Bacon & Bourbon Marmalade

There was a time when bacon jams and bacon marmalades were exceptionally rare things. A handful of people made them at home, you might have found a jar or two in the homemade preserves at a specialty food or craft fair, and that was it. Now it seems like bacon spreads of whatever description are the flavour du jour in the culinary world – hell, I’m pretty sure I saw it on the shelves at 7-11 the other day.

This is not a bad thing. The more the merrier, I always say. But leave the store-bought stuff for the plebes. I have tasted a lot of bacon marmalade and I have yet to taste one as good as this. Or, quite frankly, even close. You don’t need any special equipment, but it is easiest (and, I think best) if you have a slow cooker. Beyond that it is just some chopping, some stirring, and an afternoon of amazing smells in your kitchen.

Read on for the ingredients and details.

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What you need:

1-1/2 packages of bacon
1 average-sized red onion
1 average-sized sweet yellow (Vidalia or honey sweet) onion
1/2 cup of GOOD red wine vinegar (see note below)
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup amber or dark maple syrup (see note below)
1/2 cup of Four Roses or Wild Turkey bourbon (see note below)

Vinegar Note: Don’t cheap out here. Do not use a no-name or supermarket brand. If you have a decent gourmet food store, this is the time to spring for high-end product. Otherwise, look for the Pompeian, Holland House, or Colavita brands at your grocery.

Maple Syrup Note: You may not be aware that maple syrup comes in different grades of colour and intensity. The kind you put on the table with pancakes is number 1 or “light”. Here you want something with a little more earthiness and body to it. Number 2 (also labeled as “amber”) is fine and you can probably find it on the shelves of your local grocery. If you want to experiment with number 3 (a.k.a “dark”) it is probably worth your time, but don’t worry about it if finding it is too much of a chore.

Bourbon Note: Only Wild Turkey and Four Roses are safe – or responsible – to drink. Turkey and the regular Roses blend make excellent kitchen bourbons. Save the Four Roses small-batch and single-barrel offerings for straight sipping and special occasions.

With all of that out of the way, let’s get this show on the road. Slice the bacon across the strips into pinkie-wide pieces. Put the chopped bacon into a large saucepan – I use a 3.5 liter pot, you probably don’t want to go much smaller. Making sure your pot is large enough will ensure that the bacon renders in a deep enough pool of fat and will reduce splattering a lot. Win-win. Cook the bacon over medium-low heat until it is just crisp. This should take at least 20 minutes and up to 30 depending on the fat content. Don’t succumb to the temptation to cook it too hot, you want a gentle render.

While the bacon cooks, chop your onions very fine.

Strain the bacon out of the pot and into a bowl when it is done. Do not line the bowl with paper towels or otherwise drain the bacon in any way – the fat that is clinging to the pieces of bacon at this point is crucial. Pour off the rest of the fat, leaving a tablespoon or two in the pot. I shouldn’t have to remind you that “pouring off the fat” actually means “pouring it through a sieve or strainer and into a container that you can use to save it in the fridge for your future cooking endeavours”.

That’s liquid gold right there.

Put the onions into the pot and cook in the reserved fat on medium low heat until they are soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. You want to sweat the onions, not fry them. Then add the rest of the ingredients, increase the heat to high, and boil for at least 4 minutes while stirring constantly. Turn the heat down to low, add the bacon back into the pot and stir to mix thoroughly.

Pour your mix (make sure you get all of the liquid) into your slow cooker, cover, and turn the cooker on high. After 2 hours take the lid off and cook (still on high) for 3 hours more. You want the liquid to thicken and absorb and caramelize. You will know when it is done. Let it cool slightly and then grind it with your immersion blender. DON’T puree it, you want texture, but you are looking for a finer finish than what you get directly out of the slow cooker.

If you DONT have a slow cooker, continue to simmer the mix in the saucepan on low for 1.5 hours lid on, then 3 more hours lid off. If you do it this way you have to stir every half hour and if it is drying out too fast add 1 or 2 spoonfuls of water. The slow cooker is much easier, so use it if you have it.

You can use the marmalade right away, but it is even better after it has had a chance to set and mellow for at least a day. Pack it into jars – three 250ml mason-style jars is your best choice – and put it in the fridge. Once you have the lids on it will stay good for at least 2 months.

To serve directly as a spread you will want to warm it slightly. It pairs magically with soft cheeses and crackers, and you might eat a whole jar just like that. It also makes a killer sandwich condiment – try it with grilled chicken on a soft bun – and nothing is better on a burger. Once you start spreading the magic here you will find a million places to use it. Go crazy.

If you want to make more you can double this recipe easily. Just add 1 more hour to the uncovered cooking in the slow cooker.

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