It’s the chemistry of the meat, the chemistry of the smoking and the chemistry of the cooking that combine to make bacon smell and taste irresistible, as Veronique Greenwood discovers.
There are few foods as sensual and appealing as bacon. The mere smell of it can take you by the nose and lead you across the house to the kitchen. It vaults anything from eggs to chocolate to Brussels sprouts to new levels of deliciousness. (If you haven’t seen the Portlandia sketch “The Celery Incident”, suggesting nefarious roots for the current add-bacon frenzy, I suggest you
, though of course the real deal involves a mixture of many compounds in addition to those. Likewise, there isn’t just one molecule that screams bacon. But the flavour begins with the meat itself – the pork belly that’s cured, smoked, and sliced thin.
Some of the major flavour players are the result of the pork belly’s fat breaking down, says Guy Crosby, food scientist and science editor at America’s Test Kitchen. It’s not just the white marbling that’s in play. The cell membranes of the muscle tissue contain fatty acids that disintegrate during cooking to yield a bouquet of flavourful compounds like aldehydes, furans, and ketones. By themselves, some of these molecules have distinct tastes or smells – furans have a sweet, nutty, caramel-like note, aldehydes a green, grassy note, and ketones tend to be buttery – but whatever they are doing together seems to be key. If any of these classes of molecules were missing from the overall bacon flavour, you would notice it.
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