It’s pretty much accepted, at least in most of North America, that bacon is a god-tier food. The salt, the fat, the crunch. Nothing cures a hangover like a BLT, and nothing screams breakfast like the smell of cooking bacon. In fact, bacon has even made its way into the realm of sweet treats, beginning with the obvious breakfast food combos — bacon on pancakes with maple syrup, for example — which eventually lead to bacon in cupcakes, bacon toffee, and a million other salty-sweet combos.
But not everyone can eat bacon. And if you can, should you? I mean, probably not every day. Bacon is pretty high in saturated fats, salt and cholesterol. In fact on average, bacon is a whopping 40% fat. So, not exactly heart healthy. In addition, as a processed meat, bacon, which is salt-cured back or belly meat from a pig, contains nitrates. These have been proven to turn to carcinogens when cooked, potentially leading to cancers.
I’m not saying you should never eat bacon, but maybe some alternatives are a good idea? If you’re trying to get healthy or have been told by a doctor that you need to think about keeping your heart in good shape, then many of these alternatives would be a better dietary option than bacon. Plus, that way you can adjust your favorite bacon-filled recipes for friends who keep kosher or hallal, or even those who are vegetarian or vegan.
As ever with swaps, not every swap will be perfect for every dish so think about all the culinary elements you want you fakin’ bacon to deliver before you decide which of these swap options to use.
I’m going to try for an even split between meaty and veggie bacon replacements in this article, making sure to let you know the best points of each.
Turkey bacon is the classic 1:1 bacon swap when people start thinking about their health. As turkey bacon is still a heavily processed meat, it poses some of the same problems as regular bacon in terms of potential carcinogens, salt content and fat. Turkey, however, is a white meat, meaning that all those issues are a couple of orders of magnitude less pronounced with turkey than they are with pork. Turkey bacon is lower in calories than bacon and has half the saturated fat. You still probably shouldn’t eat turkey bacon on the daily, but it’s much better for you than bacon. Plus, turkey bacon is suitable for those who keep kosher (check the packaging to be sure, and to look for hallal status) and for people who stay away from red meat. It may be less decadent tasting than regular bacon, but it’s a pretty solid swap in pretty much every context.
You obviously wouldn’t want to pair smoked salmon with waffles and syrup, but in a lot of savory contexts smoked salmon slices work great to mimic both the salt and bite of bacon and the indulgence of the red meat. Some people won’t like smoked salmon, it’s certainly an acquired taste if you didn’t grow up with it, but many people see it as a real treat. Try it in a breakfast sandwich with scrambled eggs or on the side of a breakfast plate. A few companies have even started producing salmon bacon, a smoked salmon variant that crisps up when fried just like bacon does, so watch out for that in the near future.
Tempeh is a less-processed cousin of tofu. It comes with some of the soybeans that are used to make both tofu and tempeh still whole or chopped within it, adding a level of texture that some find really meaty. If you look in the vegetarian/meat alternative section of your local grocery store you’re likely to find tempeh bacon. Tempeh bacon is thinly sliced tempeh that has been coated in a sweet and salty marinade intended to mimic the best bits of bacon. Tempeh bacon should fry up nice and crispy because it’s so thinly sliced, picking up a lovely char and a slightly burnt bacon-esque flavor without all those red-meat carcinogens. On top of that, tempeh is a complete protein, containing all eight of the amino acids essential to building muscle that are not produced by the body. Plus, tempeh has loads of fiber, magnesium and hard-to-find B vitamins. That’s a real upgrade from bacon if you ask me.
Okay, don’t roll your eyes: duck bacon! It might not be the first thing you think of when you picture breakfast. Or bacon. Or meat, generally. But duck is a non-red meat with a real depth and intensity of flavor. As it’s gamey, duck tastes nothing like turkey or chicken and has a richness you would normally find in red meat. But it’s way healthier! Duck bacon doesn’t get super crispy, which means it works best in tandem with other ingredients. It’s great chopped and fried and mixed into pasta dishes, for example, or wrapped around vegetables for a fancy restaurant-style side. Duck bacon works in big heavy sandwiches, but not so much with sweet breakfast foods where the salt and crisp are key. Like smoked salmon, it’s an indulgent replacement for bacon when you would use a thicker cut of the stuff.
Tofu bacon is similar to tempeh bacon, but it’s really easy to make at home if/when you know how to handle a block of tofu. You’ll need an extra firm tofu, and even then you should press your tofu by placing it between thickly folded kitchen towels under something heavy like cookbooks or a solid pot for at least a half hour. After that, slice the tofu thinkly and marinade it for at least ten minutes in soy sauce, garlic, oil and herbs. If you have liquid smoke on hand, add that. You can either cook the slices of marinated tofu on a baking sheet in the oven or fry them. They should end up chewy with a caramelized outer layer that really harkens back to the flavors of bacon. These bad boys are fantastic in salads or sandwiches, and they’ll keep their texture even in the presence of a bit of moisture. Plus, tofu is really cheap and extremely good for you.
Finally, and again this might sound like a weird suggestion, you can toast flaked almonds up for a great bacon alternative for salads, sweets and even breakfast dishes that would usually only need a small amount of real bacon. You have to be very careful when toasting almonds that they don’t burn, just a few seconds makes the difference. Always heat them in a dry frying pan or skillet, and turn them as they cook. To increase your flaked almonds’ resemblance to bacon you can add smoked paprika and a little salted butter, or a drop of liquid smoke. Almonds are actively art healthy. They’re full of potassium and vitamin E, and help lower LDL (bad cholesterol). You can’t use almonds to replace slices of bacon, but try them where you’d use sliced or crumbled bacon, or even bacon bits.
How to Swap Bacon Out
Think about texture above all when you’re swapping your bacon for a healthier or non-meat alternative. What’s the bacon doing in the dish? If it’s small bursts of flavor, then sliced almonds or one of the veggie bacons chopped should work. If it needs to add a meaty bit and/or a level of fat content, then go for duck or salmon bacon or, if you’re staying veggie, nice big slices of tempeh bacon.
The main aspects you usually want to imitate with your not-bacon are a salty, slightly sweet flavor and a chewy yet meaty texture. There are almost endless options for vegetables in particular that can do this — mushrooms and eggplant are two examples — and endless ‘bacon’ products on the market, from nonspecific veggie bacon strips to coconut bacon. And if that all sounds a little wild, then you can always stick to turkey bacon. It’s not perfect, but it’s got half the fat regular bacon does!]]>