Visitors to The D Las Vegas on Fremont Street cannot escape the smells coming from Bacon Nation, an all-day breakfast restaurant featuring bacon from Daily’s Premium Meats, South Salt Lake, Utah, in every way and shape possible. It’s in the grits, pancakes and coffee cakes. It’s used in soups, salads and sandwiches, and served on nachos, pasta and poutine. But it’s the Three Lil’ Pigs flight of three flavored honey-cured, thick-cut slices that piques most guests’ interest. Varieties offered include black truffle, buffalo, chocolate, everything bagel, honey sriracha, mango habanero and tajin, along with classics such as black pepper, candied and maple.

At a time when plant-based restaurants seem to be popping up all over, it’s impressive that one focused solely on the many ways to feature bacon is thriving. But again, everything is better with bacon.

“It’s not surprising to see bacon with its salty, smoky, sweet, umami deliciousness breaking out of its familiar comfort categories and dayparts and showing up in new formats, paired with unique ingredients,” said Holly Adrian, senior marketing manager, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, Calif. “Leveraging the popular sweet-heat flavor trend, we are seeing bacon jams blended with caramelized onions or globally inspired tropical guava preserves with bacon-infused hot habanero or jalapeno peppers. These artisan condiments are showing up on charcuterie boards as a cheese accompaniment and used by the home chef as a flavorful glaze, sauce or dip.”

What is it about bacon?

As soon as bacon gets exposed to heat — on the frying pan, in the oven or whatever way the chef or consumer wants to cook it — it begins its transformation into a meat like no other.

The meaty part of the bacon — the protein — contains amino acids that react with carbohydrates via the Maillard reaction. This process creates flavor and browning. Volatile organic compounds from the Maillard reaction are released into the air and noses notice.

The sugars often added to bacon via a marinade will also begin to caramelize. The fat starts to melt. These processes release volatile hydrocarbons, adding to the aroma.

“The aroma of frying bacon has its own unique chemical signature. Approximately 35% of the volatile organic compounds in the vapor released by bacon consist of hydrocarbons. Another 31% are aldehydes, with 18% alcohols, 10% ketones and the balance made up of nitrogen-containing aromatics, oxygen-containing aromatics and other organic compounds. Scientists believe the meaty smell of bacon is due to pyrazines, pyridines, and furans,” according to the “Study of the Aroma of Bacon and Fried Pork Loin” published in Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, April 2004.

Whatever it is, people continue to eat it up. They are also craving more ways to enjoy bacon along with fusions of flavor. Bacon also makes for a nice photo-op.

Wake ‘n Bacon, nestled in the heart of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, and surrounded by on-trend pho, sushi and vegan restaurants, has been labeled one of the most photo-worthy brunch and dinner spots in the Windy City. While traditional ways to consume bacon are possible — with an egg on a toasted bagel — it’s the Asian and Latin pairings that make the dishes Instagram-worthy.

The ube flap jack stack, for example, is an ube pancake with tater tot bits topped with choice of bacon, sunny-side up eggs, cheddar cheese and spiced maple syrup, which is garnished with pickled peppers and green onions. The street corn side consists of tater tots covered with bits of corn, cotija cheese and house-made tajin bacon all drizzled with poblano mayo and a cilantro lime sauce.

The restaurant features a bacon flight showcasing its three in-house cured and smoked bacons: maple peppercorn, tocino and tajin. Tocino is bacon in Spanish. It is made from the pork belly and either prepared in very thick slices or formed into cubes. It is typically uncured and not smoked, and simply fried until very crunchy.

Adding flavorful twists

Flavorful twists keep bacon relevant to today’s younger consumers who crave new and different types of foods when dining out. It’s also an easy way for moms and dads struggling with cooking fatigue to liven up a burger, mac and cheese or some other family mainstay.

“When it comes to bacon, consumers remain hungry for new ideas,” said Molly Shea, customer experience marketing, IFF, South Brunswick, NJ. “This indicates that brands should lean toward a creative approach and edge into new flavors. With consumer openness to try different flavors, bacon can capitalize by staying away from the mainstream, and instead try, for example, plays on hints of fruit, sweetness, spice, global and even alcohol-inspired flavors. These unique flavors are driven from consumers’ desires to explore the world through the new and unfamiliar when it comes to food and taste sensations.”

To liven up the morning meal, Toronto-based coffee chain Tim Hortons just launched a new breakfast sandwich featuring crispy double-smoked honey bacon. The sandwich is topped with a sweet and savory glaze made with Canadian honey.

“Adding flavors to bacon, whether it be as simple as maple or as complex as honey barbecue, is trending,” said Zak Otto, director of research and development, protein group, Wixon, St. Francis, Wis. “There are a multitude of bacon flavors originating from mass retail to local butchers. This lines up with Gen Z’s desire to take comfort foods and add a flavor twist. These flavors can be incorporated directly to the brine within a static system or injected. Dry flavor systems are also easily added as a rub to the outside of the belly before it is smoked.”

Chance Hilbelink, food scientist, protein division at Wixon added, “When formulated correctly, these popular flavors can also be incorporated into the brine as natural flavors or injected into the bacon to deliver the desired flavor punch in every bite. It may be important to work with your suppliers to ensure the flavors will fully dissolve into the brine and not cause the curing ingredients to become unstable.”

