The only thing worse than uncooked bacon is gray bacon. Here’s what to do when it happens to you.
So you cooked bacon, whether on the stove, on the grill, or in the oven, exactly as the recipe asked. To your great surprise, instead of turning out irresistibly golden brown on the outside, the bacon turned out a dull gray.
What happened? Is that plate of gray bacon on your table safe to eat?
If your bacon turned gray when cooked, it’s important to check if you didn’t cook spoiled meat in the first place. In case you did, throw it away and don’t eat it. In case you didn’t, consider browning it in a hot skillet to crisp it up and give it a golden-brown crust.
Was the Bacon Spoiled?
Above all, you need to find out if the bacon that you just prepared was spoiled or not.
Do not skip this step: spoiled meat can give you food poisoning and, contrary to popular belief, cooking spoiled meat won’t make it any more safe to eat. While it kills the bacteria in it, it doesn’t get rid of the toxins that they left behind.
Food poisoning is nothing to joke about. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five Americans get food poisoning every year. Roughly 128,000 of them get hospitalized, and an unfortunate 3,000 die.
To stay as far away from these figures as you can, it’s a good idea to double-check the safety of the cooked bacon on your plate. The three-step checklist below will help you do so.
How to tell if you cooked spoiled bacon:
- Give the inside of the packaging a good whiff. It should smell like raw meat, and not come across as foul or rotting in any way;
- Feel the inside of the packaging with a finger or two. It should be fatty and slippery but not gooey and slimy. Wash your hands with hot water and soap for 20 seconds immediately after;
- Smell the cooked bacon and, if you’re still unsure, give it a small taste test. Fresh bacon should smell meaty and taste savory. Spoiled bacon tastes sour and weird, in which case you should spit it out immediately.
So far, so good. If it turned out that you did cook spoiled bacon, I’m happy you found out before and not after you ate it.
Suppose the bacon wasn’t spoiled when you cooked it, and you still have no clue as to what’s going on. In that case, the story, as well as our troubleshooting guide, continues.
Did You Cook Cured, Uncured, or Raw Bacon?
What kind of bacon did you just cook?
Was it raw bacon, the thick-cut, pre-packaged kind prevalent in Europe? Or was it good ol’ American bacon, cured or uncured, the kind that’s carried by every supermarket stateside?
For the reasons that I’m about to share with you below, raw bacon and uncured bacon turn gray much more easily when cooked than cured bacon does. The answer lies in the chemicals used for curing and the way that they affect the color of the meat.
Cured bacon is preserved with the help of salt and sodium nitrates. Make note of the sodium nitrates; they may be the key to your mystery.
Nitrates make the bacon tastier and stall the growth of pathogenic bacteria, effectively extending its shelf life. They also give bacon a vibrant, reddish to pinkish color that consumers like you and me have grown to find more and more appealing over decades of supermarket shopping for meat.
These sodium nitrates are sourced synthetically (meaning that they are made in a lab) and have been a growing cause of concern among health-conscious consumers in recent years. So the meat industry adapted, and quite a few manufacturers started to produce “uncured bacon.”
Raw bacon is unsalted, and it hasn’t been treated with any nitrates. In a way, raw bacon is much closer to raw ribs, which also turn somewhat gray when cooked, than it is to processed meat.
Uncured bacon is still cured. However, instead of being cured with synthetically-sourced sodium nitrates, it is cured with salt and naturally-occurring nitrates, such as those found in celery, carrots, cabbage, and/or red beets.
These naturally-occurring nitrates once again add a salty flavor to the meat and make it harder for bacteria responsible for its spoilage to grow on it. And yet, they don’t always yield that pink-to-red color that their synthetically-sourced counterparts—sodium nitrates—do.
When it hasn’t been treated with sodium nitrates, red meat, depending on the animal it comes from, tends to turn white or gray when cooked. This is true for pork as much as it is true for beef, lamb, and veal.
Unless it has been cooked at a high enough temperature to promote browning on the surface.
This leads me to the next, and final, step on our checklist.
Did You Brown It Properly?
Food browns when its surface gets heated to a temperature of 284°F (140°C) and above. As a result, its color turns golden brown and a crispy, aromatic, deeply flavorsome crust forms on the surface.
Television chefs and cookbook authors often refer to browning with its scientific name, the “Maillard reaction.” Named after Louis Camille Maillard, the French chemist who discovered it, the Maillard reaction takes place when the carbs and proteins in your food clash and fuse in the heat of cooking.
As a result of that, hundreds of new aroma and flavor compounds get created as a byproduct, and they impart your food with an appetizing aroma and a savory, umami taste. As explained by Serious Eats, this reaction is the reason why browned bacon tastes better, roast coffee smells so appealing, and toast bread is so delicious.
To brown bacon, or any other type of meat, you need:
- Lack of moisture;
- Relatively high heat;
- Long enough cooking time.
The boiling point of water is 212°F (100°C), and the minimum temperature for browning is 284°F (140°C) and higher. Because of this, browning only happens after most of the moisture in your food has evaporated.
Unsurprisingly, you cannot have boiling and browning in the same cooking vessel. This is also the main reason why meat, compared to grilling, frying, and roasting, won’t brown and will come out less fragrant and savory when boiled or cooked sous-vide.
And that’s where many of us, the home cooks with no formal culinary training that we are, make the mistake of preparing bacon the wrong way:
- The “right” way to brown bacon is to preheat your skillet over medium-high heat for enough time, then to cook the cubes or strips in batches, making sure not to overcrowd the cooking surface;
- The “wrong” way is to lay the bacon in a cold skillet, adding so much of it that you can no longer see the cooking surface. The result is soggy bacon that boils in its own juices instead of bacon that’s crispy and golden-brown.
Simply put, when you lay the pieces of bacon on your pan, you want to hear the sound of sizzling fat—not that of boiling water.
To fix all of this, get your skillet nice and hot, throw in the gray bacon in batches, and give the pieces of meat a good sear until they have become crispy and golden brown.