A burning bacon question.
May 23, 2007 6:48 PM   Subscribe

So, bacon. Did it used to be a wholly different foodstuff? I often run across descriptions of bacon as a wartime staple in the 19th and early 20th century--i.e. before refrigeration--wherein it would appear that the bacon was shelf/wagon-stable for months on end. With the bacon we get today (at least in America) refrigeration is absolutely necessary, and once the seal is broken, you have about a week of usability. So what's the deal with old-school bacon? Did the bacon change, or did the people? I must know.
posted by _sirmissalot_ to Food & Drink (37 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure I know the complete answer to this, but bacon in the US is not called bacon anywhere else, they call it rashers.
posted by empath at 6:53 PM on May 23, 2007

I'd guess that the bacon was pre-cooked. Dry, smoked, meats typically last a long time. (think beef jerky)
posted by chrisamiller at 6:54 PM on May 23, 2007

The process used was salt curing. Depending on the local climate, this would only work during the colder seasons of the year.
posted by pmbuko at 6:56 PM on May 23, 2007

Best answer: Pre-mechanical refrigeration, preserved meat was much more heavily salted and smoked. What used to be called bacon is now sold as salt pork, or salted pork bellies.

The wide adoption of refrigeration allowed the distribution of meats with far lower levels of preservatives, and no need for salting processes that greatly de-hydrated the meat. Not only is modern American bacon far less salty than what similar cuts of meat might have been in the mid-19th century, but it contains a lot more water and light fats which go rancid quickly and would have been drawn off by the salting process in earlier days. Accordingly, it has better texture and flavor when cooked, gives up more fat in cooking, and doesn't require repeated soaking to prepare it for cooking.
posted by paulsc at 7:00 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I believe that pmbuko got it right. I also think the intestinal fortitude of folks' guts back then could stand up to lot more than those of ours today.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:04 PM on May 23, 2007

i'm certainly no expert but i have always somehow believed that before the invention of the refrigerator, meat that was not immediately eaten after a slaughter had to be cured, smoked, or dried so that it could keep longer. it seems to me that while bacon on the past may have come from the same parts of the pig, it was cured or smoked. i feel like it would be similar to the smoked meats you often find in europe such as jamon or serrano or salamis, etc. i think that's why these days you find bacon often comes labeled as being smoked or with some sort of smoked flavoring.
posted by violetk at 7:05 PM on May 23, 2007

ontic's dad discuses old-school bacon here in this AskMe question.

The passage in question;
Some meats were canned, some smoked (especially sausages and hams) and some cooked and stored in cool cellars or, as in the case of bacon, fried and stored in large 5 and 10 gallon crockery jars with hot well salted pork grease poured over them. All of this was weighted down in the crockery jar with a circler board with a clean heavy rock on top until the grease solidified. (From which we get the saying "salting down the bacon".) The smoked meats were all smoked with different types of wood that had been harvested and well soaked - moistened - such as hickory and fruit tree woods.
posted by lekvar at 7:06 PM on May 23, 2007

yes, pork was cured to preserve it. you had to cut the mold off before you ate it. this is still true of any cured ham and some aged steaks--they just do it before it reaches the supermarket.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:07 PM on May 23, 2007

Interestingly, while the bacon then required no refrigeration and more preparation, the bacon today lasts about as long in the refrigerator because of the nitrates. Bacon today is more like the pork it came from but only because of the miracle of chemistry. This has had the unfortunate side-effect of making some of the cured pork ethnic variants more rare.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:19 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

The magical animal lost its powers during a battle with an evil wizard.

Either that, or "bacon" has changed. As violetk suggested, there are plenty of smoked & / or cured European meats that probably remain closer to their original raison d'etre: preservation. Coppa & pancetta spring to mind.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:24 PM on May 23, 2007

If you want visuals and contemporary perspective on how the taste/smell/appearance differs, check out Frontier House. Thinkingwoman is correct; you purchased bacon in large moldy slabs and cut off a hunk just big enough for the next meal. The very worst of the mold would be pared away before cooking, but yeah a lot of it got consumed. I assume that cooking over high heat helped kill a fair amount of the bacterial growth. As for what remained, well...mortality rates and life expectancy were worse back then. Refrigeration and antibiotics did have a little something to do with the improved odds.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:26 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

eh empath? Its called "bacon" here in Australia. And in the UK. I'm confused.
posted by arha at 7:27 PM on May 23, 2007

A rasher is a unit of bacon here in oz. A slice. "Give me twelve rashers of bacon!" you might demand of your friendly local butcher. He would traditionally be expected to throw two extra rashers into the deal, before wrapping it all up in yesterday's newspaper. This is known colloquially as a "butcher's dozen".

