If you know anything about bacon, you probably know that the meat is trimmed from the bellies of hogs. Does that mean that pork belly is just a fancy term for bacon? And which one should you buy the next time you’re craving a rich, fatty cut of pork?
The answers might surprise you, which is why we’ve put together this pork belly vs bacon showdown.
About Pork Belly
Pork belly is a fatty portion of meat that’s cut from the pig’s soft underbelly. Butchers tend to sell the meat in thick slabs, although it’s possible to find smaller pieces. You might also find pork belly advertised as “side pork” or “fresh side.” This is because when it comes to pigs, the belly and the side are widely regarded as the same thing.
Because the meat is so rich, it’s typically slow-roasted to allow the fat to render and become crisp. In some cuisines, pork belly is deep fried, which makes the fat even crisper. It’s also a natural partner for the grill.
When it’s cooked properly, pork belly will melt in your mouth. Unfortunately, it overcooks easily, which gives the meat a dry, rubbery texture. This is why amateur home chefs tend to shy away from it. That’s a shame, because the meat is extremely affordable when compared to more popular cuts such as pork tenderloin.
Americans are most familiar with what the British call “streaky bacon”—strips of fatty meat trimmed from the belly of a pig. The meat consists of fat layered with the muscles that run parallel to the skin. This means that bacon is technically pork belly. However, not all pork belly is bacon. Here’s why.
When pork belly is prepared for sale, it’s left uncured, meaning that the meat is free of preservatives. By contrast, bacon is salt-cured or brined, and often treated with nitrates or nitrites. Most of the time, the meat is also smoked to give it an extra dose of savory-sweet flavor before it hits the shelves.
The meat is usually cured for about a week, with the smoking process adding another day to the total. This procedure forms the basic and most easily discernible difference between the two. However, there are some other caveats that set bacon and pork belly apart.
For one thing, bacon can be cut from the cheek or shoulder of the pig as well, though these versions are less common. Second, some companies will advertise alternatives like “turkey bacon,” which is turkey meat that’s been cured in a manner similar to bacon. Therefore, the word has become more of an umbrella term to refer to the curing and smoking process, rather than the meat itself. It is possible to find uncured bacon, but the meat is usually just referred to as pork belly when it’s in this form.
Finally, bacon is exceedingly easy to prepare. Even novices should be able to turn out perfectly crisp bacon with almost no effort.
Types of Bacon
To help you distinguish between the various types of bacon (many of which don’t even resemble one another), here’s a short guide for reference.
- Streaky bacon: the kind most commonly found in the US, this version consists of thin strips of fatty meat that have been cut from the underbelly of the pig, then cured and smoked.
- Back bacon: usually containing the loin and only a small portion of the belly, this lean cut is popular in the UK.
- Jowl bacon: taken from the cheek before being cured and/or smoked.
- Cottage bacon: this cut is derived from the pork shoulder rather than the belly.
- Slab bacon: a less-expensive option that’s taken from the side cuts of the pig.
Best Uses for Pork Belly vs Bacon
Pork belly is best when used as the centerpiece of a dish. Whether it’s been baked, pan-seared, deep-fried, or grilled, it’s a savory delight that will distinguish your main course. It’s especially good in noodle dishes (such as ramen) and stir-fries.
Bacon, by contrast, is a fine side dish, but it’s even better when used to complement recipes. You can use it to jazz up anything from sandwiches and salads to breakfast and brunch dishes. It even goes well with chocolate, meaning it also has a place on the dessert table.
Breaking Down the Differences
Bacon is usually sold in thin strips, whereas pork belly comes in a whole thick slab. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the rest of the differences, you’re unlikely to confuse the two when visiting the meat case.
If you’re still wondering how to distinguish between the two, take a look at this video tutorial.
As we mentioned, pork belly is typically very affordable. In fact, until recently, the meat was more commonly ground for use in sausages rather than sold in slabs. Even as it’s gotten more popular, prices have remained moderate.
Because of the curing and smoking process, bacon carries a higher price tag than regular pork belly. The difference in the per-pound price may also be due to bacon’s popularity.
Pork belly’s lack of additives gives it the edge in this category. Because the meat hasn’t been cured, sodium-conscious diners don’t have to worry about excess salt, either. While neither bacon nor pork belly could be considered health food, the latter is considered the healthier choice.
While bacon can certainly be used in a broad array of dishes, pork belly is actually more versatile in another important respect. The meat is more tender than bacon, which means it lends itself well to many different cooking applications. Unless you overcook it, it’s bound to be delicious. Bacon, on the other hand, is nearly always pan-fried or baked until the slices are crisp.
Best Way To Prepare Pork Belly vs Bacon
Although pork belly can be prepared using a variety of methods, roasting is one of the most foolproof.
Set the oven to 425 degrees. Set the pork belly in a roasting pan and use a sharp knife to slash a series of diagonal lines across the top. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remember that the meat hasn’t been cured, so it’s fine to use a generous hand with the salt.
Roast the pork belly for 3 hours, until the meat is crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.
This method is quicker and simpler. Simply set the oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Line up the strips of bacon so that they’re barely touching.
When the oven is hot enough, add the bacon. Bake for 6 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 6 minutes, or until the bacon is crisp. Remove the strips from the pan with tongs set them on paper towels to drain.
While most bacon is indeed taken from the belly of a pig, it’s markedly different from the cut that’s known as pork belly. Once you’ve learned the differences, you’ll know which one is the best fit for your next recipe.