Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Bacon List--Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked

When I spotted a pack of Niman Ranch Dry Cured, Applewood Smoked Bacon on the shelf at my local Trader Joe's, I knew that I'd have to buy it and do a review for my ongoing sweeping epic series, The Bacon List. Niman is an interesting company that's gone through some recent shakeups, so it makes sense to dig a bit deeper into the back story before reviewing the bacon.

Niman Ranch was the first "boutique" farm name to garner national recognition by appearing on high-end restaurant menus as a descriptor for the center-of-the-plate item. When chefs such as Zuni Cafe's Judi Rogers and the iconic Alice Waters started name-checking Niman on their menus back in the late '80's, a trend was born. A foodstuff's provenance suddenly became important. Chefs and savvy diners around the country took notice.

Back then, Niman-Schell Ranch (as they were known at the time) was doing something quite extraordinary; raising beef and pork naturally, without hormones or antibiotics, and with all natural vegetarian feed. Further, these animals weren't being sent to finishing lots, as the overwhelming majority of commercially-raised animals are. They were finished and slaughtered within Niman's system, which valued humane treatment, sustainability, and sought to ensure that the products were good for those who ate them and for the planet as a whole.

This sort of thing was appealing to some chefs, who, like Waters, took a dim view of the commercial meat industry for a number of very valid environmental and political reasons, but most chefs using Niman's products were interested almost exclusively in the end result product itself; bottom line, the meat just tasted better.

As more and more foodservice operators and chefs jumped on to the farm-to-table bandwagon, Niman's growth was exponential, and by the late '90's, as McDonald's corporation's Chipotle Grill contracted to purchase all their pork from Niman, the operation grew so big so quickly that the folks at Niman Ranch had little choice but to purchase much of its pork from a network of like-minded farmers rather than raising it all on their own.

They were, however, still committed to finishing and slaughtering their animals in their own facilities, and so were forced to truck thousands of hogs across the country, from the farms in the midwest where they were raised, to the Niman finishing/slaughter facilities in Northern California. They refused to outsource beef, however, and were simply unable to keep pace with demand for their naturally-raised, pastured, grass-fed product. The beef cattle--fed on the less calorie-dense grass, and without the growth hormones that sped up the process--took twice as long to reach market weight and cost about twice as much to get to market. Chefs raved about the superior marbling and flavor and demand was very high, so prices could be set accordingly.

(Yes, this post is about bacon. Be patient. This is important stuff.)

Despite the fact that the methods employed by this company influenced a major movement in the world of gourmet food, and built an incredibly strong brand identity, the company was never profitable. Bill Niman, the company's founder and ideological leader, explained that he was "consciously deferring profitability to expand the brand." In other words, he was less interested in building a profitable company than he was in changing the way that people look at meat, and food in general. The money was less important to him than the message.

But, as commendable an ideology as that might be, it's not a formula for running a successful business. Despite the fact that Bill Niman had built his modest cattle ranching hobby into a business with $65 million in annual sales, the company was losing an average of $3 million per year and began veering dangerously close to bankruptcy.

Enter Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings, LLC, a division of massive equity company Hilco. The company owned Sioux-Preme Packing, which processed all of Niman's pork, and in 2006, purchased a 56% stake and took over four of the seven spots on Niman Ranch's board of directors. The company immediately began to make changes in an effort to "streamline the operation" and become profitable.

But "profitable" in food production almost always means cutting back in ways that impact the quality of what's on the plate. Niman fought the new owners' plans for shutting down their finishing lot and slaughterhouse and outsourcing these tasks to larger, more efficient companies (that might not continue the humane and environmentally-friendly practices so integral to Niman's vision). The Niman feedlot was sold in 2008.

The new owners began using "antimicrobials", which technically aren't antibiotics, but yield the same end result while still allowing the company to proudly proclaim their products to be free of antibiotics. Niman only gave the animals medicine when they were sick, but the new owners were using it as a matter of course, the same way commercially-raised animals are treated.

The new owners also locked horns with Niman over the distance that animals were being transported, the conditions of their transport, and the changes in the cattle operations. In 2007, Bill Niman left the company and in January of this year, the changeover became complete. Natural Food Holdings and Niman Ranch merged, giving Natural complete ownership of the company, all its holdings, and exclusive rights to the brand name. Bill Niman is no longer legally permitted to use his own last name in any commercial endeavor.

Niman has moved on. He's into heritage turkeys now, and is raising them commercially on the 1,000 acre Northern California ranch that he managed to keep separate from the company that he now has no share in. He made news recently by announcing that he is boycotting his namesake company, due to questionable practices that he claims compromise their natural, environmentally-friendly, humane ideals, and that he can no longer consume their products in good conscience.

The whole thing's really a sad story. It leads one to wonder whether quality-driven, humane, ethical food production can ever possibly be economically viable.

