Bacon products should probably have bacon in them—right? Rocco Loosbrock, founder of online marketplace BaconFreak.com, certainly thinks so, noting that the best kind of bacon-flavored snack always contains real bacon, be it his maple bacon breakfast blend tea or bacon chocolate chip pretzel cookie. Loosbrock’s store features more than 30 shades of bacon—sun-dried tomato, beer, jalapeno, Italian—just in case bacon lovers want to branch out beyond the usual hickory flavor. But the one thing they all have in common is genuine, no-substitute bacon.
But what about all those novelty gag bacon products—bacon mints, bacon-flavored gum, bacon car air fresheners, and so on? Their taste and scent of bacon, unsurprisingly, has a slightly more complex, modern recipe: chemicals, plus a whole lot of patience.
“It’s less science and more trial and error,” says Steve Weaver, CEO of The Candle Lab. The Columbus, Ohio-based company, which produces custom fragrances in addition to its natural soy candles, took more than a year to develop its bacon-scented candle. “The first couple of batches smelled like beef jerky, so we had to add more fat and smoke scents,” Weaver says. Indeed, the blending of synthetic chemicals to resemble natural flavors and aromas is far from an exact science—and some protect their artificial bacon secrets like they’re the nuclear codes. (John Leydon, creator of Bacōn cologne, demurs, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you. And I’m not much of a killer, so it wouldn’t be good for either of us.”)
Still, whatever their exact formula, one thing is obvious: Most of those bacon novelty items you see don’t contain actual bacon, as it’s far too cost prohibitive (not to mention terrible for your car’s upholstery). Instead, Weaver’s bacon-scented candle, Leydon’s bacon cologne, and most of those other wacky bacon items are a cocktail of molecules whose recipe has been endlessly tweaked in an attempt to fool the senses. As pointed out by American University professor Matthew Hartings—who teaches a course titled “The Chemistry Of Cooking,” and who wrote the forthcoming Chemistry In Your Kitchen—it takes an especially acute palate to replicate the taste and aroma of bacon so closely that the brain will believe it.
“When you and I taste something, we taste the whole spiel, everything at once,” Hartings says. “There are people who can train their brains to pick out individual notes and recognize how to balance them.”
Among those notes, smoke is the big one. For David Wahl, who’s come up with numerous bacon products for novelty behemoth Archie McPhee, artificial smoke is the key. “To me, there’s three basic components,” Wahl says. “It’s smoke, a tiny bit of salt, and fattiness on the tongue. It’s balancing the three elements until you get close.”
Archie McPhee hit it big with its bacon mints, which first became massively popular a decade ago. As with Weaver’s candles, nailing down the taste of those mints took several months, Wahl recalls, involving at least a half-dozen back-and-forths with the manufacturer. In that time, the most important lesson he learned was that, when it comes to artificial bacon, a little goes a long way. “The first batch we got back, the flavor was too strong,” Wahl says. “You couldn’t taste the sugar. We found that by pulling the flavor back, people got the idea of it.”
But of course, the most accurate recreations of bacon taste aren’t about replicating, really. It’s more like distilling, a process of flavor extraction that Hartings explains by using coffee. “Roasting beans makes great flavors and aromas, but then you have to transfer those into your mug through hot water,” he says. “For freeze-dried coffee, organic solvents might be used because they evaporate so easily. You don’t think about them with food, but the solvents extract flavors and evaporate away, leaving crystalline flavors in the powder.”
You could conduct your own similar experiment using a fresh pack of cooked bacon. Take the rendered fat, then reconstitute it into a lip balm (now you have real bacon kissability!). Likewise, you could extract aroma molecules using oil-based liquids, then blend them into a soap that will have you smelling of bacon—and pursued by stray dogs—all day long. These techniques, though messy and not terribly cost efficient, will create the most accurate bacon scents, because obviously, you’re basically smearing yourself with bacon.
But for most companies that want to get that bacon essence, it’s a complicated process involving many chemicals with long, multisyllabic names, as well as constant tweaking, tweaking, tweaking. And even though the taste and smell of bacon is as bold as it comes, that process requires a lot of subtlety—even artistry.
“Mixing these flavors is as much an art as mixing perfume,” Wahl says. “There are people who do this professionally who are really sought after.” So, the next time you take a whiff of some silly, bacon-scented doodad, remember that you’re holding someone’s expertly cooked, slaved-over masterpiece.