Many newbies are intimidated by pork belly. The high fat content makes it challenging to prepare, but the results are worth the effort. In this ultimate guide, we’ll explore the wonders of the cuts that can be found in the belly region of the hog.
Pork Belly Cuts
Pork belly is often sold in large slabs weighing 4 to 5 pounds each. A whole pork belly weighs around 12 pounds, but you can carve it into smaller roasts or slices as needed. Spare ribs are also taken from the belly region of the hog, and most American-style bacon is made from pork belly as well.
Pork Belly: The Basics
Unlike some cuts of pork, which have confusing labels, pork belly is pretty straightforward.
The cuts from the belly are arguably the fattiest cuts on the hog. While this contributes a lovely balance of savory and sweet flavor, it can make the meat unpleasantly chewy if it doesn’t get the proper treatment.
How Much Does Pork Belly Weigh?
A whole pork belly, complete with bones and skin, will weigh about 12 pounds on average. The total weight depends on the size of the hog, but the pigs that are raised specifically for bacon and pork belly are killed at a greater weight than their brethren.
Although you might be able to procure a whole belly, it’s more common to find it sold in smaller slabs. If it’s still whole when you approach the meat counter, the butcher can cut it down for you.
Pork Belly vs. Bacon
Some people assume that pork belly and bacon are the same product. While it’s an easy mistake to make, there are actually subtle differences between the two.
It’s true that most of the pork belly in the United States is transformed into bacon. However, there are a few steps involved in the process.
Fresh natural pork belly is a raw, uncured product. The meat won’t taste all that different from cuts from the loin—it’s mainly the fat content that sets it apart.
In order for pork belly to become bacon, the meat must be de-boned. The skin is usually removed as well. At this point, the meat is cured in brine, then smoked and thinly sliced.
What’s more, not all bacon is made from pork belly. It’s possible to turn cheek and jowl meat into bacon, although these products are less common. You can even cure and smoke the meat from the shoulder or the back of the pig to make other bacon varieties.
Some of the bacon you find in the supermarket isn’t made from bacon at all. Turkey bacon is a lean and popular substitute. In this case, the word “bacon” refers to the curing and smoking process, rather than the meat itself.
Pork Belly Cuts: A Guide
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about the most popular cuts that are taken from the belly.
Pork Belly Roast
Roasted pork belly is delicious, and the slow-cooking method allows the fat to render and become crisp. That makes large pork belly cuts like boneless and bone-in roasts more forgiving for beginners.
You can purchase pork belly roasts boneless or bone-in. The boneless versions are easier to work with, but the bone contributes moisture and flavor.
It’s possible to buy pork belly roasts with the skin on as well. This represents another trade-off. The skin has a wonderful texture when it crisps up, giving the roast a quality reminiscent of good bacon. But it’s tough and chewy when it’s not done right.
Bone-in roasts typically come in flat slabs. The butcher may have already scored the rind, which allows the fat to render out and promote that prized crispy texture. If not, you’ll want to score it yourself.
When the roasts are sold boneless, they’re often rolled into a cylindrical shape that makes them easy to carve. These have an impressive appearance and are relatively easy to deal with.
Sometimes, rolled pork belly roasts will be stuffed with sausage or bread crumbs before they’re packaged for sale. Make sure you know what you’re getting when purchasing a rolled roast. For more information on stuffed pork belly, see the section below.
These cuts are best when slow-roasted in a covered dish or aluminum pan. Add a bit of liquid to the pan to prevent the pork from drying out during the long cooking period. During the last half hour or so of cooking, remove the cover so the skin can crisp up.
Pork Belly Slices
Slices from the belly may also be sold with the skin intact, but if you prefer, you can seek out skinless slices. There are also bone-in options available.
If you don’t mind gnawing around the bone, these slices have a ton of eye appeal in addition to savory pork flavor. On the other hand, the boneless slices are easier to eat and make a more elegant presentation at sit-down dinner parties.
Pork belly needs to cook for a long time. Unfortunately, this can cause thinner slices to dry out if you’re not careful.
Our recommendation would be to grill the slices for a few minutes per side to promote browning, then transferring them to a covered pan to finish cooking over low heat. Try adding a bit of apple juice or cider to the pan to keep the meat moist.
