We'll start this out with saying all pork belly is bacon, but not all bacon is pork belly. So, exactly what is the difference between pork belly and bacon? Can they be used interchangeably? What exactly is bacon? We'll let you know everything you need to know about bacon, pork belly, when and how to use them, and why they are not the same product.
Breaking Down the Differences
There is one primary difference between pork belly and bacon: processing. Pork belly is typically sold with the skin on and untreated. Bacon is most commonly cured and smoked, a time consuming process that results in a significant price difference. Bacon is fairly easy to cook and is sold in thin or thick slices with a wide range of flavors available. Pork belly can be more of a challenge to prepare and requires that flavor be added during the process.
What Is Pork Belly?
Pork belly is a thick cut of meat taken from the belly of a pig. The cut of meat has layers of muscle separated by layers of fat. When bacon is made from pork belly, it is called streaky pork bacon due to the swirling of fat and meat. Pork belly is a popular cut in many cultures around the world and is growing in importance in the U.S. as consumers look for ways to save money on ever-increasing prices.
What Is Bacon?
Bacon is a cured meat cut from pork belly, but is also taken from the sides, back, neck, and jowls of a pig. Bacon from pork belly has more numerous and thinner layers of fat and meat than bacon made from other parts of a pig. Bacon is typically cured using salt and some form of preservative, often nitrites and nitrates which can be naturally-occurring in products like celery powder.
Why Is Bacon Called Bacon?
The word bacon originates from Old French, Low Germanic, and Middle English words that described the salted back and sides of any type of meat. The word is also associated with a competition in Old England in which a married couple must not disagree for a year and a day in order to win the prize of "a flitch of bacon'. A flitch is essentially a half of a pig. Typically, the only winners were seamen who were absent from their wives for a year or more. The custom dates to around the 1100's and was popular until the 18th century.
Types of Bacon
A meat counter is likely to have a variety of types of bacon. That's because bacon that comes from different parts of the pig has a unique name.
- Streaky Bacon – This is the most common bacon and is what you'll typically find at the grocery store. It has numerous, thin layers of meat and fat. Streaky bacon is typically sold pre-sliced in both thick and regular sizes.
- Jowl Bacon – Jowl bacon, as the name implies, is made from the meat of the jowls. This is a fattier type of bacon that crisps up nicely when pan fried.
- Slab Bacon – Slab bacon is smoked and cured pork belly, uncut. This isn't as common of a cut as the others.
- Cottage Bacon – Cottage bacon is made from the pork shoulder and is a leaner version of bacon.
Is Pork Belly Better than Bacon?
Many people consider pork belly to be a healthier option than bacon due to the lack of processing. Bacon often contains nitrites and nitrates that are used to preserve the meat and produce the pinkish-red color we associate with delicious bacon. In most cases, nitrites and nitrates are not harmful and can have health benefits, but when exposed to protein and high heat, these compounds can become nitrosamines, which some studies have shown to cause health issues.
Another side-effect of the processing of bacon is the added sodium, which in some cases may be a significant amount of the amount a person should consume in one day. The United States Department of Agriculture says that an individual slice of bacon contains 137 mg of sodium. The daily intake, according to the Food and Drug Administration is only 2,300 mg. That means that five slices of bacon is about one-quarter of the daily amount of sodium you should consume.
Both bacon and pork belly are fatty cuts and are high in cholesterol. It's best to moderate the amount of pork belly and bacon you eat. Reading labels is important, because not all bacon is the same. You'll find bacon that is free of unnatural nitrates, or that is totally nitrate free. You'll also see low-sodium offerings and organic, grass-fed, hormone-free uncured bacon. A good way to lower your fat consumption is to try turkey bacon which is naturally lower in cholesterol, but still tastes pretty good.
When to Use Pork Belly vs. Bacon
Despite being similar in many ways, pork belly and bacon are not interchangeable in most cases. We think that both are excellent in breakfast burritos with fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, and shredded cheddar. Season with a little Bearded Butchers Blend Seasoning and you've got yourself a killer breakfast. The trick is that preparing pork belly isn't as simple or fast as bacon. Below, we'll give you some suggestions for the proper ways to use these tasty pork products.
Use Bacon If You're:
Flavoring, seasoning, or adding a touch of salty, crunchy deliciousness. Bacon is ideal for wrapping other food items like jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese, dates stuffed with blue cheese, or just about anything else. Bacon is rarely the main part of a meal, but it is the perfect choice for a classic BLT. You can dice bacon up and add it to sautéed spinach greens and onions. Almost any savory dish can benefit from the salty succulence bacon adds to your favorite meal.
Use Pork Belly If You're:
Making a meal around the cut of meat. Pork belly can be cooked in the oven, in a cast iron pan, on the grill, but our favorite is smoked pork belly. In order to cook pork belly correctly, you'll want to cook it slowly and at a low temperature, otherwise it can get a rubbery texture that is difficult to eat. Pork belly takes flavors very well and is particularly delicious when marinaded prior to cooking.
Pork belly is most often sold in strips at the grocery store and slabs at meat counters. Both work well in most recipes. You can use pork belly to make your own bacon by using a simple curing and smoking process.
Best Way To Prepare Pork Belly
A classic mistake people make when cooking pork belly is to cook it for too long. Unlike cuts like shoulder or pork loin that benefit from a long cook time, pork belly tends to become hard when it is cooked for too long.
One of our favorite ways to prepare and cook pork belly is to make pork belly burnt ends. Just like burnt ends made from brisket, pork belly burnt ends are delightfully crackly, crispy, and delicious. You can use either a slab cut or strips. You'll want about three pounds.
Pork Belly Burnt Ends Directions
- Cut the pork belly into two-inch pieces and drizzle with grape seed oil.
- Season with Bearded Butchers Original Seasoning and toss to evenly coat all the pieces. Don't be shy with the seasonings.
- Preheat the smoker to 225 degrees and place the cubes on the grill grate.
- Smoke for two to three hours until you've got the bark at a good point. We tend to use hickory or pecan, but apple and cherry wood also work well for smoking pork belly burnt ends.
- Next, place the cubes in a disposable pan and add about four tablespoons of butter. Drizzle a little honey over the belly, then add a good dose of the Bearded Butchers BBQ Sauce. Cover with foil, then return to the smoker.
- You will want to increase the temp to about 250 degrees. Cook for about an hour until the internal temperature reads 195 degrees.
- Uncover and continue cooking for about 15 minutes to get the ideal, tacky texture.
- Don't forget to let the burnt ends rest for about 15 minutes. Serve with coleslaw.
Final Thoughts: Pork Belly vs Bacon
Pork belly is a less expensive product than bacon, but they aren't interchangeable. The main difference between pork belly and bacon is that bacon is cured and smoked before being sold. Unlike bacon, pork belly is sold as raw meat. Cooking pork belly isn't difficult, but you'll want to make sure not to cook it for too long or you'll end up with tough, rubbery pork belly – and no one wants that!