, you might get to try some of my Berkshire pork too. I understand those guys have been brining or otherwise preserving my Berkshire pork, so some parts are just getting served now, after having pickled for many weeks.

bob mcgee said...

Have you a general idea of the cuts that will be available on the 19th yet? Thinking ahead, trying to figure out what size cooler to bring. These hogs are on the young side right? 6-8 months

Heath Putnam said...

The Mangalitsa will be about 5.5 months, which means they'll be only about 120 lbs live (84 lb carcass or so).

I've eaten Mangalitsa piglets this age before in Austria. Christoph Wiesner and his wife were transporting some piglets down the highway, when one leaped out of the trailer. The piglet had serious internal injuries, so they had to kill it.

They roasted the pig when we visited in October. Not like this, but in their oven. It was delicious.

If you want to buy a piglet (or a half), give me a call. We could have it delivered to you in Portland, chilled.

I'm not sure how we'll get them cut. Pork chops or rib chops for sure, and probably fresh ham steaks. I'm not sure what to do with the bellies, which are mostly fat at that age.

I think the meat of those pigs is best roasted, but given that people in Seattle seem to like quite small portions, we have to accommodate them, which rules out big roasts.

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