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What Is the Difference between Cured and Uncured Bacon?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 16, 2024
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The biggest difference between cured and uncured bacon is the preservation process. Cured varieties typically rely on chemicals and additives, while uncured alternatives usually include more nature salts and flavorings. Both types of bacon are actually “cured,” which in a meat context basically just means “preserved.” Uncured versions are often considered to be more healthful, but this can be a point of some debate. In terms of calories, the two are roughly equal. The main differences usually concern how the curing happened and the nature and quality of the additives used; the health benefits or drawbacks of the product as a whole aren’t usually part of the calculation.

Curing Basics

Unless meat is sold raw, it needs to be preserved somehow in order for it to stay fresh and not spoil. Bacon is sometimes smoked, but curing is the most common way to prepare it for sale. The oldest and most traditional way to cure meat is with salt; the compounds in salt, sea salt in particular, remove moisture and seals the surface from bacteria and other contaminants. Somewhat paradoxically, bacon preserved this way is usually referred to as “uncured.” The “cured” designation is usually saved for meat that has been preserved with chemicals that mimic salt but are more efficient and predictable from a manufacturing perspective.

Bacon Preserving Agents

No matter how the meat is cured, it typically starts out the same way; bacon prepared in either fashion is usually presented thin strips of meat, usually pork, cut from around the animal’s belly or shoulder. In most cases it is made mostly of fat, but this can vary. It becomes cured or uncured depending on how the farmer or manufacturer preserves it once the strips have been cut.

”Cured” bacon is typically soaked in brine, then treated with commercially prepared sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite to seal moisture and keep the meat from spoiling. These are commercial preservatives that mimic the reaction of salt but in a more concentrated, faster-acting form. Other chemical preserving agents may also be used depending on the manufacturer. Bacon that is packaged for sale will usually list these ingredients and additives somewhere on the label, but not always.

Bacon that is labeled “uncured” is usually prepared only with ingredients that occur naturally. Celery salt is a common choice since it is very high in naturally occurring nitrates; lactic acid starter culture, which is often found in milk and dairy products, is sometimes also used. Most uncured bacon is also very high in salt. Fancier brands often use sea salt or higher-end salt crystals, but ordinary table salt will also work.

Taste and Cooking

Food connoisseurs sometimes claim that cured and uncured versions have subtle taste differences, but not everyone agrees. In nearly all cases, they are interchangeable; the cook up the same way, can be used the same way, and tend to crisp up identically. The main differences usually have to do with flavoring and saltiness which, depending on the brand or preparation method, can be very difficult to detect.

Shelf Life

In most cases, cured bacon will last a lot longer than uncured versions. The chemical additives most processors use are very effective at keeping the meat fresh, and strips in this category are often good for several months if kept sealed and under refrigeration. Uncured bacon is often only good for about a week, though. Natural preservation is effective, but isn’t usually as efficient, at least not where long-term storage is concerned.

Health Differences

People sometimes say that uncured bacon in healthier, but a lot of this depends on perspective. Health food proponents periodically claim that uncured versions are preferable because they shy away from chemical additives and can be considered “all natural.” In most cases simply being natural doesn’t make a food healthful, though. Most nutrition experts are quick to point out that bacon is very fatty and high in cholesterol and calories no matter how it is preserved. Cured versions tend to have a lot of so-called “fake” ingredients, but the uncured alternatives are often much higher in sodium and salts.

Flavors and Styles

Both cured and uncured bacon can be found in a variety of flavors and styles. Thick cut, smoked, and seasoned versions are some of the most popular, but a lot depends on the market and what customers want to buy. The most traditional and “pure” way to get these flavors into the meat is to smoke strips over aromatic wood, soak them in natural essences, or season them with fresh herbs and spices. Nothing about how the meat is cured dictates the process for flavoring, though. As a result, uncured bacon might actually use chemical or shortcut flavors. This would make it less natural and pure, but it could still be sold under the “uncured” label in most places provided it wasn’t preserved with any chemicals. People who are concerned about additives should be careful to closely read packaging material or talk with distributors about how exactly a given product was made.

