Which is better cured or uncured bacon
What is the texture / taste difference between hardened and unhardened bacon?
The difficulty in answering this question is that the texture and taste of "normal" hardened bacon can vary so widely depending on how it is processed. At least for the US it is my guess is that many people who have bought things called "uncured bacon" are actually experiencing the differences in processing techniques, rather than any substantial difference in terms of "cured" or "uncured". There is also a bizarre and paradoxical nomenclature for labeling "uncured" meat in the US
I am not going to go into the variety of things that might be called "bacon" in other countries. In the US, Bacon, however, in Generally refer to pork belly that is (1) salted, (2) hardened with nitrite / nitrate, and (3) smoked (or in some cases infused with a liquid smoky "taste"). The curing process can actually be done in at least three different ways:
- Dry curing (or "dry rubbing"), in which salt, hardening salts, and spices are rubbed onto the outer surface. This is the most traditional hardening method that is rarely found in the US today. The result is a much drier and firmer product than other methods, with little moisture left. (When cooked, it tends not to "pop" much when sizzling due to the little moisture it releases.) For those not used to it, it can sometimes taste dry or even chewy (especially when sliced into thick slices.) becomes). Smoking dries out the meat even more. It also often tastes salty, as the salt in the meat and fat is highly concentrated without moisture in order to dilute it.
- Wet hardening (or brine or "immersion hardening"), which involves dipping the meat in a salt solution that contains the same ingredients as the dry rub mentioned above. The resulting bacon is not as dry or firm, has a higher moisture content, but often appears to be harder than most "supermarket bacon".
- Injection (or "pumping"), in which the meat is injected with the salt solution. This is the method primarily used in supermarket bacon in the United States because it is the quickest and easiest to do on a large scale. The resulting bacon is very moist, very tender, and tends to splatter a lot when frying. Liquid smoke and other flavorings are sometimes added directly to the liquid rather than actually smoking the meat.
The reason I go into such details here is because the differences in texture and taste can be very significant.
On "hardened" vs. "unhardened": In the USA must be labeled with food hardened bacon (according to USDA) with added nitrate / nitrite powder using one of the methods mentioned above. This prevents the growth of bacteria and if the moisture level is low enough the bacon can be made shelf stable to be stored at room temperature. It also adds to the pink or reddish hue of bacon, along with some of the distinctive taste of US bacon.
Paradoxically, most things called "uncured" (and "natural" and "no nitrates or nitrites added") bacon in the US generally contain a greater amount of curing agents than "hardened" bacon for the reasons explained below. But in theory, "uncured" bacon could refer to at least three different things:
The only meat I've actually seen in US stores labeled "uncured" bacon is actually hardened, only by plant-based nitrate / nitrite hardeners rather than powdered nitrate / nitrite. This is most typically celery juice or powdered celery, but beets and other things can be used. In general, this "uncured" bacon actually has a greater concentration of nitrate / nitrite than normal "hardened" bacon; it only comes from a vegetable source. So it can generally taste just like normal "hardened" bacon. However, the "uncured" bacon I had often seems to be processed differently than typical supermarket bacon, perhaps salted or even grated dry instead of being injected. As mentioned above, this can change the texture significantly, which is especially noticeable when cut into thick slices (which it often seems to do). When smoked lightly (or not smoked at all) it may taste more like "ham" or "pork" than regular supermarket bacon. So again, I think that many of the differences people make for "uncured" bacon are actually due to processing differences, not a lack of hardeners.
Bacon can without Use of nitrate / nitrite, without powdered hardening salt or herbal remedies. I've never seen bacon like this go on sale commercially in the US, although some people make it at home. Without nitrate / nitrite, the meat must be kept well chilled during processing. I imagine it would not be sold commercially in general as it would radically shorten its shelf life and introduce more complex food safety issues with handling and packaging. In any case, bacon made with only salt as a hardener can be darker in color and even turn gray. It often tastes more "ham-like" or "pig-like". When dry or brine and then smoked, natural changes to the meat inside can still result in color changes that keep it a little reddish (and create a flavor profile very similar to bacon with hardening salts). Bacon prepared this way is often unsafe for long-term preservation and should be treated like raw meat. Salt hardening (ie "corning") for long-term preservation is possible, but requires salt concentrations high enough that many people will find the meat unpleasant.
According to the old-fashioned usage of the term, the types of bacon in (1) and (2) would ALL be said to be "hardened" when using salt or other meat preservatives. As already mentioned, according to the USDA (1) and (2) must be marked as "unhardened" and not preserved. Either way, by the traditional definition of "uncured" raw pork belly is what you would get for "uncured bacon". Obviously this is a very different thing from what we commonly call "bacon", but that is exactly an "uncured" version. It tastes much more pig-like, turns gray when cooked, and has a completely different texture and taste when cooked without salts, spices or smoking.
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