Whenever I talk about this recipe, people say to me, "But does it taste just like pork bacon"? My answer... "No, silly, it's a yam". And that's just fine.
In cooking, there is sometimes a desire to make things taste like other things. It's a fun brain teaser. We see it a lot in vegan cooking, because replacing meat seems to be a constant measure of culinary achievement. But sometimes things tasting just the way they are is absolutely perfect. This recipe for vegan bacon from sweet potato is super craveable. It's salty and smokey and a little bit spicy. Basically, everything you want from bacon, without needing to try to be just like bacon. Try it as a topping on these Cheesy Grits with Ancient Grains with smokey collard greens.
Is Real Smoke better than Liquid Smoke
We can't talk about bacon without talking about smoke. And we can't make this Vegan Bacon from Sweet Potato recipe unless we tackle this controversial subject.
This may be one of the most triggering culinary arguments in the modern age. The act of smoking food as a way of preserving (in the same way that curing and drying and pickling are) goes way back. Over the years, it developed into an art form where the type of wood used, as well as the skill in controlling the fire and smoke, defined a cook and their craft. Years of doing anything the same way for a long time is what creates a "specialness" that comes from not just ingredient, but mastery of that ingredient. I, personally, am a true believer in that Dr. Suzuki saying of "Ability equals knowledge plus 10,000 times". (Read here a fascinating article on the Value of Repetition). No matter how someone crafts and cultivates different flavors, it is the practice of doing something over and over again that makes for mastery. Knowledge alone won't do that. This is the same way I feel about liquid smoke.
What's wrong with Liquid Smoke?
The short answer? Nothing. Liquid smoke, in its pure essence, is actually made from smoke. It is captured and condensed (usually with water), and the bad ingredients come only from additives put in afterwards. Finding a brand that has no artificial colorings or additives is the right way to go. If you are going to use a liquid smoke, there is only one brand I truly stand by, and that's this one. But here's the real reason I suggest smoking as opposed to using liquid smoke:
- It is hard to control the amount of smoke you get from liquid smoke. The average person uses liquid smoke like a teenage boy using cologne for the first time, and your food will taste like it: bitter and overpowering.
- There is an art form to cooking slowly. The nuances of how wood burns, like when it is at it's hottest and then when it smolders and all the ways those flavors come out, imparts layers of flavor. There are a million notes of flavor in real wood smoking that are lost in liquid smoke.
- Also, when cooking slowly, there is a way your senses work in tandem with the food. When you take the time to smoke something, you are training your senses to learn the way something sounds, smells, sizzles, and browns. You are learning mastery of a skill. Liquid smoke can easily become just another ingredient and your ability to feel your food is lost in those few dashes.
Tricks to making Vegan Bacon from Sweet Potato
- Soak your wood chips ahead of time. If you have the forethought, place a handfull of wood chips in water overnight for the best results. If you forget, that's ok- but let them soak for at least 2 hours.
- You don't need a big, expensive smoker. I use this small stovetop smoker for most of my home recipes, smoking components of things that will impart the most flavor. It's a small investment to get you started. If you like it, and you want to get serious, you can always go bigger.
- Invest in a mandolin slicer if you don't already have one. This is one of my go-to kitchen tools. It slices thinly and evenly, making quick work if you are not as skilled with a knife. (Watch your fingers and follow the safety guides).
- Give yourself plenty of time for marinating. Making this recipe is simple, the marinade itself only taking a few minutes. The end result of the bacon lies in how long it marinates and how long it smokes.
How to make Vegan Bacon from Sweet Potato
To Make the Marinade
- Start by soaking your wood chips in water so that they're submerged. For best results, soak the wood chips overnight, or at least for 2 hours.
- Next, prepare the marinade. Place all ingredients for the marinade in a blender and puree for 30 seconds until smooth and emulsified. Place in a loaf pan or other pan that is longer than the yam.
- Wash and slice the sweet potato into ⅛" slices with the skin on. I use a mandolin slicer for this to get thin, even slices.
- After slicing the sweet potato, cut the pieces in half lengthwise. Place in the marinade and stir gently so that each of the pieces is well coated in the marinade.
- Leave in the marinade for 2 hours.
- When ready to cook, spray the bottom of the smoker and the grill with oil spray to make for easy clean up.
- Place a piece of foil to line the bottom of the smoker.
- Drain the wood chips and place them on top of the foil in the center of the smoker. Place the rack on top.
- Pull the sweet potato slices out of the marinade and lay them in an even layer over the smoker rack (you will probably have to do this in 2 batches, but the wood chips will last for both batches).
- Slide the lid closed on the smoker and place centered on the burner of your stove. Turn the fan/vent on on your stove.
- Turn the heat on to medium heat and set a timer for 3 minutes. After about 3 minutes you will see a little bit of smoke coming from the smoker, but there should not be a lot (it should be staying inside to smoke your food).
- Turn the heat down to low and set the timer for 10 minutes. Let the sweet potatoes smoke for 10 minutes and then turn off the heat, but keep the yams in the smoker for another 5 minutes.
- Gently open the lid and remove the smoked sweet potatoes. Replace with the second batch and repeat the process.
- *note: the smoked sweet potatoes can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator for 3 days before cooking
- When ready to cook, heat a skillet over medium heat.
- Spray the skillet generously with spray oil and lay the pieces of smoked sweet potato in a single layer (do this in batches if you need to, depending on the size of your pan).
- Cook for approximately 1 minute until the sweet potatoes start to brown and crisp. Flip and repeat.
- When done, remove the sweet potatoes from the pan and drain on paper towels.