Kunzler Pepper Bacon: Celebrate Summer

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Work your way along the crowded case at Hemp’s Meats in Jefferson, Maryland, on a Saturday morning. A carnal smorgasbord faces you through the glass: pork chops, steaks, house-made sausages, Virginia ham, and bacon.

What to choose?

Easy: go straight for the bacon!

Hemp’s carries a plain, thick-cut bacon that ripples with porky meatiness, smoke, and fatty flavor. Super Chef like the bacon coated with a generous layer of black pepper. The fat-to-meat ratio lies right in the sweet spot of 40:60. It fries up straight without too much curl. It tastes lip-smacking peppery, smokey, and bacon-fatty. It’s perfect with fried eggs, tossed with pasta, or standing out in a BLT.

Gary Hemp, brother Bill, and extended relations own a store that’s been in the family since 1849. It dates back to the 1700s: Gary thinks it’s the oldest butcher in America. He’s been working behind the counter since he was 11 years old. Each butcher there is expert in the store’s products, from grain-fed beef to thick pork chops. You can buy half or quarter of beef from their own cattle. Many of Hemp’s pork products come these days from Kunzler, another family-run business that dates back to 1901 up the road in Lancaster, PA.

Kunzler has been delivering twice weekly since the 1970s. The pepper bacon is a hot item: Hemp’s sells 400 to 500 pounds of Kunzler bacon a week.

Kunzler was founded by a German butcher in Lancaster, PA, in 1901. Today, it remains in the family, run by Christian Kunzler III, the founder’s great grandson. Christian Kunzler II came up with the recipe for pepper bacon in 1994, following the success of Kunzler pepper ham.

Kunzler’s top bacon maker is Dave Grazier, VP and General Manager, 150 miles west in Tyrone, Pennsylvania. There, he oversees the processing of some 450,000 pounds of bacon a week. The bacon comes from pork bellies that arrive in 2,000-pound bins from the Midwest. Kunzler makes 50 different cuts and varieties of bacon.

Super Chef: What makes Kunzler bacon so good?

Dave GrazierOne thing Kunzler does that many other companies don’t is smoke our bacon naturally from wood. We burn wood chips in a smoke house. We use blends of hard wood, apple, cherry, and hickory to change flavors. Most companies have switched to liquid smoke, applied in brine or sprayed on in an oven, like a mist on the outside of bacon. That’s an easy way to do things. But the Kunzlers are very picky—and you can taste that in our bacon.

Kunzler makes private label bacon for companies across the country. They sell bacon under the Kunzler name from Maine to Florida.

Super Chef: How do they add pepper to the bacon?

Dave GrazierSlabs of pork bellies arrive trimmed to Kunzler specification: center-cut and de-rined. An injection machine with more than 200 needles that inject a brine of sugar, salt, and flavors throughout the bellies. After brining, each slab rolls in pepper. Kunzler uses a mix of five peppers from the Chesapeake Spice Company. When they come out, the bellies go on a stainless steel comb and hung on carts. Full carts go into the smoke house.

The smoke house holds 10 carts each with about 1,500 pounds of pork belly—that’s about 240,000 strips of thick cut bacon. The bacon smokes for eight hours in there. Kunzler controls humidity, temperature, and smoke. They give the bacon five separate smokes, with rests in between.

Once smoking finishes, carts go into a tempering cell, where the temperature drops gently from 125˚ to 21˚. The cold firms up the bacon slabs for 48 hours. Next, an Anco Bacon Press flattens each slab into a uniform shape to make shipping and cutting easier. Finally, seven slicing machines cut the bacon into various thicknesses , packing the bacon for both retail and wholesale cutomers.

Dave Grazier claims he can always recognize the flavor of Kunzler bacon. “It is not too sweet.” With a coating of pepper and five special smokes, sweet is not part of the equation.

Let the French have their Steak au Poivre, the Italians their Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe, the Singaporeans their Black Pepper Crab. We Americans celebrate with Pepper Bacon.

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