Bacon, despite what some people may want to think about its health effects, has an aroma that cuts to your core, a scent more alluring than most on this planet. It’s a brunch staple, appealing to your darkest hangover. It’s a also one of the most overhyped ingredients. It’s bacon, and learning how to cook it like a chef will change your breakfast-filled life forever. Take your bacon game up one hell of a notch by starting from scratch. Maybe not live pig scratch, but a step after that. “Making your own bacon isn’t that hard, so if you want to try it you should if you’re into cooking,” says Vinny Dotolo, the titular Vinny of Los Angeles’ Jon & Vinny’s. To avoid making bad bacon—those limp sad strips that remind you of the Holiday Inn Express continental breakfast—keep your cool. “Don’t overthink bacon, it’s one of the simple pleasures of the morning,” says Edouardo Jordan, chef and owner of Salare and Junebaby restaurants in Seattle. We tapped Jordan, Dotolo, and other chefs to break down the basics of making restaurant-quality bacon.
Start with the right meat
Square one is to choose the right meat. Bacon is usually made with fatty cuts of pork. “Pork belly is king and my preferred cut for bacon because it has the perfect ratio of meat to fat,” says Steve McHugh of Cured in San Antonio. “At Cured, we make ‘Face Bacon’ from the pig’s jowl, which has a great 60/40 meat to fat ratio.” Don’t make bacon with shitty quality pork belly (or jowl). “Good bacon starts with good quality pork belly,” Says Teresa Montaño of Otoño in Highland Park, Los Angeles. “Bright pink flesh and pearly white fat is what I look for in a good pork belly. The fat to meat ratio is up to you, I like about 50/50, if possible.”
Not down to DIY? Don’t get duped at the store.“Watch out for those products that have been injected with water,” says McHugh. “Large producers will inject water for added weight, so you’re essentially buying something that is going to cook out and disappear in the pan.” There are also some sneaky tricks going down with nitrate labeling. “If you look at the back of these products chances are there’s some sort of celery product in the ingredients like celery salt or celery juice,” says McHugh. “Celery is known to have naturally occurring Nitrates but by adding these products, producers can claim that they ‘have not added any Nitrates.’” Like many packaged goods, less ingredients listed is usually your best bet.
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee has the attention of chefs around the country. “I think Benton’s bacon is best in the country,” says Dotolo. The business has a reputation for doing things the right way, and restaurant industry insiders have taken notice. “Owner Allan Benton’s family has been humanely raising hogs for generations and Allan opened his Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in 1973,” says David Guas, owner and executive chef of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia. “It’s the best pork I’ve ever tasted and the secret to his bacon is his grandparents’ curing recipe.”
Get extra points for curing…
If you want to go full-on chef, you should consider curing your bacon. “It’s not just the quality of the meat that counts; it’s also the curing process and the smoking,” says Slade Rushing, of Brennan’s in New Orleans. “Take your time and allow the magic to happen.”
Of course, some bacon—like Benton’s—is already cured. But some isn’t. To cure your own, you’ll need your bacon to sit in a bunch of salt for at least three days. “I use 50 percent kosher salt, 50 percent bacon and a touch of curing salt to preserve the color, mixed thoroughly all together,” says Montaño. While salt is the cornerstone of your cure mix, there are other ingredients chefs like to add to enhance their pork. “I say don’t be afraid to layer flavors—juniper berries, thyme, and peppercorns are some of my favorites,” says Nyesha Arrington of Native in Santa Monica. Slade recommends starting with a basic recipe, then eventually adding your own personality through spices once you nail it.
To make the process easier, chop your pork into more manageable pieces. “I portion the pork belly into four pieces (when working with a whole side), and place each into a large ziplock bag with enough of the curing salt and spices to completely cover the pork belly,” says Montaño. Leave the pork belly in the fridge for three to five days, or until firm.
Another option is smoking, a very important step in primo bacon. You don’t necessarily need a legit smoker to do this at home. “I don’t have a smoker I recommend, I’ve never purchased one or own one,” says Montaño. “I’m old school—my favorite way to smoke is on a Weber grill with fruit wood.”
To DIY your own smoking rig, rinse off the curing salt, if you’ve used it, and get some wood ready. “If you want to smoke your bacon, be careful when choosing wood,” says Rushing. “Cherry wood can be really offensive in the wrong hands.” Smoke the meat until it begins to get tender. “After the smoke I finish the belly in 425 degree oven to get the most tender bacon,” says Montaño. “Let the bacon rest for at least an hour, if you can resist.”
Choose your size
Do you want thin bacon with a crunch? Do you want your slices ultra-thick? Different sizes work for different situations. “Bacon is very personal,” says Tim Love of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth, Texas. “Me personally, I like thin, crispy, fatty bacon for BLTs, and for breakfast I like thick cut and meaty, and crispy bacon for breakfast with eggs.” Slice—or buy—accordingly.
Don’t burn it
With its high fat content, bacon is easy to burn. “I think the most common mistake that people make is cooking it on high heat,” says David Shim of Cote, New York’s Michelin-starred Korean barbecue temple. “You would think that by cooking it on high heat that you can render the fat, but if you start cooking the bacon on low heat, you can really render the fat and make it super crispy.” You lose a lot when you use the wrong cooking temperature. “Cooking it on too high heat guarantees a scorch, and the meat will not caramelize,” says Arrington. We probably don’t have to tell you this, but we will just in case: If there’s one cardinal sin in the world of bacon making, it’s nuking it. “Don’t cook bacon in a microwave!” says Dotolo.
Try baking it…
Even though the word bacon probably elicits a mental picture of meaty strips sizzling on a greasy pan, most of our chefs suggest using an oven to cook bacon. “At home, you should cook bacon on a sheet tray with parchment paper at 325 degrees until [it reaches your] desired doneness,” says Dotolo. “Cooking bacon laid flat at this temperature helps render the fat slowly. I recommend cooking it in the oven because it’s way less messy.” This method works particularly well when you’re working with a meatier piece of bacon. “If you are cooking a thicker strip, I always use the oven to cook and brush some maple syrup over it, and finish it with some sprinkles of five spice,” says Shim. “Salty, sweet and the spice really works well.”
…Or stick to the stovetop
If you’re going to use the stovetop instead of the oven, pick an appropriate pan. “Cooking bacon in a sauté pan Is the biggest mistake unless you like chewy bacon,” says Love. Opt for cast iron over the sauté. “The correct level of heat is so important when perfecting the art of cooking bacon, and I always prefer to use a heavy-bottomed cast iron pan for even heat distribution so that my bacon cooks evenly,” says McHugh.
Shim recommends starting low and slow for cooking thin strips. Montaño recommends cooking your bacon over medium heat in a pan with a lot of surface area. “Don’t crowd the pan,” she says. “Drain the fat off as it renders into a heat resistant dish. This serves two purposes: a dry pan will crisp the bacon and you will have bacon fat for future projects.”
Place your finished bacon on a drying rack—not paper towels—so you can save the bacon fat for future use. Try using it to make fried rice, sauté vegetables, or cook eggs: all coincidentally great sides for bacon. “Growing up in a Korean family, my mom served [bacon] with rice, fried egg and kimchi,” says Shim. “The salty, smoky and crispy bacon was so good with the egg and kimchi, and it’s still is one of my favorite ways of eating bacon.”