There are two main types of pork ribs: baby back ribs, which come from the upper section of the rib cage around the loin; and spare ribs, which are cut from the pork belly.
As you may know, the spare ribs are larger than the baby backs, which is the distinction that gives the latter their name. The meat also contains more fat, making the spare ribs the winner in terms of flavor and moisture.
A full rack of spare ribs weighs around 4 pounds, and should cook for about 6 hours at 225 degrees. The most reliable preparation method for spares is the 3-2-1 technique, which involves wrapping the meat for 2 hours during the middle stage of the smoke.
St. Louis-Style Ribs
This is essentially the same cut as the spare rib rack. The only difference is that St. Louis-style ribs have been trimmed of their rib tips and cartilage, giving them a smoother rectangular shape that browns well and is easy to handle.
The uniform shape allows these ribs to cook more evenly than untrimmed spare ribs. This makes them popular in competitive circles, but they make a fine addition to backyard barbecues as well.
You might have a hard time finding St. Louis ribs for sale at the supermarket. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to do the trimming yourself. If you would prefer to skip this step, ask your butcher to do it, or try shopping at a big-box retailer like Kroger.
Rib Tips/Rib Ends
Once you’ve trimmed the end off a rack of spare ribs to make a St. Louis-style rack, you’ll be left with the rib tips. Also known as “rib ends,” these tasty chunks of meat can be repurposed into sausage, but they’re also excellent when prepared on the smoker.
Try adding your rib tips to the smoker when you start cooking the ribs. They’ll probably finish cooking in 3 to 4 hours, but you can smother them with barbecue sauce and eat them while you wait for the ribs to finish cooking.
Be aware that rib tips contain bits of cartilage, which has a chewy texture even when fully cooked. You’ll have to work around this when enjoying the tips, but it’s not that different from chewing around the bone while eating the ribs themselves.
Stuffed Pork Belly
Even if the butcher doesn’t stuff the pork belly before presenting it for sale, you can do so yourself, assuming the slab you buy is large enough. It’s best if you start with a cut that weighs at least 4 to 5 pounds.
Pork has a mild flavor that pairs well with many different ingredients. Try mixing fennel seeds with grated apple and mustard, or make a traditional stuffing using sage and minced onions.
After you score the pork belly, let it rest in the refrigerator overnight. That will give the skin time to dry out, so it will crisp up nicely as the meat cooks.
Make sure your stuffing has cooled completely before you add it to the pork belly. Otherwise, the meat might drift into the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees, which could increase the risk of food-borne illness.
Roast stuffed pork belly at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 2 hours, then turn up the heat to 425 and roast for about 30 minutes more.
How Much Does Pork Belly Cost?
As pork cuts go, the ones from the belly are relatively inexpensive. That’s because many home chefs avoid this delicacy in favor of leaner cuts like chops and tenderloin.
At the local butcher shop, you should be able to procure pork belly for around $4 to $5 per pound. Sometimes, you might be lucky enough to score deals at $2 to $3 per pound, depending on where you live.
Online retailers might charge a bit more, due to the processing and shipping fees involved. On the plus side, the products are usually available in bulk.
How Much Pork Belly To Serve Per Person
The question of how much meat to serve per person varies depending on a number of factors.
In general, if you’re serving bone-in pork belly roast, a per-person estimate of about 12 ounces is standard. For boneless roasts, opt for 8 ounces (about 1/2 pound) per person.
For pork belly that’s sold in slices, aim for 2 to 3 slices per person. Use your judgement—if the slices are taken from the wider end of the belly, they’ll be larger.
Similar rules apply to spare ribs. You should be able to get away with serving 2 to 3 ribs per person, depending on their size.
In any case, add another 1/4 pound of meat per person if you have big plans for your leftovers. Pork belly makes a great addition to stir-fries, noodle bowls, soups, and lunch dishes like sandwiches and tacos.
The Bottom Line
The meat from the pork belly is rich, juicy, and bursting with delicious pork flavor. Once you’ve learned how to prepare it, you might find yourself seeking out these cuts instead of traditional pork loin roasts and chops.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!