The salads of my youth were nothing like the salads I eat today — they rarely included a mix of vegetables or a single whole grain, nor a dressing from anything other than a bottle — and that’s because, as a kid, my salad of choice was a classic wedge salad. In my house, the wedge salad consisted of a crescent-shaped chunk of iceberg lettuce (or what I like to call “crunchy water leaves”), topped with an avalanche of ranch dressing, and a hailstorm of bacon bits.
It’s the last ingredient — the bacon bits — that made the wedge irresistible; crispy little bursts of sweet, smoky, and savory flavors that woke up the ranch and the iceberg (see: crunchy water leaves), giving this otherwise simple salad flavor, texture, and appeal. But the power of bacon bits, of course, does not stop at salad. In both sliced and bit form, bacon is an undeniable recipe enhancer. Which is why it gets added to everything from dips to chocolate to goat cheese balls on sticks.
That’s also why people who cannot or do not eat bacon are always on the lookout for a worthy substitution. One that is not simply crunchy or solely salty, but has all the components of the original — in look and mouth feel.
And since being on a low-sodium diet, I too have been on the search for a bacon bit alternative. I’ve seen my fair share of creative substitutions (mushrooms and peaches!) as well as bacon-like spice blends. And when it comes to the sliced version, my sister-in-law even created a salt-free version that gets pretty darn close to the real thing. But for those looking for a meat-free and vegan alternative, I’ve finally found one that is not only convincing, but packs even more culinary punch than the original: Coconut Flake Bacon Bits.
How to Make Coconut Flake Bacon Bits
Step one to finding a good bacon bit substitute is finding the right vehicle for your bacon flavor — something that is similar in size and crunch. And thanks to the geniuses at Cookie + Kate and Fettle Vegan, I now see my baking shelf in a whole new light. Turns out, large-flaked, unsweetened coconut has the same shape as crumbled bacon. And with a little edible spray-tanning (which we’ll get to in a second), it makes a totally believable bacon transformation. To use them, leave the coconut flakes as they are or give them a rough chop to turn them into bits. Then proceed.
For step two, you’ll need to give those pearly coconut flakes a bacon makeover. This is done with a convincing marinade made from soy sauce, maple syrup, and liquid smoke, which gives the flakes a bacon-like hue and taste (or use this blend if you're on a low-sodium diet). Then, the flakes get toasted in a 350°F oven for about 12 minutes to cement that golden color and crunch.
As for the final step, it’s time to use those coconut flake bacon bits. Obviously, because of the coconut, they will have a slightly sweeter, nuttier taste — but this is not a bad thing. All it means is extra flavor and extra flexibility to use them beyond the typical deviled egg or goat cheese ball. Just think of what a sprinkle would do to a creamy pumpkin soup, a huge platter or nectarine and heirloom tomato salad, or those adult salads with real vegetables and grains. Not to mention a warm bowl of savory morning granola.