Bacon—the unofficial poster child of non-kosher food—is hard to avoid these days. There are now bacon festivals around the country, and the flagship of forbidden food is found almost everywhere, from chocolates and ice cream to popcorn and high-end dishes, not to mention its traditional uses in classic fare like the BLT, club sandwich, and bacon burger. A few years ago, Top Chef winner Ilan Hall made headlines with his bacon-wrapped matzo balls.
The kosher world has not turned a blind eye to this craze. As bacon has boomed, kosher imitation bacon has increased in variety, quality, and religious acceptance.
“Very often, kosher trends are not really in lockstep with things that are trending in the general culinary world,” said Miri Rotkovitz, About.com’s Kosher Food Expert. “But in the case of bacon and cured meats it seems to be a lot closer—it seems to be happening parallel to the greater bacon trend.”
Kosher “bacon” is made with a variety of non-pork ingredients; some types are vegetarian, while others use beef, lamb, duck, and sometimes turkey to recreate pork’s flavor.
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Department, estimates his organization, the world’s largest not-for-profit kosher certification agency, certifies hundreds of imitation bacon products—everything from vegetarian strips to bacon-flavored Ritz Crackers—with its “O.U.” seal. “I grew up in a world where if you kept kosher, you knew your diet was very limited. That world no longer exists,” Elefant said. “People who are keeping kosher now are saying, ‘We don’t want to be limited in what we can eat because we’re keeping kosher.’ ”
Although there long have been a few kosher alternatives to bacon, early attempts weren’t something that kosher consumers necessarily wanted to pig out on. “In terms of what was historically available, there was sort of junkie things like Bac-O’s that had this big pop-culture appeal, not just in the Jewish community but across the board, but were not exactly a quality product,” said Rotkovitz. “And way back there were these bacon analogs like ‘beef fry.’ I think people tended not to even use the word ‘bacon’ to describe those; it was kind of understood that it was what kosher people might use to make a BLT-style sandwich, but no one was really calling it bacon. I think there was more taboo in general about using products that mimicked products that were blatantly un-kosher.”
When fake bacon products became more common on the kosher market, there was some concern that consumers could be misled. “There was a lot of discussion internally here [whether] we should certify them under any circumstances,” Elefant said. The concern was that people would make the mistake of thinking that pork bacon could somehow be kosher, which it cannot. Ultimately the O.U. decided to certify imitation bacon products, but there’s an extra step in the certification process for these foods: The label for the product has to prominently feature words like “fake” or “imitation” so it is abundantly clear to consumers it is not real bacon. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has similar guidelines for the clear labeling of pork-free bacon-like products, but the O.U.’s guidelines are stricter.
Since the O.U. and other organizations began certifying imitation bacon products, the taboo surrounding them has decreased.
Jack’s Gourmet, a Brooklyn-based purveyor of kosher meats, specializes in creating pork-free versions of products like sausage. In 2012, the company launched Facon, a cured-beef alternative to bacon that is now one of its best-selling products. Jack Silberstein, the company’s CEO, boasts that his bacon is almost as good as the real thing. “We do the exact same process as you would with pork, but we do it with beef,” he said. “We dry cure it over a period of time so we’re actually pulling moisture out and concentrating the flavor, so that when you do cook it you get that really crispy flavor. It is a little salty, just like bacon. The only real difference is that the beef has a little bit of a deeper flavor than pork. But once you dry cure it, salt it, add some smoke to it, and crisp it up, the beefiness is only there as a little bit of a background; it’s not very strong.” Silberstein says his company uses beef for Facon because it has a less gamey flavor than other pork substitutes, such as lamb or duck, and it behaves just like bacon when it comes to recipes that call for wrapping other foods like asparagus.
Since Jack’s Gourmet began offering Facon a few years ago, Silberstein has seen a steady uptick in sales. “We produce anywhere from hundreds to thousands of pounds of Facon a week,” he said. “The item has definitely increased in popularity in the time that it has been on the market.”
KOL Foods, a national distributor of grass-fed, organic kosher meats, offers several types of “oink-free not-bacon,” made from beef and lamb, and is experimenting with recipes for a turkey-based substitute. Devora Kimmelman-Block, founder of the Maryland-based company, said: “The beef acts pretty close to pork bacon; it’s probably not as fatty as pork bacon, but pork bacon has various degrees of fattiness, so maybe you’d call it a lean bacon or on the leaner side.” The lamb bacon is thicker than the better-selling beef bacon and not as versatile. “The lamb bacon has to be hand-sliced, so it comes out more like fajita strips and doesn’t wrap around things as well,” she said. “You really have to use a different kind of a recipe with that than you would with the beef bacon.”
