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Why I think it’s okay to cook with bacon fat

November 9, 2010

Bacon is fatty, there’s no denying it. When you cook bacon it renders off fat and most people pour this fat off and throw it away, but we may be better off keeping it around. bacon fat is a great alternative to vegetable oil for cooking, frying and baking. I use it to sear meat, make stovetop popcorn, sweat onions, bake cookies, basically anything I would use standard vegetable oil or butter for I would also consider using bacon grease for. It may seem that this would constitute and excessive use of fat, however, bacon fat is not inherently worse than any other type of fat. Here is why I think so. I’ve made a life for myself that is deeply ingrained in food culture. I am fortunate to be able to eat bacon from artisanal producers and small butchers that use only naturally raised meat from pigs and minimal preservatives. Fat cells have many functions, one of which is storing vitamins that we take in from the foods that we eat. This is true for all mammals, pigs and humans alike. If a pig is fed a diet of mostly grasses and food scraps it will absorb some of the minerals and vitamins both into its meat and its fat. So a well raised piece of meat will have fat with vitamins in it. Conversely, most of the vegetable oils on the market today are grown in fields that are heavily fertilized and treated with pesticides. The flowers and vegetables used for cooking oils (corn, soy, safflower, canola) are amongst the most heavily sprayed and fertilized plants in the world. These plants are generally grown for size and speed, but their heavy reliance on chemical fertilizer prevents them from getting nutrients that would otherwise come from soil in a more natural or “organic” setting.

Bacon fried polenta with salad and a boiled egg

Now, although many people don’t have access to pasture raised or natural bacon, I still say that commercial bacon fat is as effective as vegetable oil for cooking. The pigs in commercial feed lots are fed many of the same vegetables that are used to make most vegetable oils, mainly corn. In both cases the corn is raised on a heavy diet of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The reason I think that bacon fat is the better choice in this scenario is that if you are cooking bacon and you have leftover fat it works as a substitute for commercial vegetable oil, and by using your left over grease instead of throwing it away you are saving yourself money by not using a product you had to buy (vegetable oil) and by using less vegetable oil, therefore potentially reducing the production of commercial, fertilizer heavy vegetable oils in the market over all. Make sense? Now,  this is not a black and white scenario. If you have commercial bacon grease it is not a more healthy or earth friendly option than, say, virgin olive oil or organic oils, but if you are buying organic oils you should also spring for the organic, natural and pasture raised meats. Pigs in feedlots have a weaker flavor, a poor diet and a poor life. Good quality meat costs more, but It is always worth it if you can afford it.

stovetop bacon fat popped corn

What makes bacon most questionable as a food product is the production of it. It is a salted meat which means that by using it you are adding more salt to a dish than you would with a typical oil or unsalted butter. To counter this, less salt can be used in whatever dish you are making. the larger problem are the preservatives that are used to “cure” most American bacon. Truly cured meats like Italian pancetta are traditionally cured with just salt and spices and under longer and often natural conditions (like being hung in a cellar). These meats take months to cure and can therefore not be pushed out of an assembly. In order to make a product that is readily and quickly available manufacturers use a variety of preservatives to make bacon that can be easily and quickly distributed and will keep for a long time without rotting. So meat that historically took weeks or months to properly cure can now be “cured” using preservatives over just a couple of days and flavored artificially with smoke flavoring. Some curing agents are controversial so it is a good idea to research what you are eating, but for now if you are eating American bacon you are already consuming the preservatives so the preservatives in the fat won’t affect you anymore than the ones in the meat.

bacon seared hanger steak with golden beets and toast.

Now let me also emphasize that with all types of fat (even olive oil!) heavy consumption is bad. Fat is a wonderful part of the human diet and is essential to our health and digestion of proteins, but too much fat can be harmful just like too much of anything else. If you choose to have for dinner pan fried steak, pan fried potatoes and a coke, it really won’t matter what kind of oil you use, it will be an unhealthy meal.  But if you have a pan fried steak with something like brown rice and steamed broccoli there is no reason you couldn’t fry your steak up in a little bacon grease. And if you deglaze the bacon-y pan and have a glass of red wine with it you’ll have a great meal and a little smoky flavor as a bonus.

Bacon grease is a legitimate product that has become demonized by our culture’s obsession with dieting and because of the preservatives it is often made with. It’s a shame how few companies in the United States are making bacon that is cured naturally, but natural curing takes times and skill and therefore costs more money than most people are willing to spend on bacon. I’d like to convince you that natural meats are worth significantly more than their commercial counterparts, but that will argument is another one entirely. For now, bacon can be used for good financial sense, flavor and, in the right contexts, can actually be good for you. If you are a doctor and find that I have gotten any of this information incorrect please let me know.

To save your own bacon grease for later use, pour the warm grease through a fine strainer into a clean jar, cover and keep it in the fridge. You can also line a strainer with a paper towel to make sure all foreign objects are filtered out. Salted fat will keep in the refrigerator for many weeks.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. pip permalink
    November 10, 2010 1:50 pm

    Great post! Cooking things in bacon grease makes everything less vegan and more delicious.

  2. erin swenson permalink
    February 14, 2011 7:25 pm

    I could not agree with you more. Sustainability is a big deal to me as well.
    I understand that animal fat has a higher burn point too, I like the fact that starches are then less likely to mutate, therefore less likely to compromise our cellular biology.
    Cholesterol is our bodies natural way of repairing nicked veins and arteries. Sugar in any form is the culprit of most of the damage… I believe fat is much healthier and heart friendly that the prior.
    When I have read ingredients on bacon, or asked the butcher, I have come up empty on what is actually in it, or how it is made. What do you buy?

    • erin swenson permalink
      February 14, 2011 7:27 pm

      By the way, the food in your pictures look hella good!

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