August 24, 2017
I wake many a morning with an ache for bacon. Thick, hulking slabs of fat-veined pork, crisped to oblivion but miraculously tender within. Dripping with golden grease that soaks through three sheets of paper towel. Smoky like a well-fed campfire. Only one thing will do: Peter Luger’s extra-thick cut bacon. And for the past few years, I can get it at home.
Peter Luger—the legendary Brooklyn steakhouse that despite its location in the manicured heart of Williamsburg hipsterdom has remained a callback to a grittier, less twee New York—is famous for its bacon. Not just any bacon, but bacon thick enough to eat with a knife and fork. Here, it’s served as a standalone appetizer rather than a mere add-on to the burger available during lunch. (Though you can order it that way that, too.) But for all its fame, the ascendance of Peter Luger’s bacon is a relatively recent development in the business’s 130-year history. For decades, it was reserved exclusively for the waitstaff, an easy thing to throw on white bread between on their lunch break. According to Jody Storch, granddaughter of former owner Sol Forman and the restaurant’s current meat buyer, a huge slab of cured pork belly was kept in the kitchen at all times; staff would slice off a hunk and toss it under the broiler. The width of the slices and their rich flavor, bolstered with residual fat left by whatever steak was sizzled last, made them difficult to pass up. Exactly how thick remains something of a mystery, though. “We keep kitchen details like that close to the chest,” Storch said.
The dish first caught customers’ attention in the 1980s, she explained. It became an off-menu sensation: “I think it really started with the Wall Street guys. They would notice the [waiters] munching at it at the waiter’s stand and say, ‘I want that.’”
After years of this routine, bacon went on the official menu in 1997. To hammer out the perfect recipe, management worked with a handful of vendors to pinpoint the perfect cure and overall taste profile. In keeping with the bacon’s air of mystery, Storch wouldn’t go into detail about the recipe or even her meat sources, but said it was important that the bacon have a “nice smoky flavor.”
A side of bacon is divine in Peter Luger’s moody wood-paneled dining room, but I prefer to eat the smoky strips in the privacy of my own home, something that only became possible in the last two to three years. That’s when Costco, which sells the steakhouse’s signature steak sauce, asked if there were any more products it could put in stores.
“It’s taken us years and years to get it right,” Storch said of the packaged product. It’s made with the same cured meat as the bacon served in the restaurant, but the thickness had to be dialed slightly down for at-home consumers. “In the restaurant, when you get the bacon, it’s going on a very hot broiler, probably 800 degrees,” which helps cut the overall amount of grease left over. That isn’t a feasibility in most home kitchens. “You don’t want a grease fire… We didn’t want to market it with a fire extinguisher.”
A scrappy team of about a dozen Peter Luger’s office employees took home bacon slices of varying thicknesses over a course of months, frying their way through several pork bellies before deciding on an optimal size. They also took stock of other thick-cut bacons on the market. The winner—with a roughly ⅜ inch thickness—“wasn’t too big, it wasn’t too thin, and it was still thicker than what you can find elsewhere.” For comparison’s sake, when Cook’s Illustrated did a taste test of supermarket bacon, the thickest strips clocked in at a measly ⅕ inch.
Today, Peter Luger’s bacon is available at groceries around New York City and select locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It’s also sold online and shipped nationwide.
Storch said sales have surpassed expectations. I can personally vouch for why: Peter Luger’s “extra-thick cut” is, at least in this bacon-lover’s experience, thicker than any other thick-cut bacon in the supermarket. It is the required bacon of late-summer BLTs, of piled-high Cobb salads, of buttery quiche Lorraine. But it is best alone, without accompaniment save for a drizzle of maple syrup.
I can’t get enough of it, and neither can Storch. ”Who can get bacon fatigue?” she said, genuinely taken aback by the suggestion. Who indeed.