June 2, 2014
Bacon’s Bakin’ Aroma
Bacon. Meat candy. The food of the gods. Regardless of what you call it, it’s gradually becoming the king of foods … and not just because it is delicious. Oh no, bacon has elicited a power far greater than that of a mere taste bud — bacon has somehow managed to capture the hearts and souls of the entire internet. No other food item has gotten enough attention as to create a strange sort of identity that exists completely separate from its existence as a simple pork product. It has become an icon of its own right, one that rivals some of the most well-established memes. There are bacon jokes, bacon shirts, bacon-scented shampoos and soaps, even clothing made of bacon. As silly as it sounds, bacon has developed a sort of cult following. Time Magazine even published an article on their website discussing bacon as a cultural phenomena (one that is past its prime according to the author). And let’s be honest … cultural fad or not, bacon smells amazing when it’s sizzling fresh on the skillet.
Now we have the science to back up exactly what it is that makes that aroma so tantalizing, the chemistry that explains how the simple scent of cooking pork could wake an adolescent boy from a dead slumber and send him careening down the stairs in mere moments. The American Chemical Society has a YouTube video series aptly named Reactions that explores chemistry concepts in a fairly colloquial, engaging manner. Recently, they partnered up with the infograph blog Compound Interest and made a video that features factoids explained on one of these infographs that discussed — you guessed it — bacon (original infograph here), and more specifically, the chemical reactions that occur while it cooks.
Basically, the amino acids and the sugars start reacting with one another in a very specific kind of effect known as the “Maillard Effect”. This is the effect that gives many browned foods their (seared steaks, dumplings) their distinctive flavors. This, combined with the heating of the fat, lead to a massive chain reaction of compounds that are broken down and formed as the heat rises and the various catalysts react to the heat. Over the course of the cooking process, over 150 compounds are created and released.
One-hundred fifty. Over a third of them are hydrocarbons, while the rest are primarily aldehydes, alcohols, and ketones. It’s no surprise, then, that bacon has such a distinctive odor. If you’re the type who understands the hard scientific specifics, the videos will provide an excellent breakdown of the specific chemical breakdown of each compound within the reaction. However, even if you’re no chemist, it’s easy to appreciate the sheer amount of raw chemistry that occurs amidst something so deceptively simple as putting bacon on a hot piece of metal. I’d say that I’ll never look at a cooking piece of bacon quite the same again, but we all know that’s not true. I’ll look at it the same way I always have — hungrily.
Image Credit: Thinkstock