The biggest difference between cured and uncured bacon is the preservation process. Cured varieties typically rely on chemicals and additives, while uncured alternatives usually include more nature salts and flavorings. Both types of bacon are actually “cured,” which in a meat context basically just means “preserved.” Uncured versions are often considered to be more healthful, but this can be a point of some debate. In terms of calories, the two are roughly equal. The main differences usually concern how the curing happened and the nature and quality of the additives used; the health benefits or drawbacks of the product as a whole aren’t usually part of the calculation.
Unless meat is sold raw, it needs to be preserved somehow in order for it to stay fresh and not spoil. Bacon is sometimes smoked, but curing is the most common way to prepare it for sale. The oldest and most traditional way to cure meat is with salt; the nitrogen in salt, sea salt in particular, removes moisture and seals the surface from bacteria and other contaminants. Somewhat paradoxically, bacon preserved this way is usually referred to as “uncured.” The “cured” designation is usually saved for meat that has been preserved with chemicals that mimic salt but are more efficient and predictable from a manufacturing perspective.
Bacon Preserving Agents
No matter how the meat is cured, it typically starts out the same way; bacon prepared in either fashion is usually presented thin strips of meat, usually pork, cut from around the animal’s belly or shoulder. In most cases it is made mostly of fat, but this can vary. It becomes cured or uncured depending on how the farmer or manufacturer preserves it once the strips have been cut.
”Cured” bacon is typically soaked in brine, then treated with commercially prepared sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite to seal moisture and keep the meat from spoiling. These are commercial preservatives that mimic the reaction of salt but in a more concentrated, faster-acting form. Other chemical preserving agents may also be used depending on the manufacturer. Bacon that is packaged for sale will usually list these ingredients and additives somewhere on the label, but not always.
Bacon that is labeled “uncured” is usually prepared only with ingredients that occur naturally. Celery salt is a common choice since it is very high in naturally occurring nitrates; lactic acid starter culture, which is often found in milk and dairy products, is sometimes also used. Most uncured bacon is also very high in salt. Fancier brands often use sea salt or higher-end salt crystals, but ordinary table salt will also work.
Taste and Cooking
Food connoisseurs sometimes claim that cured and uncured versions have subtle taste differences, but not everyone agrees. In nearly all cases, they are interchangeable; the cook up the same way, can be used the same way, and tend to crisp up identically. The main differences usually have to do with flavoring and saltiness which, depending on the brand or preparation method, can be very difficult to detect.
In most cases, cured bacon will last a lot longer than uncured versions. The chemical additives most processors use are very effective at keeping the meat fresh, and strips in this category are often good for several months if kept sealed and under refrigeration. Uncured bacon is often only good for about a week, though. Natural preservation is effective, but isn’t usually as efficient, at least not where long-term storage is concerned.
People sometimes say that uncured bacon in healthier, but a lot of this depends on perspective. Health food proponents periodically claim that uncured versions are preferable because they shy away from chemical additives and can be considered “all natural.” In most cases simply being natural doesn’t make a food healthful, though. Most nutrition experts are quick to point out that bacon is very fatty and high in cholesterol and calories no matter how it is preserved. Cured versions tend to have a lot of so-called “fake” ingredients, but the uncured alternatives are often much higher in sodium and salts.
Flavors and Styles
Both cured and uncured bacon can be found in a variety of flavors and styles. Thick cut, smoked, and seasoned versions are some of the most popular, but a lot depends on the market and what customers want to buy. The most traditional and “pure” way to get these flavors into the meat is to smoke strips over aromatic wood, soak them in natural essences, or season them with fresh herbs and spices. Nothing about how the meat is cured dictates the process for flavoring, though. As a result, uncured bacon might actually use chemical or shortcut flavors. This would make it less natural and pure, but it could still be sold under the “uncured” label in most places provided it wasn’t preserved with any chemicals. People who are concerned about additives should be careful to closely read packaging material or talk with distributors about how exactly a given product was made.
Where to Buy
Most grocery stores and supermarkets sell both styles, but they are sometimes displayed in different places. Cured strips can often be found in vacuum-sealed packages along with other processed meat products, while uncured versions are more commonly stored behind a butcher’s counter and sold by weight. Small butchers or neighborhood delis may keep both behind the counter, and employees can often explain the differences upon request.