At first glance, you can probably tell that pork belly and pork shoulder come from different parts of the animal. But do you know how to put these uniquely delicious cuts to good use? Let’s take a closer look at pork belly vs pork shoulder.
Pork Belly vs Pork Shoulder
While pork belly is taken from the soft underside of the pig, the shoulder is a tougher cut located in the central portion of the foreleg. As both cuts contain a fair amount of fat, a certain degree of care is required when cooking them.
About Pork Belly
As the name suggests, pork belly is cut from the underside of the hog. It’s typically sold in slabs, and sometimes advertised as “fresh side” or “side pork.” If that sounds a bit confusing, know that side and belly are often used interchangeably when referring to hogs.
A slab of pork belly looks almost like an oversized rasher of bacon. Long and rectangular, with broad ribbons of fat running throughout, the cut is often used to make pancetta or other cured pork products.
Pork belly can be deep-fried, slow-roasted, or grilled. No matter how it’s prepared, it’s important not to overcook it. You also want to give the fat a chance to crisp up. Otherwise, the meat will be unpleasantly chewy and rubbery.
Although some home chefs are intimidated by the fatty nature of the cut, pork belly has a rich flavor and an appealing texture when it’s done right. As a bonus, you can usually get it at a reasonable price.
About Pork Shoulder
The pork shoulder comes from the pig’s foreleg, right underneath the cut that’s sold as pork butt or Boston butt. Like pork belly, this cut contains a lot of fat, so it benefits from long cooking applications like smoking and slow-roasting.
You can recognize pork shoulder by its sizable fat cap and lopsided triangular appearance. While it doesn’t have as much marbling as pork butt, the melting fat cap should give the meat a splendidly juicy texture.
The lopsided shape of the pork shoulder can lead to uneven cooking. If you’re worried about this, you might want to cut the meat in half before seasoning and cooking it. This technique will also increase the surface area, which translates into more crunchy bark.
Also of note: Butchers often sell pork shoulder with the skin still attached. This comes in handy if you’re making a dish that would benefit from that interplay of tender meat and crispy skin.
Can You Use Pork Belly and Pork Shoulder Interchangeably?
Not as a general rule. If a recipe calls specifically for pork shoulder—especially if it’s for pulled pork or something similar—pork belly will not yield the same results.
Since both cuts are inexpensive, there’s no reason to substitute one for the other. If you can’t find the cut you’re looking for, it’s best to consider making a different dish instead.
That said, you may be able to swap in pork shoulder for pork belly in some cases. Let’s say you’re making Asian-style noodle bowls, and the recipe suggests topping them with crispy pork belly. If you happen to have some shredded pork shoulder on hand, feel free to use that instead. The texture will be different, but the dish should still be a hit.
How To Cook Pork Belly vs Pork Shoulder
For your convenience, we’ve included a couple of our favorite recipes for pork belly and pork shoulder. Once you’ve tried them both, you should be able to appreciate the differences between these two delicious cuts.
Smoked Pork Belly
The savory, zingy hoisin glaze provides a nice counterpoint to the fatty pork.
- 5 pounds pork belly
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
For the Rub:
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the Glaze:
- 1/2 cup hoisin sauce
- 2 tablespoons Thai sweet chili sauce
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
1. In a small bowl, combine all ingredients for the dry rub. Set aside.
2. Preheat grill or smoker to 275 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re using wood chips or pellets, we would suggest a milder wood like cherry, apple, or pecan for this recipe.
3. Use a sharp knife to trim the excess fat from the pork belly. Try to remove any pieces of fat that are hanging off to the side, as these will burn before the rest of the pork is done.
4. Place the pork belly on the cutting board with the fat side facing down. Make a series of 1-inch slices in the flesh, cutting about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way down. Be careful not to cut all the way through.
5. Coat the pork belly in oil, then add the dry rub. Press the seasoning mixture into the deep cuts you made, massaging to make sure it adheres.
6. Set the pork in the grill or smoker and close the lid. Cook for 2 hours, or until the internal temperature climbs to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
7. While the pork is cooking, make the glaze. Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and mix well.
8. When the pork reaches 200 degrees, remove it from the heat and set aside.
9. Raise the grill temperature to 500 degrees. When it’s hot enough, set the pork belly directly over the heat source. Grill for about 2 minutes per side with the lid closed. If you leave the lid off, the dripping fat may cause more flare-ups.
10. When the fat is nice and crisp, remove the meat from the grill. Let rest for 15 minutes.
11. Apply the glaze using a heatproof basting brush.
12. Finish cutting through the vertical slices you made to carve the meat into long strips. If you’re serving the pork belly as an appetizer, you can dice the strips into cubes and serve them on toothpicks.
Smoked Pork Shoulder
This recipe turns out moist and tender meat that makes excellent pulled pork sandwiches.
- 1 bone-in pork shoulder (about 8 pounds)
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the Rub:
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1. Make the seasoning rub. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Preheat the grill or smoker to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Apple, pecan, and cherry are all good choices if you’re using wood chips or pellets.
3. Set the pork shoulder on a baking sheet and coat with a thin layer of olive oil. Apply the spice rub, using light pressure to make the spices adhere.
4. Add the pork shoulder to the smoker or grill and close the lid. If your unit tends to run on the cooler side, consider increasing the temperature to 275. The temp should hold steady between 250 and 275 for the initial part of the smoke.
5. Allow the meat to cook for about 4-5 hours. When the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees Fahrenheit, you can wrap the meat in peach paper or aluminum foil, if desired.
6. Let the pork cook until it achieves an internal temp of 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit. If the meat is wrapped, this should take about 4 more hours. If you opt to leave it “naked,” it could take as long as 8 or 9 hours more.
7. Remove the pork from the heat and let it rest, wrapped in foil or peach paper, for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
8. Shred or chop the pork and serve as desired.
The Bottom Line
Although pork belly isn’t an adequate substitute for shoulder when making pulled pork, you can swap in pork shoulder for some pork belly recipes. This is true especially if you’re planning on grilling, oven-roasting, or frying the meat.
If possible, however, we prefer to stick with whichever ingredient is recommended. That way, we can fully appreciate what each cut has to offer.