There’s no dearth of big, boastful talk in the food world. It seems like every restaurant or producer claims to have something that’s the “best ever,” even when it’s obviously not even close to being that. But when you call your town “The Ham Capital of the World,” that’s a seriously bold claim right there. I mean, we live in world with Hungarian Mangalitsa pork, jamon iberico from Spain, Kurobuta pork in Japan, English Berkshire pork... the list goes on. In a world filled with such a dense variety of tasty pig products, you’d better come correct if you want to be taken seriously.
It turns out that Smithfield, Virginia, is, in fact, the world’s ham capital. Seriously, that’s the town’s actual motto, and for good reason: Smithfield Foods is responsible for more porcine deliciousness than anywhere else on the planet, producing over six billion pounds of pork, raising around 15 million pigs a year and processing 27 million.
So, being an official Bacon Critic, the good people of Smithfield reached out and asked me if I wanted to sample their wares. And of course I said “yes,” because I’m a damn professional. Two days later I received a big honking box of piggy goodness containing 14 pounds of bacon products, two each of seven varieties.
The question is, what do you do when you have that much bacon (and more)? First things first, you procure a mini-fridge solely dedicated to your growing bacon collection. Secondly, you invite your in-laws (plus one adorable niece) over to your house for a bacon tasting party, giving them score cards and instructions on rating each one according to Bacon Critic Standards and Practices. And how did Smithfield fare? Here are the results:
This one proved divisive for our tasting panel, with my father-in-law deriding it for not being salty enough, and high praise from 11-year-old Isabelle and mom-in-law. Like most of Smithfield’s bacon, it’s “naturally hickory smoked,” and the major difference is that the fat content seemed to be lacking, leaving a thinner cut of bacon than I generally prefer. It actually didn’t seem to hold together well in the cooking process. Also, yes, it was lacking in salinity. Not a big fan. Bacon needs a good amount of salt to be truly balanced, and this one simply didn’t have it. That said, if you’re watching your sodium intake, it’s likely a good option.
Now we’re getting somewhere. What most producers and restaurants refer to as “thick cut” is usually just a medium size for me, and perfectly fits into my “Goldilocks theory” of bacon slice-size. This one really fit the bill, and is a fine representation of Smithfield’s bacon production. With a nice balance of salt, fat, smoke and pork, it’s a versatile, well-rounded option. I would buy this for myself, for certain.
A classic breakfast bacon. Nothing fancy, no whistles and bells, just good old-fashioned morning pork. For our judging panel, it faired mildly, drawing middling scores down the line. It wasn’t deemed inedible, by any standard, and is likely what most people think of when they think of bacon. I feel the thin-cut slices would be perfect to top a cheeseburger, as well. Nicely balanced, for the most part, but it fried up a little thin for my personal preferences. Not bad, just not spectacular, although a “cut above” your average, inexpensive supermarket bacon. On an overall scale of 1-5, it comes in at about a three.
OK, here’s where things get interesting. Double thick, this one would stand up as a solid “dinner bacon” if you’re into that sort of thing, and the size would make it perfect for a BLT. But sometimes bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and this one didn’t do so hot for our tasting panel, who almost unanimously declared it a little too salty. There was some nice smoke on it, although it’s the kind of bacon you might want to eat with a fork and knife, and I’ve always found using cutlery takes the fun, tactile sense out of one’s bacon experience (I like to eat bacon with my hands). Not the winner of the day.
Thick Cut Hometown Original
Oh, did someone say “winner?” Well, we have a real bell-ringer with this one. Adding a bit of heft to Smithfield’s classic bacon truly takes it to the next level, giving it just the right size and texture to stand up perfectly to the cooking process, and contributes a bit more smoke, salt and fat to the Hometown Original. For some reason, it didn’t seem quite as beloved by our judges as the regular Thick Cut, but comes in a very close second. Good stuff here.
Peppered Thick Cut
Now we’re starting to stray from classic bacons to more “exotic” variations. With a nicely peppered exterior and solid heft, this is kind of like “bacon au poivre.” And I happen to adore steak au poivre, so this really fit the bill for me. I felt as though the black pepper contributed a complexity to this bacon, however my fellow tasters were ultimately split on the decision. Some really appreciated the peppery kick, while others found it a little overbearing. I’d consider this a fine “lunch bacon,” and I think would absolutely kill in a Cobb salad or a bacon Caesar. (Great, now I’m hungry for a bacon Caesar…)
Cherrywood Smoked Thick Cut
Another interesting option. For this one, Smithfield deviates from their “naturally hickory smoked” methods and opting instead for an intriguing fruitwood. You don’t really find cherrywood used to smoke bacon that often; apple seems to be the predominant choice, when smoking bacon with fruit. You can almost taste the cherries here, which some may like and others, well, not so much. I appreciated the distinct qualities of the smoke, however, and the addition of sea salt (as with the Thick Cut Hometown and the Peppered) gives it a more refined salinity. It wasn’t the favorite of the day for all of us, but I found it to be an intriguing alternative to traditional bacon. Overall, a solid 4/ 5. Thumbs up.
At the day’s close, our bellies stuffed with smoky, salty pork (and there was also salad... we’re not monsters), everyone felt it was a fine exercise in bacon criticism, and largely signaled their approval of Smithfield’s efforts and the variety of flavors and textures. On that score, I have to agree with them (nice work, Ham Capital!). I even gave them all some of the bacons they really liked to take home with them, which of course they appreciated, although I did have an ulterior motive for doing so beyond being a good host: I have a new mini-fridge I need to make some space in for all the bacon to come. And, friends, let me tell you—there’s a lot of it.