Review: Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Bacon
By all accounts I’m comparatively average at my day job. On the rare occasion when I do something truly exemplary and impress the pants off of some hotel guest — and, once more, my boss gets wind of it — I’m summarily rewarded with “bucks.” No, not real bucks, but resort bucks. Redeemable only at certain overpriced eateries and a single convenience store at our very isolated resort, $10 in resort bucks can buy you the equivalent of four packs of gum or six and a half 20-oz sodas.
This being the case, I’ve spent previous bucks on more “gourmet” type items that your normal grocery stores don’t carry. Foie gras, goat cheese, and fancy pants kettle chips have all been among my purchases in the past, but last week I decided to indulge my carnivorous side by purchasing some Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Bacon.
I first heard of Niman Ranch’s bacon a few years ago when I saw it featured as the winner of Cooking Light’s “Best for Breakfast” bacon brands. The Niman Ranch name gets thrown around a lot by the sustainable meat-eating crowd, but there’s no disputing its status as a chef favorite. At $7.59 for 12 ounces, it ain’t cheap, so I was hoping for something that lived up to expectations. At the same time, I was praying I wouldn’t screw up cooking it, taking careful note that charring the bacon could damage whatever claim to superior flavor the brand had. Vigilance, it could be said, would have to come with the tongs.
The first thing I notice is the aroma. Obviously bacon smells great both cooked and uncooked, but the thick cut slices of raw Niman Ranch bacon give off a distinctive hint of autumn. It’s a woodsy smell, with strong notes of apple and cherry, recalling an early morning after a storm. There’s also a certain warmth in the smell, like an open fire burning amidst that same morning somewhere in rural America. The slices are thick, with the fat dominating the bulk of the surface area — something I really wasn’t expecting from a center cut slab. It’s a chalky fat in its raw state, and smells of celery salt. I’m forced to cut a single slice in half just to fit it in the pan. Following the instructions on the back of the package, I stand over the open skillet with apprehension of a novice cook, determined to give the premium slice every ounce of culinary respect I can offer.
If there are times when I think cooking bacon may be more enjoyable than eating it, this certainly comes to mind. Within a minute or two the two slices begin to pulse in perfect unison, reviving a kind of pulmonary dance that’s both artful and intricate. A steady stream of fat renders with the natural intensity of a geyser, giving off a crackling chorus in the background. The amount of fat given off is enough to fry a supersized order of fries on, but I settle for reserving a tablespoon or so to fry up an egg and toasting two pieces of rosemary bread.
So how was it? Good, very good. But then again, most bacon is very good. Was it worth the high price? For as much as Niman Ranch makes claims in terms of flavor superiority of its uncured process and adding no nitrates or nitrites, I couldn’t distinguish it from any other thick cut slice of bacon. The smoke flavor was less intense after cooking, and while I admired the sweet, grassy tasting fat, I also encountered some unevenly cooked strings of fat that were chewy and unappetizing. For the price I’d expect a meatier piece of bacon (especially for a center cut strip) and something more assertive in flavor. At the end of the day, I think I like the idea of Niman Ranch Bacon much more than I actually like it. And for as much as I love bacon, next time I get “bucks” from work, I think I’ll just blow ‘em on Nutter Butter Bites and Corn Nuts.
Got a favorite brand of bacon? Let us know!