Where to Buy

Most grocery stores and supermarkets sell both styles, but they are sometimes displayed in different places. Cured strips can often be found in vacuum-sealed packages along with other processed meat products, while uncured versions are more commonly stored behind a butcher’s counter and sold by weight. Small butchers or neighborhood delis may keep both behind the counter, and employees can often explain the differences upon request.

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Discussion Comments

By anon990805 — On May 11, 2015

Any meat that has been salt cured can be soaked prior to cooking to remove some of the salt. Meat that has been chemically cured, not so much.

By anon990400 — On Apr 19, 2015

Salt is in almost everything. I have to keep my sodium intake to 1200-1500 mg per day. I spend lots of time reading labels. I try to stay away from anything boxed, canned and I can not afford "Organic, free range, gluten free" products. No processed food.

By anon987121 — On Jan 30, 2015

They don't mention that bacon is then smoked, after being cured. Smoking is the main thing, the big distinction.

By anon983488 — On Dec 30, 2014

I am neither a "hipster" nor a victim of "fear-mongering". I eat predominantly organic to avoid putting additional chemicals into my body. I see lots of comments here from people that don't seem to have a clue -- no basis for opinion, and no facts upon which to operate.

Salt does not have nitrites. Period. All the chemicals in the body have unpredictable results over the long-haul, but disease and lack of wellness is unavoidable when you ingest enough chemicals. The incidence of cancer has risen right along with the incidence of dietary chemicals and food processing.

Consuming fewer chemicals, whether from preservation, processing, or pesticides, is a very good dietary target. Animal fat is not the demon the purveyors of processed oils and shortening would have us believe. Quite the contrary. It has been proven that the rise of cardiovascular disease in this country exactly follows and matches the rise of trans-fats such as margarine and shortening -- the "good" fats that nutritionists like to tout. They bought into the lies of the money-grubbing manufacturers. They are the victims of fear-mongering, along with everyone else who buys into the lies of the food industry. Science has not improved upon the perfection of nature.

If you stop to think about it, everyone ate organic food before the scientists started messing with our food supply. Once that started, the incidences of cardiovascular disease and cancer increased drastically on a per capita (percentage of population) basis.

Why anyone would prefer chemically perverted food is beyond me. The body, as resilient as it is, was not designed to manage all the chemicals in our "standard" food supply.

Do your homework and you will have a greater understanding that "organic" food is simply food the way it once was -- before the money-grubbing fear-mongers screwed it up.

If you can't understand that simple fact, the chemicals are probably already eroding your brain.

By anon974544 — On Oct 18, 2014

I'm afraid you lost my vote at "... the nitrogen in salt...". The stuff we commonly call salt is chemically NaCl - the elements sodium and chlorine, bonded in the solid state, separate ions in solution, but always the same two elements. Salt happens to be toxic to most bacteria, hence the preservative effect.

By anon970181 — On Sep 16, 2014

@anon965079 (Post 13): The pink salt "from mountains" which your co-worker bought is most likely the product marketed as "Himalayan Pink Salt" (usually from Pakistan). The pink tint comes from iron oxide impurities in the salt. Essentially, it's rust (and harmless). Like all other table salts, the basic composition of this product is sodium chloride.

The pink salt which may be leading to your confusion is a mixture of sodium chloride and sodium nitrate, often called "Prague powder." It's dyed bright pink so it won't be confused with table salt, and also so its color will blend better with the meats it's intended to preserve. There is no connection between this product made for the processed meat industry and the aforementioned Himalayan salt.

By anon965079 — On Aug 09, 2014

I'm glad this article was unbiased. I am so sick of the "Hipsters" at my work eating only "organic" foods, blowing loads of money on merchants preying on the ignorance of the common populace. I even laughed out loud when one of my co-workers bought "pink salt," claiming it had no nitrates in it.

I said, wow didn't you know pink salt is the "chemical" that Oscar Meyer uses to make their bacon? Idiots think pink salt is something other than sodium nitrate, which is nothing but the salt from mountains which is a shade pink due to the naturally forming nitrates. People need to go to school and stop reading marketing materials from people stealing their money.

By anon930149 — On Feb 03, 2014

"Most nutrition experts are quick to point out that bacon is very fatty and high in cholesterol and calories." Not to be rude, but most nutrition experts are idiots. Salt and fat (even saturated) both have very healthful characteristics.

