Bacon is the king of food. You can savor it slice by slice, enjoy it in sandwiches, indulge in bacon-laced chocolate, or smear on bacon-flavored lip balm. There's no mistaking the odor of bacon frying. You can smell it cooking anywhere in a building and when it gone, its lingering scent remains. Why does bacon smell so good? Science has the answer to the question. Chemistry explains its potent scent, while biology rationalizes a bacon craving.
Chemistry of How Bacon Smells
When bacon hits a hot frying pan, several processes occur. The amino acids in the meaty part of bacon react with carbohydrates used to flavor it, browning and flavoring bacon via the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is the same process that makes toast toasty and seared meat mouth-wateringly delicious. This reaction contributes the most to the characteristic bacon aroma. Volatile organic compounds from the Maillard reaction are released, so smell of sizzling bacon drifts through the air. Sugars added to bacon carmelize. The fat melts and volatile hydrocarbons vaporize, although nitrites found in bacon limit hydrocarbon release, compared with pork loin or other meats.
The aroma of frying bacon has its own unique chemical signature. Approximately 35% of the volatile organic compounds in the vapor released by bacon consist of hydrocarbons. Another 31% are aldehydes, with 18% alcohols, 10% ketones, and the balance made up of nitrogen-containing aromatics, oxygen-containing aromatics, and other organic compounds. Scientists believe the meaty smell of bacon is due to pyrazines, pyridines and furans.
Why People Like Bacon
If someone asks why you like bacon, the answer, "because it's awesome!" ought to be sufficient. Yet, there is a physiological reason why we love bacon. It's high in energy-rich fat and loaded with salt -- two substances our ancestors would have considered luxurious treats. We need fat and salt in order to live, so foods the contain them taste good to us. However, we don't need the parasites that could accompany raw meat. At some point, the human body made the connection between cooked (safe) meat and its smell. The odor of cooking meat is, to us, like blood in the water for a shark. Good food is near!
Study of the Aroma of Bacon and Fried Pork Loin. M. Timon, A. Carrapiso, A Jurado and J Lagemaat. 2004. J. Sci. Food & Agriculture.