But it is a fair point to make that whatever they call "bacon" in the US probably bears little resemblance to what people elsewhere in the world think of as bacon. Or food, for that matter.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:47 PM on May 23, 2007

I think he meant that what we call "bacon" is not what you call "bacon". True in Canada at least.
posted by smackfu at 7:49 PM on May 23, 2007

And I actually thought it was called "stripey bacon" elsewhere, but Google isn't giving that much love.
posted by smackfu at 7:50 PM on May 23, 2007

From Sandridge Farm:
There are two main methods of curing, Dry Curing is the oldest, each farmhouse would have its own recipe and a flitch of bacon would be kept in the inglenook above the fireplace.
Bacon formed part of the rations for long distance sea journeys, heavy salting preserved the meat from ‘going off’ but by the time it reached the Americas it was tough and more like boot leather than bacon as we know it today.

The Wiltshire Cure was developed by the Harris family of Calne, Wiltshire and was revolutionary in its time (1840’s), they packed the roof with ice - as meat keeps fresh longer at lower temperatures it did not require so much salt. A milder cure was born. The term ‘Wet-cure’ means to immerse in a brine, unfortunately ‘mass produced’ bacon today is not only immersed in liquid but pumped with water and phosphates to speed up the process and add yield (and the more supermarkets squeezed the price, the more water was added), flavour was sacrificed for profit. I hope that when you taste our bacon it will redeem the name of ‘Wiltshire Cure’ as a brine cured bacon, with no added water that does not shrivel, but sizzles in your pan!
And here is a recipe for Boiled Bacon from THE BOOK OF HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT
by Mrs. Isabella Beetonm 1859
As bacon is frequently excessively salt, let it be soaked in warm water for an hour or two previous to dressing it; then pare off the rusty parts, and scrape the under-side and rind as clean as possible. Put it into a saucepan of cold water, let it come gradually to a boil, and as fast as the scum rises to the surface of the water, remove it. Let it simmer very gently until it is thoroughly done; then take it up, strip off the skin, and sprinkle over the bacon a few bread raspings, and garnish with tufts of cauliflower or Brussels sprouts. When served alone, young and tender broad beans or green peas are the usual accompaniments.
P.s. including "flitche" in google searches helps find old stuff about bacon.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 7:55 PM on May 23, 2007

On a related note: For the best in modern-day artisanal bacon, try the Bacon of the Month Club.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:30 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

you have about a week of usability

Damnable lies. Its good for at least three weeks after opening.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 8:48 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Included with an interesting history of smokehouses in colonial America:

In essence, you cure meat in two steps. The fresh cuts are packed in tubs of coarse salt for about six weeks while the salt draws most of the water from the flesh. Then the salted meats are hung in a tightly constructed wooden shed, usually without windows or a flue, in which a fire smolders for one to two weeks. The result is dried, long-lasting, smoke-flavored meat that will age in the same smokehouse for two years before it's eaten. ...Typically, these are cubical structures of wood, eight to fourteen feet square, with steep pyramidal roofs for holding in the smoke among the hanging cuts of meat...Sometimes a smokehouse is also called a meat house, which makes sense because the building spends much more of its time as a storage locker than it does as a smoking house.
posted by frobozz at 8:48 PM on May 23, 2007

in the case of bacon, fried and stored in large 5 and 10 gallon crockery jars with hot well salted pork grease poured over them

Technically, that's "bacon confit".
posted by Caviar at 8:51 PM on May 23, 2007

Can anybody figure out what rust refers to? It seems to be yellowish and can result from hanging bacon in the air too long.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:10 PM on May 23, 2007

Just to jump in on the international-differences-in-bacon issue, as an American that has lived in the UK and Australia I am uniquely qualified to answer. As UbuRoivas pointed out, a rasher is a unit of bacon. You can get "short cut rashers," which is just the eye at the end; and you get get "streaky bacon," which is just the streaky long bit (the ones Americans think of as bacon). Or you can get the best of both worlds and request "middle rashers," which include both the streaky part and the eye. Other than that, the only real difference is that American bacon is sliced a lot thinner. In Australia and Britain, they seem to prefer it a bit chunkier (more like a slice of ham, really).
posted by web-goddess at 9:18 PM on May 23, 2007

"slice of ham"?!?

What an incredibly effete concept! Doesn't everybody buy ham by the leg & just take bites out of it whenever they're hungry?
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:26 PM on May 23, 2007

Best answer: From The Complete Cook...and, with General Directions for Making Wines. Sanderson, J. M., 1864
27. Bacon is good when the fat is almost transparent and of a delicate transparent pink tinge. The lean should adhere to the bone, be of a good colour, and tender. Yellow streaks in bacon show it is becoming rusty; when all is yellow, all is rusty and unfit to eat. Bacon and hams are frequently spoilt in the curing. Taste a little of the lean, and you will be able to judge whether it be too salt or not.
368. It is a good plan to slightly sprinkle meat with salt a day or two before finally salting; this will draw out the blood. But the first brine should be thrown away, as it is apt to injure butcher's meat, and always has a tendency to make bacon rusty. The meat should be wiped thoroughly clean after the preparatory salting.
381. Drying may be effected by simply draining your salted or pickled meat, and hanging it within the warmth of a fire in a dry kitchen, but smoked dried meat is preferred by most persons, and certainly deserves the preference. The fuel employed for this purpose must be wood; sawdust (not deal or fir sawdust) is generally employed. Care must be taken not to melt or scorch the meat; if dried in a common kitchen chimney, it must be hung high enough. The fire must be kept in a smothering state, which may be easily done with sawdust, and in a place set apart for smoking; it is or ought to be kept burning slowly night and day. The best way is to send your meat to persons who make a business of smoking--(not tobacco.) Do not dry your meat in a bakehouse, or strew it with bran when drained for drying; both will render the meat liable to be infested with those voracious little wretches called weevils. Drying meat by a malthouse kiln generally causes it to rust. After smoking, the wrappers should be removed and replaced with clean ones. It is not a bad plan to whitewash hams two or three times, when they are required to keep a long time.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:40 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

