When visiting Great Britain, there are a few foods that are almost impossible to miss: an afternoon tea (with scones and clotted cream), fish and chips and, of course, an English breakfast. Mushrooms, tomato, beans, eggs, sausages and toast are all essential parts of this filling breakfast, as is bacon. But not just any bacon, it’s British bacon.
British bacon is made from pigs, just like any other bacon worldwide. But for those of us coming from the USA, Canada or China, might be surprised by the shape of the bacon. British bacon isn’t made up of long thin strands of bacon. Instead, it is round and lacks those characteristic long stripes of fat interspersed throughout. Little did you know, that there are actually a lot of different types of bacon!
Where bacon comes from
Bacon has been made in the UK for centuries (and most likely in many more countries). Most farming families would have a few pigs. Once a pig was slaughtered, all that meat would be processed into all sorts of products, making bacon was just one of them. Bacon is made by curing and smoking the belly and/or loin of the pig (we discuss how bacon is made in more detail here). Whether the belly and/or loin is used, is actually what distinguishes the different types of bacon.
Both curing and smoking help to extend the shelf life of the meat considerably. Since refrigeration didn’t exist at the time, salting and curing meat was a very common way to preserve meat. Making bacon was just one way to ensure the pork won’t spoil before you have time to eat it!
Nowadays, especially in the US and Canada, bacon can literally be found anywhere on and in all sorts of foods. Nevertheless, up until the 1920’s bacon wasn’t an essential part of breakfast in the US at all. A smart marketing campaign by meat producers in the 1920’s helped increase the consumption of bacon considerably. Nowadays, there’s barely any American breakfast place that does not serve bacon.
For the rest of this story, keep in mind that the terminology used here doesn’t mean you can’t buy British bacon in the US, or that Canadian bacon cannot be found anywhere else. It’s just the most common bacon for that country.
Pork belly bacon – American
American bacon is made from the belly of a pig. This piece of meat is a layered meat with fat and meat layers interchangeably. For American bacon the bellies are processed into bacon as a whole and cut into slices at the end. Since pork belly is only a few centimeters thick and significantly wider and longer, it will result in long narrow strips of bacon. Most American style bacon is raw, it hasn’t been cooked through, you will find that other types are.
Since the pork belly has a high fat content this type of bacon tends to contain quite a lot of fat. When you fry the bacon though this will melt and leave the meat. You can make this bacon pretty nice and crispy, especially if it’s sliced thin enough.
Bacon can also be made from a leaner part of the pig, one that contains slightly less fat: the loin. Whereas the pork belly sits at the bottom of the pig, between its legs, the loin sits in the top of the pig and runs from just behind the shoulder to just before the legs. The loin is quite a tender piece of meat and is used to make Canadian style bacon, with quite a lot fat content.
Even though Americans call this bacon Canadian bacon, most other countries, including Canada, will refer to it as back bacon, since the meat comes from the back of the pig.
The Brits seem to have come up with a combination of the former two bacon types. It is made of the loin, but some of the fatty meat parts on the side of the loin haven’t been sliced off. So you’ve got the same part of the loin, with an ‘extension’ of fat. As a result, it’s more fatty than the Canadian version, but but leaner than the American one.
But of course, there’s more bacon types. Even though I personally haven’t made or used Chinese bacon, it is again slightly different. It is probably most similar to American belly, since it also uses pork belly. However, the types of spices and marinades make it very different in texture and flavour than the other three.
While collecting different bacon types I also ran into a South African blog showing a photo of ‘their’ bacon, which seems very similar to the British style. It also has the loin section with a strip of belly attached to it. In Hungary another type of bacon can be found, szalonna, which has a higher fat content again than American bacon. Then there’s the Italian pancetta, which is again very similar to American style bacon. Then there’s cottage bacon, which is made from the shoulder of a pig!
Levick.com, on the history and rise of bacon the US
English breakfast society, on the history of bacon in the UK