Whatever the approach, adding flavor to uncooked bacon is relatively easy. Another option is to apply a topping to the warm, cooked bacon, which is designed to quickly melt and be absorbed by the protein and fat.

“When adding flavor to uncooked bacon, there are minimal food safety issues, as bacon is still cooked before consuming,” said Hilbelink. “The visual appeal in the packaging can be highly positive and marketable. Cooking product that has been topically seasoned will not only bring out the flavor of the seasoning in the product but also in the render as it is cooked, giving both a desired visual and aromatic appeal. Either pan frying or baking the bacon on a wire rack will bring forth the flavors and aromas of the topical flavor system.”

Natural flavors, spices and other traditional bacon processing ingredients can be combined to create unique flavor systems that can be injected directly into the bacon belly. There are also flavor systems that can be dissolved in traditional bacon brine and injected directly into the belly prior to thermal processing and before chilling, pressing and slicing.

“Flavors injected via brine need to be water soluble and fully dissolved in the brine to make sure the flavor gets evenly distributed and fully absorbed by the bacon,” said Brian Somers, food technologist, principal research chef at IFF. “A concentrated flavor will be the most economical way of delivering enough impact throughout the smoking and cooking process. Seasonings can be added topically after the brine is injected. They are added topically because the spices used in the seasonings won’t dissolve in the brine as effectively as the concentrated liquid flavors. Seasonings do a great job enhancing the taste of the flavored brine and can add visual appeal, and the impact will remain throughout the whole cooking process.”

There are some challenges when adding flavor but, for the most part, can be readily overcome.

“The first technical challenge with seasonings is preventing visual variability. The seasoning will be topically dosed and have a direct effect on how the bacon looks to consumers,” said Somers. “It will affect the visuals pre- and post-cooking. The seasoning might contain ingredients that are dissolvable or provide color. These can have a negative impact on the visuals by ‘bleeding’ when the bacon is cooked, leaving most of the color in the melted fat instead of on the cooked bacon. To prevent this, developers should utilize dry spices and ingredients in seasonings whenever possible and avoid the use of liquid ingredients containing color.”

Another challenge is with flavor loss. What the label describes as the flavor of the bacon must survive the manufacturer’s smoking process and cooking by the consumer.

“Flavors are subjected to high temperatures that can cause the flavor to diminish over time,” said Somers. “To combat the potential flavor loss and other changes, developers will often use a combination of different ingredients for stability. The flavor will also have to be dosed at a high enough level to account for intensity loss over time.”

Adding some heat

Throughout the food industry, sweet and spicy pairings are all the rage. Also known as “swicy,” what makes this combination appealing is that the sweetness (from caloric carbohydrates, not non-nutritive sweeteners) helps tame the kick of capsaicin, the chemical compound in peppers that delivers fiery flavor. That’s because sugar coats the taste buds, while capsaicin binds to them. By mellowing the perception of heat with sugar, the consumer can better taste the complexity of the pepper as well as the carrier food.

“Swicy flavors have become extremely popular, as they are the perfect bridge between sweet and savory,” said Jacob Sturm, innovation chef, Monin, Clearwater, Fla. “This growing popularity for swicy food has greatly increased the interest in Asian cuisine, as one of the many things it is known for is sweet and spicy foods.”

Pumpkin spice is America’s swicy. And why not in bacon?

Monin developed an easy spiced pumpkin glazed bacon recipe for foodservice. In addition to bacon, all the chef needs is Monin’s spiced pumpkin puree, honey, brown sugar and some pepper. Another swicy creation uses Monin’s maple pancake syrup with light brown sugar and sriracha.

Market research firm Datassential, Chicago, said that demand for spicy foods has grown in the foodservice segment, where 71% of menus and 11% of drink menus feature the word “spicy.” In fact, during the first half of 2023, there were 270 spicy limited-time offerings released by major foodservice chains.

Within the world of spice, flavors like tajin have grown the most over the last four years across all categories, according to Datassential. Nashville hot, spicy margarita and mango habanero flavors also saw triple-digit increases during the same period. Popular pepper ingredient additions include pickled Fresno, pickled jalapeños, ghost peppers, habanero peppers and Calabrian chili peppers. These peppers are often combined with a less intimidating familiar flavor. And all of them have applications in bacon and bacon-based products.

“Our culinary team works with a variety of specialty chilis and recognizes the unique flavor notes of each cultivar,” said Adrian. “Ancho chilis, for example, have a mild fruity flavor with undertones of plum, raisin and tobacco with a slight earthy bitterness. Sprinkling bacon bits, ancho chili powder and chocolate chips makes a delicious chocolate cookie stir-in or ice cream variegate.

“Each cultivar is unique in its flavor components and heat impact, yet each complements the smoky, salty, savory umami of bacon,” Adrian added. “We developed a version of spicy bacon jam incorporating a Peruvian aji amarillo and mango puree for a spreadable cheese. Consumers love their bacon, and they love the specialty chilis. But it’s the combination of the two (or more) flavors that creates the multi-sensorial, craveable excitement that compels new product trial.”