This may seem ridiculously basic to some of you, but bear with me here...
Like pie crust, rice, and poached eggs, consistently crisp bacon is one of those basic things that eluded me as a cook for longer than I'd like to admit. The pie crust post had me thinking about sharing techniques, and as I was cooking the bacon for breakfast on Sunday, I wondered if some of you out there might benefit from what I've learned. As with the pie crust, there are just a few steps and the secrets are simple, but the payoff is huge.
1. Start with a good quality, thick-cut bacon. Put it in a cold pan and turn the stove on to medium heat. Letting it warm slowly renders the fat out of the bacon, so that it cooks in the fat in addition to the direct heat of the pan itself. Keep it on medium until it starts to sizzle and look translucent. (I use a seasoned cast iron or non-stick skillet - if you're using a regular stainless steel one it's even more important to start it out slowly to avoid sticking.)
2. Turn the heat up a little, but not too high. Medium to medium-high is best. If you cook it at too high a temperature, the bacon will curl and twist, which reduces the surface area in contact with the pan. If it does that, turn the heat down a bit and flatten it back out.
3. Only turn it once and turn it late - when it's almost cooked through. The bacon will start to curl downwards slightly - sort of upside-side down cupping. (If you turn it too soon you can turn it back over once, but no more than that.)
4. Cook it until it's almost completely crisp in the pan but not quite. It will become crisp when it drains and cools a bit. If it's completely crisp in the pan, it will probably be overcooked by the time it cools.
It may sound a little weird, but with a little practice, you can actually cook bacon by sound. It shouldn't pop and hiss too much - if it does the heat is probably too high. You can also hear when it's ready to flip because it starts to get a little quieter.
Contrary to what you might think, it doesn't make any difference how much you put in the pan - you can crowd it in there all the way up the sides of the skillet, and it will all still cook up crisp in the rendered fat. Same with a second batch of bacon - since there is already fat in the pan, the second batch will be ok even though it's started in a hot pan.
I'm going to assume that you already know to drain the bacon on paper towels and keep it warm in the oven until you're ready to serve it. ;) I am also going to assume that you know to always make more than you think you will need, because your husband/friend/wife/dog/whatever will be happy to unburden you of whatever extra you may have. I have never had to figure out what to do with leftover bacon.
A few words about the bacon itself:
American bacon is cured meat from the belly of the beast, by which of course I mean the pig. In other parts of the world, bacon can mean meat from the back or rib portion of the animal.
There are vast differences in the types of bacon available. Since we in the Q. Foodie household eat bacon only sparingly (about once a week or so) we splurge on the good stuff. I really like Pederson's uncured bacon, available at Whole Foods (and pictured above.) It tastes better and is raised in more sustainable and humane conditions than the usual supermarket brands. Before I discovered Pederson's, I bought uncured Niman Ranch at Trader Joes. It is produced by various and assorted farms and ranches under the Niman Ranch label. Producers must meet their standards, and provide a certain "quality of life" for their animals, if you will. In San Diego, the Linkery and Homegrown Meats also sell sustainably raised, locally produced bacon.
If you are wondering why I specify uncured bacon, this post on the NY Times Well Blog is a must-read. It sheds light on the possible health effects of nitrites, sodium and other preservatives found in cured meats, and makes a very strong case for choosing the right product and eating it in moderation.