Should you cook pork belly fat side up or down? More to the point, does the answer change when you’re planning to put the pork belly on the smoker? In this guide, we’ll explore the details behind this oft-debated topic.
Pork Belly Fat Side Up or Down?
It’s better to smoke pork belly fat side up. This will give the fat a chance to cook through and crisp up properly. Whichever method you choose, remember to score the fat before adding it to the smoker by making a series of small cuts across the surface.
About Pork Belly
As you may have surmised from the name, pork belly is taken from the soft underbelly section of the hog. It’s usually sold in thick slabs, but butchers will sometimes price out smaller portions.
Other names for pork belly include “fresh side” or “side pork.” When you consider the basic anatomy of the hog, the belly and side are pretty much considered to be the same thing.
Pork belly is an exceptionally rich and fatty cut. It’s well-suited for slow-cooking recipes, as this allows the fat to render and crisp up. Deep-fried and grilled pork belly are also common.
Is Pork Belly Just a Fancy Term for Bacon?
Most of the bacon that’s sold commercially is cut from the hog’s belly. However, the two terms aren’t interchangeable.
Unlike pork belly, which is sold in its raw state, bacon is cured and often smoked. That means it has a different flavor profile, in addition to being higher in sodium.
We should also point out that not all bacon comes from the belly. It’s also possible to find cheek or jowl bacon, cottage bacon (which comes from the pork shoulder), and back bacon (which is cut from the loin).
Is Pork Belly Hard To Cook?
When it comes to pork belly, the first thing you need to know is that it’s an easy ingredient to mess up. In fact, many novices tend to avoid buying it because they believe that it’s difficult to cook.
In truth, you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with pork belly. Once you understand the nature of the cut and the qualities that make it stand out, you should have an easy enough time with it.
Properly cooked pork belly has a ton of savory flavor and a melt-in-your-mouth texture. It’s also an affordable cut, which makes it easier to buy more if you aren’t happy with your initial results.
Should You Cook Pork Belly Fat Side Up or Down?
There’s no doubt that pitmasters will debate about the merits of cooking meat fat side up or down for years to come. Whether you’re talking about pork butt, pork belly, the pork shoulder, or beef brisket, everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter—but they don’t all agree.
In the case of pork belly, however, more people seem to recommend smoking it with the fat side facing up. If the fat is facing down, it might not cook through, which will make it tough and chewy.
Is It Possible To Overcook Pork Belly?
Yes. In fact, this is one of the most common mistakes that people make when trying their hand at smoked pork belly for the first time.
Overcooked pork belly has a dry texture, with rubbery fat. That’s unfortunate, because the meat has neither of these qualities when it’s done right. As with all low-and-slow cooking applications, you need to have patience when preparing this dish.
First of all, don’t set the smoker temperature too high. 225 degrees Fahrenheit is preferable. If your unit runs on the cooler side, you can go as high as 275, but setting it higher will have an adverse effect on the texture of the pork.
Second, and most importantly, smoke the pork belly until it reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees. While pork is safe to eat at 145 degrees, pork belly needs to cook longer to give it that perfect ratio of tender meat to crispy fat.
How Long Does It Take To Smoke Pork Belly?
At 225 degrees, pork belly should take 3 to 4 hours to cook. That’s just a general guideline, though. The meat is done when the internal temp hits the 200-degree mark. That might take a bit more or less time, depending on the situation.
There are several external factors that might affect the length of the smoke. A smaller slab will cook through faster than a larger one, so keep that in mind when you’re choosing pork belly for the smoker.
As we mentioned before, temperature swings can play a huge role. A smoker that runs at a consistent 275 degrees might turn out pork belly that’s finished cooking in just a couple of hours. On the other hand, it could take 5 to 6 hours if the smoker runs too cool.
You can use the foil-wrapper method to speed the cooking process along, just as you would with pork shoulder or beef brisket. Just remember to remove the wrapper toward the end of the smoke so that the fat can crisp up.
A Word About Scoring
Most recipes for pork belly will call for the additional step of scoring the fat layer before cooking. What does this mean, and why is it necessary?
When you score meat, you’re making a series of small, shallow cuts on the surface. This is a popular technique with fattier cuts, such as pork belly and duck breast. That’s because it allows the excess fat to drain properly.
Scoring also helps the meat absorb marinades. The marinade will seep into the cuts, allowing the mixture to penetrate a bit farther beneath the surface.
Even if you don’t plan to use a marinade, scoring meat can promote tenderness. This is especially true of naturally tough cuts such as flank steak, which has long fibers that can be difficult to chew.
Before scoring the pork belly, make sure your knife is clean and well-sharpened. If the knife is dull, it will leave behind ragged edges. Don’t use a serrated knife—any clean knife with a straight edge should work.
Make a series of X’s on the fat layer, taking care to penetrate between 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep. The marks should be about 1/2 to 1 inch apart. It’s easier to do this if the pork belly is very cold.
After scoring the fat, season and cook the pork belly according to your recipe.
How To Smoke Pork Belly
1. Remove the skin from the pork belly, if necessary. Score the fat as described above.
2. Season the pork belly with the spice rub of your choice. A blend of kosher salt, brown sugar, smoked paprika, and black pepper should work nicely. Use about 1 tablespoon of rub for every pound of meat, and be sure to rub it in so it hits all the crevices.
3. If desired, cover and refrigerate the pork belly for up to 24 hours. When you’re ready to cook, take the meat out of the fridge and set the smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Set an aluminum pan beneath the cooking grate to catch any fat drippings. This will reduce the risk of flare-ups.
5. Set the pork belly on the cooking grate with the fat side facing up.
6. Close the lid of the smoker. Allow the meat to smoke for 3 to 4 hours, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees.
7. Take the pork off the heat and let it rest on a wire rack for 15 minutes.
8. Slice the pork and serve. Any leftovers should be refrigerated within 2 hours.
The Bottom Line
It’s up to you whether to smoke pork belly fat side up or down, but we would suggest trying the fat-side up method first. If you’re not happy with it for some reason, feel free to try it the other way next time.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!