You can probably imagine my unabashed giddiness and ecstatic joy when I learned that I’d be the official Bacon Critic for Extra Crispy. After the excitement died down to a bubbling simmer, there was one thing that weighed on my mind: the job itself. Because after you’ve told all your friends and family and followers that you’re some kind of bacon authority, at the end of the day there’s work to be done, and a lot of work at that. When you’re tasked with proclaiming definitively what you, America’s Bacon Critic, feel is the very best bacon in the country, the realization soon arrives that you’re going to have to be, well, critical.
Heavy is the head that wears the bacon crown.
One of my first duties as Bacon Critic was to figure out how, exactly, to be a Bacon Critic. Turns out, when you’re hired for this gig, nobody tells you how to do it. Aside from helpful suggestions and editorial insight from the Extra Crispy team, I am left to my own devices when it comes to bacon tasting and judging methodology. So before I even started cooking and sampling what has already turned out to be a metric shit-ton of bacon, I needed to puzzle out the best way to do this job. And after much careful deliberation, I’ve landed on a system that’s practical, useful, and fair.
This method is what I refer to as the Bushido of Bacon. The term bushido refers to the code of ethics observed by medieval samurai, which they took to be life-and-death serious. Now, I’m not going to ritually disembowel myself for disobeying any of these principles, but still; there is a code, and I will follow it to the best of my abilities. I owe it to you, my readers, to the producers who make these fine bacon products, and, ultimately, to the swine who gave their lives so that we may enjoy their delicious smoked and cured bellies.
Principle #1: Eat a lot of bacon
I know, I know… tough job, right? Believe it or not, it’s tougher than you might imagine, tougher than even I expected, and my expectations ran high. Eating a lot of bacon is fine on the weekends, maybe, but constantly over the course of three months? It’s more than a little daunting. But I shall persevere. Eating a whole honking load of bacon is crucial, because if I’m to find the best in the country, it’s imperative that I sample as many different bacons as possible. It’s not important that I eat four pounds of the same kind of bacon all willy nilly, but rather that I eat as many distinct bacons as I can.
Principle #2: Be critical, but be fair
Nobody really wants to be overly critical of bacon. Most of us just want to savor it and languish in its glorious porcine qualities. As soon as you’re tasked with analyzing something critically, whether it’s movies, books, weed, or barbecue, it instantly becomes less fun. It’s much more enjoyable to eat, enjoy, and not have to think about it. Some people are naturally critical about just about everything. You probably know at least one of these people, and you also probably tend to avoid them at parties. However, as it’s officially my job to think about it, I’m obliged to do so with all of my faculties present, in a fashion that pays due respect and attention to the task at hand.
Part of the difficulty in being critical about bacon are the facts that 1) bacon is such a beautifully hedonistic thing that it’s hard not to love all the bacon, all the time, just because it’s bacon; and 2) there’s the matter of preconceptions. I realize that cheap, off-brand supermarket bacon will probably never be on the level of a small-batch product made from pastured heritage hogs lovingly hand-rubbed with curing agents and spices before being smoked over fancy wood from happy fruit trees. However, it behooves me to treat both of these bacons exactly the same and discover for myself their inherent qualities, both good and not-so-good. (Bacon is rarely, if ever, just downright bad.)
Principle #3: Maintain a standard of preparation
When judging bacon, it’s necessary to ensure that each product gets its day in the sun, so to speak. It simply wouldn’t be fair to cook all of them differently, depending on my mood or what I feel like eating that day. No, all bacons must be prepared in precisely the same fashion in order to maintain objectivity, and to be able to pit one against the other in a fair fight. Naturally, if you throw Rivers Cuomo in the octagon with Chuck Liddell, it’s probably safe to say that the Weezer frontman will be smashed into raspberry Jell-O… but at least they’ll have rules. The same applies to bacon, as far as I’m concerned.
Hence, every bacon I eat for official judging will be cooked two ways: in the oven on a wire rack, and fried in a skillet over natural gas. In both cases, I’ll aim to cook the bacon to medium doneness, i.e. a perfect middle ground of consistency between crispy and chewy. Of course, I imagine this will prove challenging when faced with either very thin or very thick (“butcher cut” or “dinner cut”) bacons, but that will all factor into my ultimate evaluation. I’m just curious which one will turn out to be the Chuck Liddell of bacon. Or the Muhammad Ali.
Principle #4: Adhere to the criteria
In order to accomplish this job with both panache and fairness (per principle #2), I have to find an adequate ranking schematic. When it comes to professional food contests, nearly every competition has its own numerical method by which the entries are evaluated. Sometimes it’s as simple as a 1 to 5 scale, and in other instances the math is more advanced. Hell, I twice judged a pro BBQ competition (Hogs for the Cause), and the professional barbecue circuit judging system is downright byzantine in its complexity. Spending a day in the judges’ tent was akin to a master class in barbecue trigonometry, all under the cover of absolute silence, lest you let slip an inadvertent mmm and taint the opinion of one of your fellow judges. The process managed to turn wonderful, tasty barbecue into something about as joyful as a high school mid-term. No fun at all.
Since there doesn’t appear to be any extant bacon-judging criteria, I decided to make up my own, to wit: Every bacon will be evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5 in the following categories: smoke, salt, fat, consistency, pork, and overall impression. Granted, not all bacon is cured with salt or nitrates, and not all bacon is smoked. All bacon should have some element of fat involved, simply in order to be considered “bacon,” however the lean/fat ratio is one of the most important qualities that bacon has to offer. The ultimate goal here is to find bacon that manages to evenly balance all of these qualities in a way that ensures that none of them is lost, and none overpowers the others, all with a good, even consistency. This is my high bar, my true water mark for what makes a bacon special. Not all will meet it, surely. But I’m eager to find the ones that will.
Principle #5: Have fun
I do not, categorically, want to end up like some of the professional barbecue judges that I met who had nothing but frowns and scowls to offer in the judges’ tent. Yes, of course it’s an important job, but this is bacon we’re talking about here! Aside from maybe chocolate, it might just be one of the most fun foods on this planet. It’s a food that always seems to make people happy, and lord knows it makes me damn near euphoric. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t have fun being America’s Bacon Critic, then you don’t deserve the job in the first place.
Lighten up. Eat, savor, enjoy. Do your job, and do it well. Such is the Bushido of Bacon, and I swear to uphold it until my duties have come to a close. After which, I imagine I’ll have to eat a salad or two. But I’ll still probably put some bacon dust on it.