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A chef's new whimsy

(post, Ivy Manning)

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I'm not a big fan of artificial anything, and catchy absolutist mottos are next in line on my "not" list. So when I heard the catchphrase used by a new product called Bacon Salt — "Everything should taste like bacon" — I wasn't racing out to buy the stuff. 

I like cured pork as much as the next gal; in fact, on a recent trip to Italy, I made my vegetarian husband drive 200 miles out of our way so I could visit San Daniele, the home of Italy's best prosciutto. But even though my love of pork goodness runs deep, I certainly don't need everything to taste like bacon. 

So who on earth does want everything to taste like bacon? Bacon Salt founders Justin Esch and Dave Lefkow, that's who. They're former high-tech employees who came up with the idea while Esch was reminiscing about a favorite libation of his called the Mitch Morgan — a shot of good bourbon with a slice-of-bacon chaser. Bacon is good with just about everything, the pair reasoned; why not make a seasoning salt out of it?

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Their first attempt — in Lefkow's kitchen, involving melted bacon fat mixed with salt — was disastrous. So the duo turned to a friend's father who works in the food-science industry and spent months testing various ingredient combinations in a lab. 

How did they know their final recipe was ready for the competitive condiment market? "I called the lab and they said employees had been stealing the bacon-salt prototypes to bring home and use on popcorn," says Esch. "We knew we were on to something."

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Not a pig was harmed in the making of this product."] Bacon Salt is now sold in more than 24,000 grocery stores; even soldiers in Iraq can get their mitts on the stuff via the company's Operation Bacon Salt charity. "Have you ever eaten an MRE?" Esch asks. "This is just our small effort to help the troops stationed miles from refrigeration and bacon." Closer to home, the company has posted videos about its product on YouTube and even has a Wikipedia page.

Despite the motto and the odd concept, I have to admit the execution of Bacon Salt is really quite good. After trying each of their four flavors — Original, Peppered, Hickory, and All Natural — I was surprised to admit that they get the bacon flavor right. All of the salts have a rich, savory flavor that races across the tongue with notes of garlic, spicy heat, a little smokiness, a bit of sweetness, and then a distinct note of, well, bacon. Thankfully, the flavor is not reminiscent of those horrid desiccated crumbles called Bac-Os. Technically, the salts are low-sodium; they contain 135 milligrams of sodium per 1/4 teaspoon. 

But how can something taste so much like bacon and be vegetarian? Are the salts laden with nitrates and other dangerous stuff? 
"There's no nitrates, no sugar, no cholesterol, and it's actually low sodium. It's kosher and vegetarian. The hickory Bacon Salt is vegan," says Esch. "It's not bad for you; it's just food science." 

A further look at the label reveals a long list of ingredients. Some are as simple as dehydrated garlic, while others are a tad less appealing: monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate, and "artificial flavors." The All Natural version, however, has a shorter ingredient list: salt, garlic, paprika, onion, spices, natural flavors, cellulose gel (for texture), and yeast extract. Is it as tasty as the original? The answer is a qualified yes. It's bacony, but not quite as tongue-tinglingly good. 

Beyond popcorn, I've been trying Bacon Salt in recipes with some great results. Since maple is a natural pairing with bacon, maple-glazed baby turnips and carrots are well suited to a sprinkling of the hickory-flavored salt. A recent pot of vegetarian baked beans sprinkled with the original salt had several non-meat eaters at my barbecue skeptical, but once I produced the bottle of Bacon Salt and showed them the ingredients, all was well. And my usual hazelnut-waffle recipe has gotten a boost with a sprinkling of the Peppered Bacon Salt. 

Call me a bacophile if you must, but I'm keeping the stuff around.

p(bio). Ivy Manning is a food journalist and cooking instructor in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of The Farm to Table Cookbook.

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