Cooking Bacon, Part 1

August 22nd, 2009

What would happen if you were to cook bacon in an oxygen-poor environment?  Would the bacon taste any different for it?  Is oxygen a requirement for good bacon?

Let’s say you wanted to build a robot to cook bacon, unattended.  You don’t want this robot to burn the house down, as that would be less than ideal (and you’d have burned bacon).  How do you cook bacon without risk of fire? 

Easy, remove the oxygen from the environment.

Or, a whole bunch of other solutions that are quick and easier.  But this isn’t about quick and easy, this is about SCIENCE

Sous-Vide

My first idea was to sous-vide the bacon.  The low pressure plus low temperature means that the robot is not likely to burn the bacon.  But after further analysis, cooking bacon at low temperature means that you have non-crispy, greasy ham.  Yuck.

Next idea: cook bacon in an oxygen-free environment.   But, would that alter the taste?  I asked around and got different results: “Absolutely oxygen is required, for [these very good and rational reasons].”  Or, “No, bacon doesn’t oxidize because [very good rational reasons].”  Some really smart people said ‘of course it [will|won’t].  Uh, I think.”  That leaves only one thing to do: empirical research!

The Plan

For the first attempt, we’ll be cooking bacon in a carbon dioxide-rich environment.  Reasons for this are simple: dry ice is cheap, carbon dioxide is heavier than air and easy to work with with, and it’s all mostly inert.  (Also, dry ice is cheap.  Priorities, people!)

We will take a small George Foreman grill, place it in a big plastic container, and then sublimate CO2 in the box, filling it with CO2 and driving out most of the normal atmosphere.  Hopefully. 

Looks Something Like This

We bought 8 pounds of dry ice at a local Albertsons grocery store, for about $1.29 / lb or so.  In case you wonder where to easily get some for your own experiments.

What Dry Ice Might Look Like

Set Up

We placed the grill in the box along with some Tupperware containers holding water and chunks of dry ice.  We then gave the dry ice plenty of time to sublimate, to fill our container up with carbon dioxide. 

Breaking Off Chunks of Dry Ice Load the Bacon! Begin Sublimiation!

After a few minutes, the container was full of delicious carbon dioxide. Time to apply power to the grill.

 

Cooking Bacon in Carbon Dioxide

Put your head in and take in a big lungful THE BOX IS HOT

We decided that we’d give the bacon 15 minutes to cook.  So, now – nothing left to do but do “science-y things, “ and goof around with dry ice.

ooOOoo its SCIENCE Aaron, showing us how dry ice is perfectly safe to hold in your handMaking Carbonated Fruit

After 5 minutes, we sensed the presence of cooking bacon – no abnormal smells were detected, and the bacon sizzled just like, well, bacon.  All very normal.  We tested for the absence of oxygen by burning pieces of paper and seeing them extinguished immediately when brought into the container.

15 minutes later, there was BACON:

Bacon and Ice CO2 Bacon

We confirmed it to be bacon as it looked like bacon, smelled like bacon, and had the taste and texture of bacon.  Also, we put the bacon in the grill to start with and knew that nobody had switched the bacon out for something else while we weren’t looking. 

But the important thing is that the bacon did not appear to be un-bacon-ish in any obvious way – cooking in carbon dioxide did not do anything dramatic to the bacon. 

After examining the bacon we decided that it would not be safe to eat the results.  Hah no we all grabbed bacon as fast as possible.  At least, as fast as we could without burning fingers too badly, as the bacon was quite hot (again, just like regular bacon).  In texture, the bacon was not as crispy as we expected.  In fact it was quite chewy.  (Future experiments should define a tactile SI measurement that we could use here to quantify this condition.) 

Now that we had the CO2 bacon, it was time to cook the control bacon.  The grill was moved out of the container and up to the table, revealing the complete FAIL of the grease trap (oops).

Good thing that cardboard was there

 

Cooking Bacon in Normal Atmosphere

Commence cooking control bacon, and also more random experiments with carbon dioxide, like attempting to make carbonated fruit (that’ll have to be another blog post).

Commence Control Bacon There is no way this could blow up. I think. Carbonated Fruit

Another 15 minutes elapsed – and we have our control bacon!

Control Bacon shrunk more than CO2 Bacon Control Bacon

The control bacon was definitely more crispy than the CO2 bacon and had a less chewy texture.  The taste was exactly the same, only the texture of the bacon was different.   

What Have We Learned?

There was a difference in texture between the two cooking environments.  However more experimentation will be needed to see if this is related to the gas environment, or due to cooking order or other factors.  The big question of “would you end up with weird tasting bacon?” can be answered however – the bacon tasted absolutely normal, and by that I mean awesome. 

Next Steps

During the research phase of this project, it was pointed out by our experts that carbon dioxide isn’t actually inert, and that this isn’t the most rigorous way of getting all the oxygen out of an environment.  So, the next experiment will involve cooking bacon in a vacuum – will that alter the taste?  Fortunately, we know somebody who’ll let us borrow a vacuum chamber for this – so I hope to post a follow up very soon with those results.

Another version of this experiment could be performed with lab equipment that can be filled with argon.  This would be better because we could significantly reduce any oxygen contamination, plus argon is truly inert.  The problem with this set up was that the equipment is used to test radioactive materials in an argon environment – so you wouldn’t want to eat that bacon after it’d been in there, sort of missing the point.  (Another experiment: does radioactivity alter the taste of bacon, or just you?)

Acknowledgements

Thanks to all you crazy people who helped set this test up and provide expert opinions:

Aaron Backer
Blackfin
Jason Brooks
Jason Walker
Joel Teeter
…and everybody else from facebook, twitter and elsewhere who had opinions and suggestions!

  • Brian

    Fun! I hypothesize that it was temperature that affecte the crispiness of the bacon. Your cooking apparatus might have gotten chilled, along with the bacon, which would affect how long it took to cook. Also, when you are cooking and you want a good crust or sear, and you don’t want it to be greasy or soft, you preheat your cooking surface and allow the meat to get closer to room temperature.

  • http://elegantcode.com Tony Rasa

    @Brian
    Yeah that could be a factor. Next time I’ll preheat the grill more, and maybe cook the control bacon first.

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  • Dave Bush

    Tony,

    Cooking fatty food in general and bacon in particular produce free radicals. Free radicals contain oxygen molecules. Free radicals are carcinogenic. I wonder if oxygen-free cooking would eliminate or reduce free radicals in food.

    Dave

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