Anyway, that's the back story. Let's get to the bacon. Since I've already gone on so long about the company's history, let's go straight to the rundown:

Designation--Fancy or Grocery Store? Fancy. But take everything you read above, and the sheer size of this supposedly artisanal company into account and judge for yourself. The package says 'dry cured', and, to be honest, it tastes like it's made the old fashioned way.

Price--How much did I pay per pound for the bacon? $8.65/lb. I purchased a 12 oz. package at Trader Joe's for $6.49.

Uncooked appearance--Color, texture, wet- or dry-ness, mushy or firm, etc... Great looking. Nice bright red on the lean meat, perfect fat-to-lean ratio with nice streaking, all slices are center-cut and thick. Texture is very firm and dry, indicative of a true dry cure.

How it cooks--Tendency to curl, how much it shrinks, tendency to spatter... Very little shrinkage. Typical of artisanally-produced bacon that is dry-cured and smoked over a longer period of time, it hardly shrank at all. This is due to the fact that the meat isn't injected with any saline, sugar, or phosphate solutions like the factory-produced stuff, and the long hot smoking pulls all the moisture out during the production process. The end result is more meat on the plate after it's cooked.

Cooked appearance--Color, shape, texture. Wonderful, deep red-brown color, almost no curling, a bit of darkness on the outer edge indicating a true hardwood smoke. Texture is perfect--nice crispness when cooked well, but strips cooked a bit short of totally crisp are nicely yielding with awesome melting fat.

How does it taste--Sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, texture (melting, chewy, flabby, spongy), "porkiness". Among the best I've tasted. Great real smoke flavor, which you can smell strongly while it's cooking. Great balance of flavors. This is a perfectly balanced bacon, with equal parts smoke, salt, sweetness from sugar, and pork flavor. The fat is wonderful, giving that great melting quality you get from bacon of this caliber, and the texture is very good; crispy yet with a nice chew. This is a really well thought-out, well put-together product. You can really tell that this product has evolved over time. Many, many tweaks have been done to the curing/smoking process that have brought this product to where it is today. Really excellent.

Overall rating--All bacons reviewed will be given an overall rating from 1-10, with 1 being practically inedible (I say "practically" since, you know, it's bacon--how bad can it be?), 5 being a perfectly serviceable bacon for use in cooking or on a sandwich, and 10 being....well, let's be honest; there won't be a 10. 8.5. This bacon lacks the character of a Broadbent, but it's really not far off. I have to wonder whether knowing what I do about the company has influenced my opinion, and if it might have scored higher if it came from some small farm in Virginia wrapped in brown paper and burlap with the name hand-stenciled on. What can I say? I do my best to remain objective and to taste purely on the basis of taste, but I am only human.

Bottom line, this is a very, very good bacon. Right up there in the upper echelon of real small-batch, old school producers. It's worth purchasing, especially since it's widely available at Trader Joe's, but the price makes it fairly cost prohibitive, so it's more of a special occaision/splurge bacon. Certainly worth the money every now and then, though.


Anonymous said...

Now I want bacon. Mmmm. And McDonald's doesn't own Chipotle anymore.

Anonymous said...

Good review of a good product Eddie - one of these days you'll have to come out to LA for the Grateful Palate warehouse sale - they open up their bacon fridge and there are literally 50 different artisan bacons to choose from.

Dee and I like Niman, but if your TJoe's carries it, their uncured thick cut house brand, I think, is even a little better.


coyoteranchergal said...

Happy 40th birthday. Me too.... So glad that you liked the bacon - if I would have known about you would have invited you to the Niman Ranch Chef's Tasting at Gibson's on Monday May 4. We had some of the local Illinois and Iowa farmers in to meet with like-minded chef's.
I am a Rancher AND work for Niman Ranch... We're proud of what Bill Niman has built and, with the help of a profitable business model, have taken his principles to an even higher level. If you want to know more just contact us.... What you described as Niman, the company now, is only one-sided. We're all about farmer sustainability, uncompromising principles regarding animal handling, welfare and antibiotic and hormone use. You should learn more...
Great job - love the blog...

Eddie Lakin said...

Hi coyote rancher,

Thanks for the kind words. I'd love to find out more about your operation and relationship with Niman and find out the other side of the story. Maybe I could even pay a visit to your ranch...

Please contact me at cookingandeatinginchicago at gmail dot com or post an email address where I can get in touch with you.


Anonymous said...

McDonalds never owned Chipotle, there's a segment on CNBC interviewing the owner/founder of Chipotle Steve Ells talks about how McDonald's invested into the company earlier on and it was a hard decision for him to make but he knew without a big player like them he wouldn't have been able to open more stores. Later within a year or two he bought the shares back. Click here to see it on youtube.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.