Why Life Is More Fun When You Eat Bacon & Cook with Bacon Fat
I grew up in a household where bacon was considered its own necessary food group. My mom saved the bacon fat in a jar and reused it in other dishes, which my friends considered vile, unless they were also from immigrant families or the American South, where saving bacon fat has never gone out of style.
Personally, I consider bacon a sort of love letter to my tummy, although one I'm careful not to send too often. I've always saved the fat to reuse later on, no matter what other people might think of the practice.
However, what goes around comes around. What with nose-to-tail eating, the rise of cast-iron cookware, practical household uses of bacon fat coming to light, and even eating regimens that recommend bacon at the outset, saving bacon fat is starting to seem like a pretty damn good idea.
It was also a pretty popular thing to do back in WWII, but not because it was healthy or tasty. Apparently, bacon grease makes glycerin, and glycerin makes explosives. Bacon itself also works well as a thermal lance. The following Disney short encouraged housewives to save and turn it in to use in the production of cannon shells, depth charges, and cartridges. These days, it's much more beneficial to save it yourself and make homemade bacon soap.
Plus, as they so accurately point out, a little bacon grease on top of dog food will get even the pickiest canine to eat.
Traditionally, the medical establishment and nutritionists have held that bacon, which contains a lot of saturated fat, isn't great for your health. It's high in sodium and often has nitrates added during the curing process. Nitrates and nitrites, most often found in processed meat like bacon, sausage, ham, and hot dogs, have been linked to cancer.
There are people who fall on the other side of the debate, like those who follow the paleo diet, and argue that saturated fats (including bacon) are actually beneficial and that the previous studies linking saturated fat, heart disease, and cancer are faulty and presuppose that correlation is the same thing as causation.
We say buy good-quality bacon that's nitrate-free and made from free-range pigs, since studies show that factory-farmed pigs often have higher levels of stress (which affects the quality of the bacon) and flesh that is filled with antibiotics and hormones. Eat your bacon with gusto, enjoy it thoroughly, and save the fat for later use. But do so in moderation. Even the most die-hard bacon advocate wouldn't ever call it health food.
After all, a little bacon goes a long way towards adding savor to your meals, and it can be quite economical, too, considering that bacon fat is so useful and versatile. Want to make your lentil soup or caramelized onions taste extra-amazing? Sauté the onions in a tablespoon of bacon fat. Need to take your spinach salad to the next level? A bacon fat, apple cider vinegar, and brown sugar vinaigrette will make your eyes roll up in your head from sheer delight.
And bacon fat makes an extra-yummy flavoring in surprising dishes like chocolate chip cookies and gingerbread men, but we'll get to that soon.
There are many ways and tricks to cook bacon, whether your method is to use a pan on the stove, a makeshift roasting rack in the oven, or a plate in the microwave. Once the bacon is cooked, however, you should know the basics for storing the fat so it's usable later on.
You want something non-reactive that won't alter the taste of the bacon fat, like a glass, ceramic, or porcelain container. I like a glass Mason jar with a lid if I'm feeling classy.
If I'm not, an old pickle jar with a lid will work just as well. A heavy ceramic coffee mug works wonderfully with some plastic wrap to seal it. Old tin cans work, too, but I generally only use those if I'm forced to throw out a batch of bacon fat.
If you want to get really fancy, Etsy and eBay sell vintage grease jars from a more innocent (and fattier) time in America's cooking past.
Some people like to pour the piping-hot grease straight from the pan into the container because it makes them feel more alive and they're idiots. (Guilty on both counts.)
However, it's much easier to set the pan aside while you consume your bacon and wait until the grease cools into a creamy, fatty lake that you can then scrape into your container of choice. The color will be off-white to a light yellowish-brown depending on the type of bacon and how long it was cooked, so don't worry if the colors of various batches of fat vary.
There actually is a reason to pour piping-hot bacon grease straight from the pan into the container: that way, you can strain it and you won't get any brown bits of leftover bacon among the fat. Some people worry that those little bits might go rancid in the fat, especially if they store the bacon grease for a long time.
I don't actually eat bacon that often, so I tend to use up the fat very rapidly.
Remember that if you need to throw out bacon fat for any reason, it should never go down the drain, where it will cool into a solid and clog up your pipes. In that case, I'd use a metal container like an old tin can, scrape the fat in there, and toss it out once it's full.
One caveat: you might want to keep the can inside a sturdy plastic bag until it's ready to throw out, otherwise rats and mice will want to have a bacon-y midnight snack under your kitchen sink.
Older editions of kitchen bible The Joy of Cooking say bacon fat can be stored "indefinitely," while anecdotal evidence from other cooks say anywhere from a few months to years. Some people store it in the fridge and then move it to the freezer if they feel they won't use it before it goes bad, while others keep it outside with the other oils. A few home cooks speculate that the salts used to cure the bacon will help preserve the bacon fat.
I'm firmly in the refrigerator camp, if only because solidified bacon fat is a lot easier and less messy to measure out if I need a specific quantity. Most people refrigerate fats like butter and shortening, so it makes sense to do so.
As mentioned above, bacon fat is amazing when it's used in place of olive oil for frying eggs, sautéing vegetables, caramelizing onions, and in vinaigrettes. Basically, wherever your recipe calls for an oil or fat, just substitute leftover bacon grease to add an indescribable savory taste.
Some people swear by making popcorn with bacon fat, which gives those kernels a little something-something. Some people even use it the way they would mayonnaise or butter—as a savory spread to oomph up their sandwiches and roasts.
I love to wilt leafy greens in bacon fat and to slide a little bit of the magic substance under the skin before I roast a chicken. I once made a grilled cheese sandwich (thanks, Bon Appetit!) using bacon fat and butter to grill the bread and almost passed out from joy once I bit into it.
Bacon fat, unsurprisingly, amps up many savory dishes, but did you know it really shines when it comes to baked goods?
Cornbread is unbelievable when made with bacon fat, which is an old and venerable Southern tradition. Almost all breakfast items like pancakes, waffles, and French toast reach sublime heights when cooked in bacon fat (or a mix of bacon fat and butter). Chocolate chip cookies, shortbread, and gingerbread benefit from the substitution of bacon fat for whatever fat or oil the recipe recommends.
There's something about the contrast of sugar with the round, smoky, savory tones of bacon that heightens the taste of a baked good. Epicurious lists over 400 dessert recipes that use bacon or bacon fat as a key ingredient.
Just in keep in mind that not every recipe will respond well to the addition of bacon fat. Pie crusts do great when made with bacon fat, while most cakes do less so. My theory is that the heavy, rich mouth-feel of bacon fat doesn't work with baked goods where fluffiness and texture are paramount.
If you really want the ultimate in sweet-salty goodness, then you have to go out and make yourself some candied bacon. It's beyond easy and requires three ingredients, an oven, a cookie sheet, and some foil. This stuff does not mess around.
In my opinion, you have to get thin-sliced bacon so there's more surface area for the sugar to caramelize and get really crisp, although many recipes say different. Plus, you need to have the right ratio of savory saltiness to crispy sweet crunchiness, and a really thick slice of bacon will overwhelm the sweet flavors.
If you find yourself with an excess of bacon fat that you're not going to cook with and are loath to throw out, don't forget that you can always make a handy-dandy oil lamp out of that stuff. How's that for thrift? And don't forget about those DIY soap bars mentioned earlier.
What's your favorite way to use bacon fat? Add to this guide with your own ideas below in the comments!