MAKE WAY FOR BACON
Texas chef Jess Pryles shares the key to perfectly pan-cooked bacon.
You could say that since Jess Pryles first arrived in Texas more than a decade ago, she’s adopted the Southern mentality of these three simple words: the whole hog.
After her first taste of bonified barbecue, the self-taught Australian chef would return to the Lone Star State many times—to visit butchers’ shops, to tour slaughterhouses, to take meat science courses at Texas A&M University—absorbing everything she could about red meat.
“I went down this huge path to discovering all about red meat and the red meat industry,” says Pryles. “About grilling, smoking, barbecuing, and butchering. Even today, I’m always learning.”
Eventually, becoming an expert herself, she’d take this whole-animal ethos out of the kitchen and into the field, with wild game recipes becoming a key component of her cooking, as featured in Hardcore Carnivore, her debut cookbook.
“Learning to hunt was an important rite of passage,” says Pryles, who moved to Austin in 2015. “I needed to see if I could put my money where my mouth was, especially if I was going to be publicly encouraging people to eat meat.”
From whitetail deer to upland birds, the more hunts she went on, the more she noticed how most sportsmen defaulted to recipes they’d been using for decades—venison backstrap, grilled quail, dove poppers with jalapeno and cream cheese—all cooking their catch in the same way.
“I love the challenge of how we can elevate this incredible meat,” says Pryles. “It’s not just free food; it’s a gourmet delicacy. From how it’s killed to how it’s prepared to how it ends up on your plate, you can have reverence for the animal.”
Today, she strives to create more unlikely combinations, pushing the boundaries with bold flavors, such as dove with fresh peaches, the small but mighty chili pequin pepper, and a sprinkle of her own fragrant Hardcore Carnivore Camo spice blend, featuring notes of coriander and allspice, before being wrapped in a thick slice of bacon.
Bacon, of course, is a key ingredient in the American South, and in many a game dish, new and old, especially this time of year, when small birds like dove are in season.
On one hand, it adds flavor. “Fat and salt,” says Pryles. “When you add bacon to anything, you’re effectively using it as a seasoning.”
On the other hand, it also serves a more functional purpose. “If you put the game directly in the pan, you risk overcooking it,” she says of the dark lean meat, often best served medium rare. “The presence of bacon around the outside will help a delicate dove breast get cooked to the optimum doneness, basically acting as a shield and serving as the first point of contact for the direct heat.”
But even in a country that considers bacon such a culinary pillar, it still seems that we Americans don’t really know how to cook it, more often than not serving it soft and soggy or burnt to a blackened char.
The key, according to this Aussie, really comes down to timing.
“That’s the biggest mistake people make when cooking bacon,” says Pryles. “Thinking it’s cooked before it’s ready, just because the color is starting to change, or they’re afraid of all the fat that’s coming out, so they panic and take it off the heat too soon. Or getting impatient, cranking the heat too high and cooking it too quickly. That’s when you end up with chewiness, because you’re getting those crisp edges, but the fat hasn’t properly rendered yet.”
Instead, she recommends starting with a low to medium flame, letting the pan warm up before adding the bacon, then maintaining that gentle heat until the meat turns golden pink. “You’re nearly confiting,” says Pryles. “You want to actually cook the bacon in the bubbling fat.”
Which is where cast iron comes in, for its heft and even heat. “You get that sear from the contact between the meat and the pan, but because of the cast iron’s heaviness, there’s also protection from the flame,” she says. “And with its ability to retain heat, a cast iron just creates this glorious environment to get the perfect bacon.”
Of course, there are some other unintended benefits that everyone, especially nose-to-tail enthusiasts, can appreciate, too.
“When the fat does render out, you’re able to save it and use it to make the most incredible roast potatoes,” says Pryles. “On top of that, it helps season your pan.”
I know what it’s like to be intimidated by cooking meat.
I used to be one of those people who stood in the meat department at the grocery store overwhelmed by the selection. I was too nervous to buy expensive meat because in case I messed it up and I didn’t understand the differences between the cuts. I loved the taste of meat, and wanted to cook it more often, I just didn’t know how…
So I set about changing all of that. I’ve spent years educating myself in the field of meat, and particularly beef. Cooking methods, which are the best tasting cheap cuts, which cuts are worth spending a little extra money on, what’s the difference between grass and grain fed, how does aging affect meat. I’ve visited ranches, slaughterhouses, butcher shops and gone through the experience of harvesting it myself. I’ve even attended courses at meat science University.
Now, I’m proud to call myself a Hardcore Carnivore.
During my journey, I developed a special affinity for low’n’slow Texas BBQ, and helped spread the gospel Down Under by co-founding the Australasian Barbecue Alliance. Since undergoing my “meatducation”, I’ve done a bunch of other cool stuff, too; hosting meat-themed TV shows, judging at the biggest BBQ competition in the world, being a guest speaker at SXSW , Texas A&M University and the American Meat Science Association conference. I’m a proud brand ambassador for Gerber knives and spokesperson for Lone Star Beer and Kingsford Charcoal, and have taught live fire cooking classes and demos across four different continents.
Born and raised in Australia, I found my spiritual home in Austin, Texas, where I now reside.