Pork belly is a thick boneless cut of very fatty pork. Most Americans eat their fill of pork belly each year, but it has been processed first into bacon. However, pork belly is very versatile and, like most cuts of pork, is awesome for adding flavor.
Pork belly should be slow-cooked to break down the connective tissue. It will create fork-tender meat that pairs well with a spicy barbecue sauce just as well as it does with soy sauce and sesame oil.
What Cut of Meat Is Pork Belly?
Pork belly is taken from the sides and belly of the pork ribs. A sharp knife is used to cut close to the rib bones and the remainder of the portion is a full pork belly. This is then trimmed down into a rectangular shape using the thickest portion of the cut.
There is a layer of skin that is often on the pork belly. Some butchers remove it, but many don't. Whether you remove the skin or not is a personal choice and there is a ton of debate about when and why to remove the skin.
We leave the skin on most of the time, like when we are making bacon, and then remove it after the smoking process is finished. The skin can get very tough when cooking pork belly. If you do decide to remove the skin, make chicharrones out of it.
Is There Another Name for Pork Belly?
You might see pork belly listed as side pork because that is technically where the cut comes from. Pork belly usually weighs around 12 to 16 pounds when whole. You'll frequently see it cut into smaller, more manageable sections.
We usually use a whole pork belly when we make bacon because it is easier to slice, but the large sections will also work well.
Is Pork Belly and Bacon the Same Thing?
Bacon is processed meat made from various parts of the pig, particularly the side and belly meat.
In order to transform a slab of pork belly into bacon, the meat must be cured and then smoked before slicing it. The process imparts that wonderful bacon flavor to the bland pork belly.
For a more thorough explanation, read our post: Pork Belly vs Bacon.
What Does Pork Belly Taste Like?
On its own, pork belly doesn't have a ton of flavor. It is the perfect blank canvas for getting creative with flavors because the mild meat flavor enhances spices, herbs, and sauces.
The thick layer of fat becomes tender and delicious. The skin gets crackly and crispy which melds well with the juicy fatty cut.
A Guide to Buying, Cooking, and Storing Pork Belly
Picking out a great pork belly at the grocery store is easy when you know what to look for and what to avoid.
One of the best tips we can give is to chat with your local butcher and let them know what you want. Butchers are usually more than happy to help you get a great piece of meat.
When buying pork belly, look for pork belly that has a clean and uniform color. It should be bright red with visible fat.
Some cuts are sold with the skin on, others are not. Look for cuts that are uniform in size and shape for the best results.
What to Avoid When You Buy Pork Belly
Don't buy pork belly that looks pale or off-color. Also, avoid pork belly that is packaged and has a lot of what looks like blood in the package. This is actually called sparge and it is the result of old meat that hasn't been properly stored or handled. Sparge is a breeding ground for bacteria.
How to Cook Pork Belly
Most often, pork belly is cooked slow-roasted either in the oven or in a smoker. One popular method of cooking pork belly is sous vide which results in a buttery tender pork belly dish. Pork belly is frequently seared after cooking to char the pork belly skin side.
We've also used it to make some pretty good burnt ends.
Before you cook the pork belly, you should use a sharp knife to make several slashes in the skin. You'll want to just cut through the skin, not into the fat or meat below.
Pork belly takes flavors amazingly well. You can use brine or marinade to aid in the tenderness and juiciness. A dry rub will also help develop flavors. One of the fun things about pork belly is being creative with the flavors and spices that you can use and get great results.
Pork belly takes about three to four hours to slow roast in an oven and about the same amount of time in the smoker. We frequently make bacon after curing the belly and smoking it with apple wood, hickory, or maple wood.
Serving Pork Belly
Pork belly is most often chopped into bite-size pieces and served with vegetables or sliced thinly in some dishes. Pork belly is also served with a variety of types of sauces depending on the flavors and it is a great ingredient in soups. There are lots of dishes in different cultures all over the world that take advantage of the versatility and simplicity of pork belly.
Storing Pork Belly
Raw pork belly freezes very well and will keep for several years when properly stored. Once cooked, you'll want to consume your pork belly within about a week. A neat trick of pork bellies is that you can smoke a belly, then freeze it and have ready-to-slice bacon on hand.
Pork belly has grown in popularity over the years. It was once a cut that was seldom sold in grocery stores but is now quite common to find. The best thing about pork belly is the versatility of the cut because it takes flavors well and is simple to cook. The main thing to remember is that it should be cooked slowly for a long period of time to unlock the juicy flavors and delicious aromas.