Always start with a cold pan.
Ah, bacon. We use it in every meal, from breakfast straight through to dinner and even on into dessert. While it can seem like a messy endeavor, cooking bacon on the stovetop is the classic way to crisp up those delicious strips of smokey goodness and it's dead simple to boot. Read on for our step by step guide, including tips for choosing a good pan, dealing with splattering, and getting rid of that lingering fried bacon smell.
Cooking bacon on the stove top is how we did it when I was growing up, and it's the method that's most familiar to me. My mother had a long, rectangular cast iron griddle pan that fit over two burners and could cook up a whole pound of bacon at once. Frying up the bacon was often my job as a child. The griddle had a trough etched into its perimeter which caught the grease and channeled it to a corner where I would suction it out with a bulb baster. It was the perfect bacon cooking pan and I am still recovering from the fact that my mother sold it at a rummage sale a few years ago.
The Pan and the Tongs:
Barring the perfect griddle, these days I use a wide, flat-bottomed 12" frying pan. I do not own non-stick, although many people recommend it for bacon. I find that once the bacon starts releasing its fat, it will pretty much stop sticking to the pan and can be moved around very easily. Cast iron is of course a classic choice for frying up bacon. Some pans come with raised ridges that allow the fat to drip through and away from the bacon. If you have one of those, it's great but not 100% necessary.
Bacon needs a fair amount of turning, so a decent pair of tongs is very helpful. You can certainly spear each piece with a fork, but I find it's easy for the bacon to slip off and fall back into the pan, which can cause painful splattering. The tongs are really the best way to go.
People have their favorite kind of bacon. Some like it fattier than others, some like it cut thicker, or smoked. Much of your choice is about how you are using the bacon: a good recipe will specify if the bacon should be smoked or not, or if it requires a thick cut. In general, the thicker cuts will produce chewier bacon while the thiner cuts will produce crisper bacon. When I choose bacon, I look for a nice blend of meat and fat, with a little more meat than fat. I also look for natural or nitrate-free bacon and have had good luck with Niman Ranch. The bacon pictured here was sent from my mother in Wisconsin and it's from Nueske's (and does contain nitrates).
The Paper Bag:
When you remove your bacon from the pan, it needs to drain and shed some of its fat so that it doesn't end up too greasy. Many people use paper towels but I prefer a cutup brown paper bag. Newspapers are also a popular choice. In either case, the paper should be placed on a plate as it will absorb a lot of grease and get messy pretty quickly.
The Excess Fat:
You will likely have some leftover fat in your pan (also known as 'drippings') when you are done cooking your bacon. This is pure gold and should not be thrown away. Pour it into a glass jar or metal can, and save it for future kitchen projects. If you do not want to keep bacon fat around, please feel free to mail it to me.
Note: There is some risk of glass jars shattering when you pour in the hot grease. I've never had this happen to me, but as a precaution, you can let the grease cool slightly before pouring it into the jar.
If your bacon is especially fatty, it might splatter rather heavily, which can cause a mess on your stove and actually hurt if some of that splattering fat touches your skin. Some people like using a splatter screen which cuts down on some of the splattering problems by offering a layer of protection. However, it does not eliminate the problem completely as you will need to lift the screen to turn the bacon. And then, in the end, you have to clean the screen. Wearing an apron will protect your clothes and oven mitts can protect your arms if you don't want to get splattered.
The Clean Up:
If your pan got super messy from the bacon and especially if it got a decent crust on the bottom, here's an easy way to deal with it: after pouring off and reserving the extra fat, wipe out your pan with paper towels or newspaper and place it back on the stove. Fill a pitcher with water and fill your bacon pan about half way up the sides of the pan. Turn the heat up high and bring the water to a boil. Using a spatula, gently scrape the bottom of the pan to dislodge any bits of stuck bacon. Some people add dish soap or baking soda to the water but I've never had to. The browned bits just lift right off. Let the pan cool before bringing it over to the sink to dump out the water unless you can trust yourself to carry a shallow frying pan full of boiling hot, bacon grease-laced water across your kitchen without spilling.
Some people don't like to cook bacon at home because it can smell up the kitchen and indeed your whole house. Frying bacon is a good time to use your oven's exhaust fan if you have one and of course you can also crack open a door or window. I have found leaving a dish of plain vinegar on the counter for several hours afterward really does help to keep the smell away. (A tip from Jodi Liano in this interview.)
How Cook Bacon on the Stovetop
What You Need
A frying pan
Brown paper bag or paper towels on a plate
Glass or metal container for the drippings
Bulb baster (optional)
1. Start with a cold pan. Bacon should be started in a cold pan, so before you turn on the heat, lay out your strips on the pan. You can place them so they are touching and crowd the pan a little as the bacon will shrink as it cooks but do not overlap too much.
2. Cook bacon low and slow. Bacon cooks best slowly over low heat, so turn your burner on low. Soon the bacon will begin to release some of its fat. When it starts to buckle and curl, use the tongs to loosen the strips and turn each slice to cook on the other side. Keep flipping and turning the bacon so that it browns evenly.
3. Pour off grease carefully. If the bacon is very fatty and your pan is filling up with grease, you can remove some by carefully suctioning it off with a bulb baster and squeezing it into a glass or metal container. Some people just spoon off the excess with a metal spoon. You can also pour off some of the grease but be very careful when you do this as spilled grease can cause a grease fire. I usually turn off the flame when I pour off the grease and I check be sure that none of it has dribbled down the sides of the pan. In any case, be sure that you pour it into a sturdy glass, metal, or ceramic container.
4. Cook until the bacon is done. When is the bacon done? That depends. Some people like their bacon extra crispy and others like it a little loose and flappy. It's important to know that your bacon will continue to cook some when you pull it from the pan and will stiffen up a little upon cooling. In general you will want to see even browning and make sure that the meat part has lost some of its raw redness.
4. Let the cooked bacon drain. Using your tongs, remove the pieces from the pan and onto your paper bag/towels or newspapers to drain.
5. Cook the remaining bacon in batches. If you have more bacon to cook, you can simply drain the excess grease and add more bacon as you remove pieces. If the pan has developed a browned crust on the bottom, let the pan cool down and wipe it clean before continuing.
(Images: Dana Velden)