Maybe it’s the cabin fever kicking in, but every February, Iowans get a little silly celebrating their favorite smoky, crispy meat snack at the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival in Des Moines.
Of course, a festival of all-things-bacon is a perfect fit for Iowa, the nation’s top pork-producing state. Yet I also find it intriguing that a new bacon alternative has popped in Iowa grocery stores, celebrating Iowa's top-quality beef.
It’s called Schmacon, or beef bacon, which made its Iowa debut in several Hy-Vee and Fareway stores across the state in September 2015.
About one-half of the Hy-Vee stores in Iowa offer Schmacon in their bacon cases, says Brooke German, director of marketing for the Iowa Beef Industry Council. And Hy-Vee meat managers are reporting they’ve already ordered multiple cases to meet customer demand, German explains.
“Don’t get me wrong. I know people still love their bacon. They do. (Schmacon is) just a great option to switch things up,” German says.
“And the responses so far have been very positive. People enjoy it. People like it. It’s unique. It’s flavorful. It’s delicious. It’s leaner. And overall, they just seem very satisfied with it.”
The history of Schmacon is as unique as the product itself. The company’s founder, Howard Bender, is a chef who launched Schmaltz Deli in the Chicago area. As a Jewish-style deli, Schmaltz Deli doesn’t serve pork or shellfish on the menu.
Bender met a friend out for lunch, where turkey bacon was the only alternative on the menu. That’s when he got the idea to develop a bacon product from beef instead of pork or turkey.
Bender turned to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Beef Culinary Center in Denver for help in developing his “Schmacon” beef bacon.
The Beef Culinary Center is funded by U.S. cattle farmers through their beef checkoff program, which is best known for its “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” promotions.
After finding the perfect crispy, smoky and salty combination, Schmacon was introduced to the restaurant and foodservice industry in 2012.
Schmacon made its retail debut in 2015, with Iowa and Texas the first beef-loving states to carry the bacon alternative in local grocery stores. Schmacon has since rolled out in larger markets, including the Indianapolis area.
Iowans actually got their first taste of Schmacon at the Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters at the 2014 Iowa State Fair.
“I, unfortunately, did not try it there,” says German, who started working at the Iowa Beef Industry Council in 2015. “But my co-workers here, they did. And they said this new Schmacon that is in retail stores tastes even better than what was offered at the Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters.”
Now to be honest, I didn’t find time to try Schmacon before my deadline for this column. But German tells me there is a difference in taste between Schmacon and pork bacon.
“Schmacon is very flavorful. It’s almost sweet. It just has this unique seasoning and unique flavor, where you can tell it’s smoked. But it’s not too sweet. It’s just flavorful,” German says.
Like pork bacon, Schmacon comes from the belly area, but it’s a whole muscle beef product, she explains.
Because Schmacon has more protein and less fat, it’s leaner than pork bacon, with fewer calories and less sodium.
“You also get more yield from Schmacon too,” German says. “So with pork bacon, you get a 30 percent yield, according to our research. With Schmacon, you get about a 60 percent yield, so that means there is less shrinkage, and you actually get more meat in your Schmacon strips.”
Plus, Schmacon offers the same texture as pork bacon. It shrivels and curls up when it’s cooked in a skillet, German says.
But unlike most pork bacon, Schmacon is a fully cooked, uncured product. The cooking instructions are simple: Just crisp and serve.
“My favorite way to cook it is on an electric skillet on medium heat, and in about seven minutes, it’s done. Of course, if you like it crispy, you cook it longer,” German says.
You could even heat up Schmacon in the microwave for a go-to breakfast, she adds.
“Personally, I am a fan of frozen breakfast sandwiches,” German explains. “I cook eggs then add cheese and put a couple strips of Schmacon on an English muffin, then put it in the freezer and heat it up in the morning in the microwave. You get great protein from the eggs, and (Schmacon) is adding additional protein, which is something I usually lack in the morning.”
German also says the Iowa Beef Industry Council is hoping to find a Schmacon all-beef burger in its annual “Iowa’s Best Burger” contest, which will kick off in February.
The council grilled beef burgers for one of its board meetings and topped the burgers with Schmacon. “We had very positive results from our (cattle farmer) board members,” she says. “It was very, very tasty.”
If you can’t find Schmacon at your local Fareway or Hy-Vee store, then the Schmacon website has a request form that you can fill out and give to the meat manger, or you can speak to the meat manager and say you want to see Schmacon in the store.