MSR Backcountry Cafe: Bacon and Beyond

Photo: David Katz

Story By Laurel Miller

Bacon makes everything better. This is hardly news. What causes some confusion, however, is how best to pack your meaty treats into the backcountry. Food safety, while perhaps not of highest concern to those of us who live the dirtbag lifestyle, is still important. Raw or cured/aged/preserved protein products such as meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs can cause serious food-borne illness, so choosing the right products and packing them properly is key before heading out on an adventure.

I spoke with David Katz, chef, salumi-maker, and owner of Napa’s Salumeria Sub Rosa, about what safety precautions hikers should follow when taking cured meat products on the trail. Despite the fact that frontiersmen have been packing bacon for centuries, “If it’s not a shelf-stable product, unlike most salami (or the ubiquitous Summer Sausage), prosciutto, and other dry-cured meats, which are ready-to-eat (RTE), cook the heck out of it,” Katz advises.

The issue is moisture content, which can foster or inhibit the growth of unwanted microorganisms, much the same as cheese. Explains Katz, “If the water activity of cured products is below .87, they don’t require refrigeration. Bacon is a different story, as it may or may not be cured and/or cooked as part of the processing.”

If, like me, you’re thinking, “Huh?” here’s the short answer: Cook your bacon before you leave home. By reducing the water content, says Katz, you render it shelf-stable. While the mountain men of yore traveled with their cast iron pans, today’s ultra- and micro-light obsessed (self-included) outdoor folk would rather use that weight for doodads like milk frothers. Katz, being a purist, as well as an artisan, adds, “Personally, I’d rather lose 10 pounds elsewhere, and pack the pan, but I’m in the minority.”

If you want shelf-stable product, you can spring for mass-produced bacon, but personally, I’d rather buy the good stuff—think thick-cut slabs of applewood-smoked, or maple-cured—and either take my chances, or pre-cook it. There’s no law that says you need to eat bacon strips, after all. Try crumbling the pre-cooked stuff atop everything from your morning instant oatmeal and adding a drizzle of maple syrup, to incorporating it into eggs, flapjacks, pasta, or grain-based salads. It may not be hot and greasy, but it still adds delicious flavor, aroma, and protein to your meals.

If it’s salumi you’re packing, and this I find infinitely easier as it takes up little room, doesn’t disintegrate or squish, or require advance preparation, there’s again a wide range of price points and quality.

Salumi Board Slide
Photo: David Katz

Since I confess that Katz’s salumi (available at select outlets in the West; go to the website for details) is my favorite, I’ll pack his well-spiced sopressata or fragrant finnochiona, and serve it with a wedge of hard cheese and some dry-cured olives or roasted nuts as a simple lunch or pre-dinner spread.

Since backpacking isn’t the place to get fussy about beverage pairings, just fill your flask with your libation of choice. Add a loaf of good bread (flat styles like ciabatta pack better than delicate baguettes) and some pickled vegetables (transfer them to a no-leak Tupperware or plastic, camping-grade container with a tight lid)  and you have an easy, no-mess meal.

If the weather is warm, you can pack salumi in a collapsible, nylon thermal lunchbox (available at larger drugstores); they’re the perfect size to hold some cheese and cured meat and a frozen gel-pack (put the food in separate Ziplocs to prevent moisture and odor transfer).

Photo: David Katz

Need some inspiration on other great brands of handcrafted salumi and bacon? The following are available nationwide: Creminelli, Fra’mani, Olli, and La Quercia, and Niman Ranch. There are also many smaller, regional producers of bacon (here in Colorado, Tender Belly is my pick), so spend some time in the kitchen in the name of research.

Laurel Miller is a Colorado-based food and travel writer and cheese consultant, the co-author of Cheese for Dummies, and a contributing editor at culture: the word on cheese. She considers herself the vegan anti-Christ.

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