Can we replace bacon if there's a porkopalypse?

Sep. 26, 2012 at 9:50 AM ET

Leigh Beisch/"Fat"/Ten Speed Press /
Chefs confirm our worst fears: Bacon can never be replaced.

Bacon is one of life’s greatest pleasures – the way it smells cooking in the pan on a Saturday morning, the way some strips have that crispy-chewy texture, flooding your mouth with molten salty-sweet fat that lingers even after you’ve licked your fingers and sent the rasher down the hatch. Bacon is the richness in beef burgundy, the unctuousness of spaghetti carbonara, and for some devotees, the crispy coating that surrounds everything from corn to candy bars.

But alas, dear reader, according to Britain’s National Pig Association, we face a coming porkopalypse. Due to drought, the soybeans and corn that farmers depend upon to fatten the hogs are in short supply. As a result, the pork supply could fall, and prices may be driven up – leading to a real (or imagined) bacomergency.

Although the impending shortage is unlikely to quell bacon consumption greatly, the threat of rising prices caused me to consider what the world might look like without bacon, and question whether a suitable substitute exists.

“Charcuterie” author Michael Ruhlman was quick to dash my hopes.

The world would be a “dreary, sad place” without bacon, hetold, because although other meats can be cured like bacon, “nothing is like the pig. It’s a magical creature. There really is no substitute.”

The zing of the cure, provided by sodium nitrate, combines with smoking to give bacon its “unusual piquant, savory, smoky deliciousness,” Ruhlman told And in the belly, the part typically used for bacon in the U.S., “You’ve got the perfect meat-to-fat ratio,” he added.

And fat is one of bacon’s most critical components, according to chef and “Fat” author Jennifer McLagan, because “fat equals flavor.”

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Fried chicken skin could offer an alternative to bacon.

In the unlikely event that pigs disappeared for good, Ruhlman and McLagan postulated, Italian cuisine – with its penchant for salami, prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale and lardo – would be among the hardest hit. Chinese cuisine – famous for its ham – would also ge at risk.

But surely, I posited, there must be some alternative!

During the World War II bacon rations in Britain, locals tried smoked, cured mutton as a substitute for bacon. And, when pushed for a solution, Ruhlman noted that among people keeping kosher, schmaltz – rendered poultry fat – and gribenes – crisped poultry skin – are popular and delicious. “I often will put chicken cracklings on a salad like you would put bacon bits on a salad. That would be a great substitute,” he said. So great in fact, that last year, one chef dubbed chicken cracklings “the Jewish bacon” in The New York Times.

Though replacing bacon is impossible because pork fat has a distinctive flavor, McLagan mused that duck fat might work as an alternative, or that slices of smoked duck breast could capture the flavor of the cure.

Just don’t mention turkey bacon or fakin’ bacon as substitutes. “It’s not bacon,” Ruhlman said. “And I resent it even being called bacon. They should have a different name for it.” Plus, as McLagan pointed out, “It’s usually not fatty enough to be bacon.”

Ruhlman held firm on the opinion that nothing could really replace bacon. But, he advised, “If you don’t have bacon, substitute something else that is really good.” Vegans have even looked to roasted shiitake mushrooms to replicate the crunchy texture and tongue-coating flavor of bacon.

Of course, if Pigmageddon ever does strike, bacon will have more uses than just mere dinner. Because bacon is almost too delicious, it might one day replace ordinary currency.

In the post-apocalyptic future, who needs gold when you could have dinner?

Lizzie Stark lives in New Jersey and is the author of "Leaving Mundania." On her honeymoon, she once ate a pizza covered with strips of cured pork fat, and she can say definitively that there is no substitute.

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