Pork belly appears in a lot of recipes, and you can usually find it in butcher shops or the supermarket’s meat department. But what if you come across something that’s labeled “fatback” instead? Are pork belly and fatback the same thing, and if not, what’s the difference?
Pork Belly vs Fatback
The main difference between pork belly and fatback can be found in their names: the former is cut from the belly of the hog, whereas the fatback is trimmed from the area on either side of the spine. In terms of flavor, they’re similar, but pork belly contains both meat and fat, whereas fatback is all fat.
About Pork Belly
This cut is taken from the underside of the hog—around the belly, as the name suggests. Some newbies are intimidated at the thought of using pork belly, often because they believe it’s the actual stomach of the pig, but this isn’t the case.
In the US, bacon is usually made from pork belly. While the term bacon refers more to the curing process than the actual cut, most of the commercially prepared bacon you’ll find was trimmed from hog’s bellies.
Pork belly is sold boneless, and the meat is fatty and rich, with intense pork flavor. Therefore, proper preparation is essential. Otherwise, the fat won’t get crispy, and the meat will have a rubbery texture.
Store fresh, uncooked pork belly in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to 2 days. It should keep well in the freezer for up to 6 months, so consider freezing it if you don’t have time to cook it right away.
Once the pork belly is cooked, you should consume it within 5 days. Again, place it in the coldest area of the fridge—preferably a lower shelf, near the back—and be sure to wrap it well. Frozen, the cooked pork belly should retain its integrity for about 3 months.
Like pork belly, fatback is named for its general location. The meat is cut from the animal’s back, where there’s a generous layer of subcutaneous fat. Sometimes, the skin (also known as the rind) is included in the cut.
You can find fatback on many homemade sausage recipes. This is the ingredient that contributes moisture to the ground pork, in addition to a hefty dose of flavor. The fatback should be finely diced before you add it to the sausage, so it can distribute properly. This step will be easier if the fatback is well-chilled.
To store fresh fatback, keep it tightly wrapped in plastic and store it in the refrigerator. Under these conditions, it should keep for up to 5 days.
If you choose to freeze the fatback, try to use it within a year. We would also suggest cutting it into smaller portions before freezing it, so you can thaw only as much as you need.
Other Types of Fatback
Purists use the term “fatback” to refer only to the two segments of fat found on either side of the spine. However, there are a couple of variations that will yield the same results, more or less.
Streaky pork can be found in between the hard fatback and the pork belly. While it consists mainly of fat, there are usually a few streaks of meat running through it, hence the name.
In Italy, you might run across the term lardo, especially when researching components for a charcuterie board. Lardo is an Italian salumi, consisting of fatback that’s been cured with salt, garlic, and a blend of herbs and seasonings. While it’s exceptionally rich, it makes a splendid appetizer when served on sliced bread.
Pork Belly vs Fatback: What They Have in Common
- Fatty cuts with strong pork flavor
- Both are considered “hard fats”
- Named for the part of the hog they’re cut from
Pork Belly vs Fatback: How They Differ
- Taken from different sections of the pig
- Pork belly contains more meat than fatback
- Fatback is the better choice when making lard (see below)
- Raw fatback will keep longer in the fridge than uncooked pork belly
What About Salt Pork?
Salt pork is exactly what it sounds like—a cut of pork that’s been cured with salt for preservation and flavor. It can be made from fatback, but pork belly is more common on account of its higher meat-to-fat ratio.
You can recognize salt pork by its resemblance to slab bacon. However, the cut is taken from a lower part of the belly, which means the meat is even fattier. It’s also cured longer, with a higher concentration of salt. Finally, unlike bacon, salt pork isn’t a smoked meat product.
Because of the rigorous curing process, salt pork has an impressive shelf life. It should keep for up to 6 months when wrapped in airtight plastic and stored in the refrigerator. You can also freeze it indefinitely, but try to use it within a year for best results.
Can You Use Fatback to Make Lard?
If you’ve ever seen fresh lard, you’ll know that it has a texture reminiscent of butter—or vegetable shortening, which was essentially invented as a replacement for lard. Fatback, on the other hand, has a solid appearance. Despite the fact that it’s mostly fat, it resembles meat more than it does lard.
That said, you can certainly melt and strain the fatback to make your own lard. It won’t be as clean as lard made from leaf fat (which comes from around the hog’s kidneys), and it will have a stronger flavor and a yellowish hue. But if you’re up to the task, you’ll wind up with a nice supply of fat to use for pastry crusts and other recipes.
Best Uses for Pork Belly
- Topping for rice or noodle bowls
- Taco filling
- Compliment to scrambled, poached, or fried eggs
- Basis for a banh mi sandwich
Best Uses for Fatback
- Sausage ingredient
- Homemade lard
- Addition to ground chuck when making hamburgers, meatballs, or meat loaf
- Addition to homemade stuffing or dressing
- Basis for confit (meat cooked and preserved in a fat bath)
How To Make Bacon Out of Pork Belly
If you’d like to make your own bacon, fresh pork belly is an excellent place to begin.
Be forewarned that the process will take a long time. You’ll need to cure the meat for at least a week, then let it rest for a few more days before smoking it. Don’t expect to be chomping down on crispy homemade bacon the same day you bring home the ingredients.
- 5 pounds pork belly
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup maple syrup or honey
- 2 teaspoons #1 pink curing salt
- 2 tablespoons paprika
1. Rinse the pork belly and pat it dry with paper towels.
2. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the kosher and curing salts, sugar, maple syrup, and paprika.
3. Coat the pork belly with an even layer of the seasoning mixture and place in a zip-top bag large enough to hold the meat.
4. Refrigerate the meat for at least 7 days, removing it from the bag and rotating it once per day.
5. Remove the pork from the bag. You’ll know that it’s ready for the next step when it feels firm to the touch, rather than soft and flabby. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
6. Set the pork back in the refrigerator and let it rest, uncovered, for 48 hours.
7. When you’re ready to start smoking the meat, set the smoker to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
8. Place the pork belly in the smoker and let it cook for about 3 hours, or until the internal temperature registers 150 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
9. Carve the bacon into thin slices and wrap it well. At this point, it should keep in the refrigerator for up to 7 days. Alternatively, you can freeze the bacon slices for up to 2 months.
The Bottom Line
Pork belly is more often used as a stand-alone ingredient, whereas fatback is better as a complement to other dishes. We would recommend familiarizing yourself with both, so you can fully appreciate what each of these tasty ingredients has to offer.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!