Other large distributors of kosher bacon include Grow and Behold Foods, which produces both thick-cut and thin-cut beef varieties. There are also smaller kosher butchers offering house-cured bacon alternatives, such as Moti’s Market in Rockville, Maryland, which features a lamb bacon.
Beef is the most common pork substitute in meat-based kosher bacon, followed by lamb, duck, and turkey. Still, the majority of kosher bacon substitutes are vegetarian. Vegetarian versions try to recreate bacon’s hints of salt, smoke, and umami flavors, Rotkovitz said: “So salt and soy sauce—the latter adds both sodium and umami—show up in most faux bacons. Yeast extract or nutritional yeast, another umami source, also shows up. To protect proprietary recipes, manufacturers tend to be tight-lipped about which spices they use, but smoked paprika in particular is a likely addition. Cumin and garlic are probably in the mix, too.”
But these non-meat ingredients can accomplish only so much, Rotkovitz noted. “For vegetarians and kosher-keepers who’ve likely smelled but never tasted bacon, or for whom it’s a distant memory, the combo does the trick well enough,” she said. “But where these products fail in the biggest way is probably in texture and sizzle—they just don’t have the fat or protein structure necessary to successfully mimic real bacon. Lamb, beef, or other alternative meat-based ‘bacons,’ on the other hand, are cured and smoked like the real thing, so they usually do a much better job of delivering a satisfying experience for meat eaters.”
The market for kosher bacon seems to be growing. In 2005 the O.U. certified fewer than 600 imitation bacon products compared to more than 700 today. Sara Karasik, database administrator for the O.U., says that that number continues to trend upward: “The O.U. symbol appears on some 25 new ‘bacon’ products each year,” she said.
And the people making kosher bacon products are thinking far beyond the frying pan. Some of the most outlandish headline-grabbing bacon products are offered by J&D’s Down Home Enterprise, which was co-founded by Dave Lefkow, who is Jewish. The Seattle-based company offers bacon salt, baconnaise, and bacon rub, as well as joke items like bacon lip balm, bacon shaving cream, and even baconlube. All the edible products, none of which contain real bacon, are certified kosher by the O.U. In 2013, Time magazine declared J&D “in large part responsible for the bacon consumer culture.”
Kosher alternatives to bacon could get even odder in the future.
Researchers at Oregon State University made headlines this summer when they announced they had patented a new strain of red marine algae called “dulse” that tastes like bacon. “The interesting thing about this seaweed is that in its raw form it does have sort of a savory flavor, and when you deep-fry it—for some reason I don’t fully understand—it brings out more bacon flavors,” said Oregon State University researcher Chris Langdon, who has been growing dulse for 15 years. “It’s not a replacement for bacon, but it’s an alternative. For people who can’t eat pork, this is something that they can try instead.”
Since news of the seaweed went viral, Langdon has been fielding many inquiries, including some from Israel. “There’s a possibility of them actually growing dulse if they could find conditions that are suitable,” he said, noting that dulse needs cold water to grow, so Israel’s climate could provide some challenges.
Regardless of what kosher bacon is made from, when it is marketed to kosher consumers, some culinary education can be needed. “A lot of kosher consumers didn’t know how to use a bacon-like product,” said Silberstein. For instance, bacon and eggs—even kosher bacon and eggs—would be a rare breakfast pairing because it would mean not using milk or cream with your coffee. To help counterbalance this, Jack’s Gourmet and other companies like KOL Foods offer a variety of vetted bacon recipes that fit within kosher law.
Elefant says it’s important to remember that all these so-called bacon products are never real bacon. As for how good a job they do imitating bacon’s flavors, Elefant isn’t sure it matters. “The real kosher consumer is not sophisticated enough to know the difference anyway,” he said, “because we’ve never tasted the real thing.”
Erik Ofgang is senior writer at Connecticut Magazine and co-author of The Good Vices: From Beer to Sex, the Surprising Truth About What’s Actually Good for You. He is also a mentor in Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program.