During the summer of 2015, Oregon State University researchers discovered what they amusingly termed "the unicorn" of vegetables: seaweed that tastes like bacon.
Their seemingly magical creation was a patented strain of dulse, a dense succulent red marine algae that grows in the wild along the northern Pacific and Atlantic coastlines. Like other varieties of seaweed, dulce is considered a superfood and contains a high amount of minerals, vitamins and protein. Most people eat it raw as a kind of snack food, and it's a popular staple in countries like Ireland and Iceland.
But back to the bacon. Researcher Chris Langdon and colleagues at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center stumbled upon their unique strain of dulse, which looks akin to red lettuce, while attempting to create a faster-growing, nutrition-dense version to feed sea snails called abalone.
"The original goal was to create a superfood for abalone, because high-quality abalone is treasured, especially in Asia," Langdon said in an OSU news release. "We were able to grow dulse-fed abalone at rates that exceeded those previously reported in the literature. There always has been an interest in growing dulse for human consumption, but we originally focused on using dulse as a food for abalone."
Dulse, a red marine alga, appears on plates as a translucent red lettuce. (Photo: Oregon State University/flickr)
But what about feeding humans?
A chance encounter with an OSU business professor created an opportunity for the team to approach dulse as a potential new super crop for human consumption.
"Dulse is a superfood, with twice the nutritional value of kale," business professor Chuck Toombs said in a statement. "And OSU had developed this variety that can be farmed, with the potential for a new industry for Oregon."
Since 2015, OSU’s Food Innovation Center in Portland has been experimenting with a variety of dishes using dulse. When fried, it's described as savory and salty, with a crunch not unlike that of traditional bacon.
"We serve it with a little dipping sauce, almost like a spicy aioli deal, and people just dip into it and eat it," former Iron Chef winner Vitaly Paley, whose Portland restaurants have been using OSU's dulse in recipes for a couple years, told Esquire. "It crunches up in your mouth and disappears almost like a hot candy would. It's not every day that a chef gets to work with a new ingredient like that."
What about its potential role as the bacon substitute everyone from vegans to religious groups have been waiting for? The consensus from those who have tried dulse is that while it's salty and crispy, it does not taste completely like bacon.
"It’s light and crunchy, almost like the consistency of flaky pastry, and provides the smoky taste that’s so good with bacon added to avocado on toast," wrote Metro's Alice Sholl in a recent taste test. "Top marks."
Over on Reddit, verdicts on dulse were split, with some saying it tastes of "salt and mud with the texture of leather" to others remarking that it's a tasty ingredient to add to soups. "Dulse is very nice in potato soup, but it tastes nothing like bacon," chimed in one commenter.
I also discovered this endearing couple, who tried using dulse in various dishes to see if they could extract its bacon qualities:
If you're looking for an even shorter critique, this seven-second clip will deliver:
Finally, restaurant guide ZAGAT ventured out to Portland to give their own verdict on dulse. While the reviewer found that the dish didn't taste like bacon, he felt that it nonetheless was a delicious addition to the meal.
In the end, it's apparent that dulse does not taste 100 percent like bacon. The bacon unicorn of the vegetable world remains an elusive creature. What's exciting, however, is that we now know about an extremely sustainable plant that's not only nutritious, but is a worthy substitute for those who miss the salty crunch of bacon.
"People have this negative idea of seaweed, but I would love for dulse to be as ubiquitous as mushrooms or tomatoes," OSU research Chef Jason Ball told Bon Appetite. "I think we're on our way."