web-goddess says: In Australia and Britain, they seem to prefer it a bit chunkier (more like a slice of ham, really).

I guess you have never experienced American chip chop ham which is paper thin slices. Lots of ham in the USA is consumed in sandwiches and all such slices are thin though not always paper thin.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:50 PM on May 23, 2007

I worked for a time in rural development in remote mountain villages in southwest China. I'm quite tall. I would often stand up from a nice cup of tea round the fire to bang my head on hunks of smoked pork hanging in the rafters over the fire, where it was being kept smoked for preservation.
It would sometimes be a bit mouldy. I think (can't recall precisely) that you could just take it down and cut off a chunk, then hang the rest back up.
I think it was salted first too, like 腊肉, but also not sure.
posted by Abiezer at 11:19 PM on May 23, 2007

Smackfu: What you call "Bacon" in the US, and you've referred to as "Stripey Bacon" is what we call "Streaky Bacon" in the UK. What we call "Back Bacon" is, apparently, rare or at least very unusual in North America. A shame, as it is much preferable, in my mind, to the streaky stuff...
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:26 PM on May 23, 2007

The bacon changed. What you are buying today is cured only for flavour. (The same applies to other cured meats like ham, corned beef, smoked fish, ...). violetk's guess above is pretty much dead on.

One side-effect not noted above is that wet cures effectively increase the producer's profits when the bacon is sold by weight. These days the brine is often injected, so there is a strong temptation for the producer to inject a little more, cause brine is a lot cheaper than pork.

Also, while sodium nitrite may be a modern innovation, plenty of old cure recipes call for saltpetre to preserve the colour and improve the cure.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:28 PM on May 23, 2007

i_am_joe's_spleen says: One side-effect not noted above is that wet cures effectively increase the producer's profits when the bacon is sold by weight.

Umm, did you read the thread? Above I posted an extract from Sandridge Farm complaining about water injection. Maybe you did because how did you learn the distinction between "wet cure" and "dry cure"?
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:40 PM on May 23, 2007

Sorry MSN, that'll teach me to skim.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:27 AM on May 24, 2007

Jamón Curado or cured ham is absolutely delicious. Take a trip to Spain sometime to taste this delicacy. One type called Ibérico can be extremely expensive and melts in your mouth in salty, meaty deliciousness. Spanish jamónes are typically salt cured for several weeks and then hung to dry for at least six months after the salt has been washed off. There is no smoking involved in these processes.
posted by JJ86 at 7:18 AM on May 24, 2007

i heard that stomach cancer used to be a lot more widespread due to the consumption of smoked and pickled meats.
posted by lester at 7:26 AM on May 24, 2007

Canadians (at least this Canadian, in southern Ontario) refer to American-style streaky bacon as "bacon". And what is referred to as "Canadian bacon" in the States is called "back bacon" here. And finally, we also have peameal bacon (which is yummy), which Wikipedia claims is also called Canadian bacon by Canadians (but that's not a usage I've encountered personally).
posted by flipper at 8:25 AM on May 24, 2007

settle a bet while we're here?
What's "gammon" as related to bacon, and does it somehow relate to the game of backgammon and then also to back-bacon?
posted by bartleby at 9:56 AM on May 24, 2007

Gammon is (per the OED) "The bottom piece of a flitch of bacon, including the hind leg; also, a smoked or cured ham." (1851 D. JERROLD St. Giles xviii, Here's the bread and cheese, and all that's left o' the gammon o' bacon.) It's from Old North French gambon (mod. F. jambon) 'ham,' from gambe (mod. F. jambe) 'leg.'

Backgammon is "Apparently = back-game, back-play (ME. gamen game, play, still in 15th c.), ‘because the pieces are (in certain circumstances) taken up and obliged to go back, that is re-enter at the table.’ Always called TABLES till the 17th c."
posted by languagehat at 12:12 PM on May 24, 2007

Thanks to you language, and the hat you rode in...under!
posted by bartleby at 2:32 PM on May 24, 2007

And so, the threads of MetaFilter are safe once again from the danger of spurious etymological theories. Whispered exclamations of awe are heard from various witnesses of these remarkable events: "Who was that hatted man...?"
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:19 PM on May 24, 2007

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