WORCESTER — Thursdays at Smokestack Urban Barbecue is the restaurant’s bacon-themed happy hour. Servers emerge from the kitchen wielding “bacon buckets,” filled with candied bacon, and the crowd descends. Up to 20 pounds of the sugary, smoky, salty, rich strips are handed out and eaten with gusto. “Bacon is definitely a timeless food trend,” says chef and partner Pete Rano.
That may be. Bacon is in plenty of hors d’oeuvres (who doesn’t love a devil on horseback?), holds together the BLT classic, and has a coveted spot on the breakfast table. But now bartenders are swirling cocktails with pieces of house-cured bacon, chefs are adding bits to all kinds of vegetable dishes, and bakers are mixing it into breads, cupcakes, and other desserts. It’s showing up in popcorn, ice cream, and many frosty treats, and in chocolate bars. The Bacon Truck lets you get your fix in a number of spots around town. (On Valentine’s Day, the truck tweeted: “Bacon grease makes an excellent substitute for chapstick/lip balm. Be sure to apply some before going in for that first kiss.”)
Few bacon aficionados are using the thin slices from a typical 16-ounce package. Chefs are curing their own whole pork bellies, and bacon-loving consumers have access to slab bacon — thick slices cured with head-turning ingredients such as jalapeños or fish sauce. Next time you ask, your freshly brewed morning coffee and toast just might come with bacon jam.
The mystique of small-batch, locally made product is one reason for the cult-like status bacon has attained. Mark Goldberg, executive chef of Park in Cambridge, says, “We’re also seeing more chefs curing and hanging their own charcuterie.”
Smokestack Urban Barbecue’s candied bacon is baked with an ample coating of brown sugar before it goes in the oven. “It gets caramelized and nice and chewy and crispy at the same time,” says Rano.
Bacon in sweet dishes is so common now that the website Republicofbacon.com, run by Maple Leaf, lists 25 popular desserts, including bacon brownies, bacon doughnuts, bacon gingersnaps, and bacon baklava. At Cakeology in downtown Boston, you get a mash-up of the bacon and cupcake trends. Owner Victoria Donnelly offers a maple-bacon cupcake, which begins with a chocolate-chip buttermilk cupcake that’s topped with maple frosting and a piece of crunchy bacon.
“We use bacon fat as part of the fat content in the cake, which really brings the bacon flavor through,” says Donnelly, who tested the recipe for six weeks before adding it to her case. Maple-bacon cupcakes are available only by special order in quantities of a dozen or more. “It’s one of the most popular flavors for women buying cupcakes for men,” says Donnelly, who credits her husband with the idea. “He’s like, ‘You’ve got to do something with bacon,’ and he just went on and on about it.”
Farmer Bruce Jenks, co-owner of Maple Valley Creamery in Hadley, introduced maple-bacon ice cream in 2009. Sales have increased each year. “One of the young ladies in our 4-H group said that when she’s eating pancakes or waffles and the syrup goes into the bacon she liked the way that tasted,” explains Jenks. “After making probably 30 batches of really horrible ice cream, we finally made something that came out like what she was talking about.” It’s Maple Valley’s second biggest seller in pints — behind vanilla.
Originally it was a seasonal flavor during maple sugaring season. “There’s so much demand we can’t stop making it,” says Jenks. “Today” show weatherman Al Roker once tweeted a picture of a pint of the ice cream. “Proof there is a God,” read the caption.
At East Coast Grill in Cambridge, executive chef and owner Jason Heard serves a bacon “steak” at Sunday brunch. “I’m from the South, where bacon is used almost like a salt,” says Heard, who grew up in rural Georgia. “When you cook collard greens you put a piece of unshaved bacon into the greens, then take that bacon out and sear it in a cast-iron pan kind of like a ham at brunch.”
Heard cuts home-cured bacon into thick 5-ounce steaks, which are grilled, then brushed with a sweet and spicy glaze made from apricot preserves, vinegar, and the spicy Asian chile sauce, sambal. It’s smoky, salty, sweet, and spicy, with a hint of acidity. It’s more akin to eating a pork chop than crispy bacon.
A popular Wednesday night “Baconpalooza” menu is offered several times a year (most recently in January) at Olde Magoun’s Saloon in Somerville. “We sell a lot of bacon already, so it seemed like a good idea to do a bacon menu,” says chef Howard Haywood, whose recipes have included lobster-bacon rangoons, shrimp pad Thai with jalapeño bacon, and the Quebecois dish poutine, topped with bacon gravy, cheese curds, and a softly fried egg.
It should come as no surprise that bacon has its own festival. Since 2010, Aaron Cohen of Eat Boston has put on the Boston Bacon and Beer Festival.
At Park, Goldberg, who is also culinary director of the Grafton Group, makes a “bacon 3-way,” a tapas-style presentation with items that change regularly. It currently features sourdough flapjacks with apple butter and smoked bacon, roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and pickled onions, and pork rillettes with whole-grain mustard. Goldberg also makes his own lamb bacon. “We’re kind of stretching the boundary of what bacon is,” says the chef.
He once saw a T-shirt he loved. “It was a picture of a piece of sizzling bacon that says, ‘Bacon, the gateway meat.’ ”
Maple Valley Creamery maple-bacon ice cream is available at Darwin’s, 148 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, 617-354-5233, and 1629 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-491-2999; American Provisions, 613 East Broadway, South Boston, 617-269-6100; and Idylwilde Farms, 366 Central St., Acton, 978-263-5943.
Matthew Barber can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, Maple Valley Creamery and Victoria Donnelly was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.