By Nepal2016 — On Aug 11, 2011

I always wonder how people figure things out the first time they do them. The whole point of cured meat in the first place was to preserve it back before there was no refrigeration. Heavy salting and other chemical treatment of meat somehow kept the parasites from growing in it.

I remember reading the Grapes of Wrath and they drove across the country with a bunch of salted pork strapped to the outside of their car in a little barrel. You'd think it would be horribly funky in a day or two, but apparently not because of the processing.

Nowadays, with refrigeration, we can experiment with things like uncured bacon, which is great. You can have it however you like it. Back in the day, you would only have been able to eat it that way if you were going to have it right away.

By KLR650 — On Aug 11, 2011

@Bertie68 - Beef bacon, you say? I'm intrigued. I always like to try new things, but for me the best bacon comes from pork. It's like meat candy.

It is interesting, though, that you can use pretty much the same curing process for beef that you can for pork. I wonder if they taste pretty much the same?

I think I'm going top have to do some research on this. It won't be a hardship, I assure you. If I could get a PhD in bacon, I would.

By bigjim — On Aug 10, 2011

@manykitties2 - I'm not sure bacon qualifies as a health food whether cured or uncured, but it's delicious just the same.

I know people are going for the less processed options these days, and I get that, but I would say as far as fatty meats go the best plan is moderation.

Otherwise it kind of strikes me as getting the low-fat hamburger at McDonald's. What's the point? Still a ton of calories and it doesn't taste as good. Just exercise a bit more and only have it once in a while.

By Bertie68 — On Aug 10, 2011

When most of us talk about cured bacon vs uncured bacon, we are talking about the products that are made from pigs.

Now you can find beef bacon in the supermarket - both the cured and uncured variety. The cured beef bacon sits for several days in a brine of water and sugar. And then it is smoked.

Uncured beef bacon has more moisture and less fat then pork bacon. On the other hand, cured beef bacon tends to be less moist, although it has less fat.

If you eat bacon, you have any number of choices.

By B707 — On Aug 09, 2011

@accordion - I've pretty much stopped eating bacon (cured or uncured). I eat it just occasionally if it's part of a recipe. I don't have bacon and eggs for breakfast anymore.

I'm trying to stay away from most processed foods and all the chemicals.I don't see how the added nitrates or the excess salt could be good for your health.

Cured or uncured bacon is tasty, but we can do without it. There's a lot of equally tasty meats that are healthier.

By accordion — On Aug 08, 2011

@drtroubles- I don't eat bacon, but one of the reasons I stopped is that there really are a lot of weird and creepy chemicals in those cured meats and other products.

While no, you might not need to go entirely organic, the issue you bring up of price is not always legitimate.

Part of trying to eat healthier and more naturally, whether you're talking about the difference of cured vs. uncured bacon or any other difference between organic and not organic is thinking about quality over quantity. instead of eating bacon several times a week, buy something really good and have it once a week. Or find a good source of it- there might be local pig farmers who can offer it to you more cheaply than the butcher can.

The same rule applies to organic fruits and vegetables or anything else. When you think about balance rather than just increased expense, it's easier to see how you can make these changes.

By drtroubles — On Aug 08, 2011

@manykitties2 - I see no problem with eating cured bacon from the supermarket. It tastes delicious and is much cheaper than what you will find at the butcher.

For many people eating organic really is just an expensive trend that doesn't really work for the average person. Have you actually looked at the price difference between organic foods and their regular counterparts? The difference can be staggering.

I really think until they find conclusive evidence that nitrates in cured bacon and other things are actually doing us harm than I am going to stick to my same much loved foods. I refuse to go organic and pad the wallets of those who are making cash off of fear mongering.

By manykitties2 — On Aug 07, 2011

Eating uncured bacon seems like a much healthier option to me as manufactured nitrates have been shown to cause cancer. While a lot of studies haven't been done, what has been showing up so far isn't really that promising.

Speaking with your local butcher can be a great way to make sure you are getting quality uncured bacon. Often if you learn the butcher shop's schedule you can figure out which days to go to get the freshest meat possible.

It can be a lot of work getting fresh uncured bacon, but I think the health benefits are worth it. So many processed meats are just laced with chemicals, why would you want to eat that?

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