Very few cuts of meat carry with them the excitement and reverence that a slab of pork belly does. Basically, pork belly is the bottom section of a pig—not in the unappetizing view you may imagine as you picture a pig’s stomach—but the flavorful combination of flesh and meat that runs along the underside of the animal.
Most chefs and picky eaters alike prefer to procure their pork bellies whole, and in these cases a single cut of pork belly meat could way as much as 15 pounds.
If necessary, for visualization purposes, just imagine the slab of pork belly as an untouched, uncured, unsmoked, and untampered giant slab of potential bacon. The only problem is, many people might look at you as silly if you actually used your entire glorious slab of pork belly for bacon use.
That isn’t to say that your pork belly can’t be used for bacon, but the additional uses are often more succulent and provide a wide array of culinary options. While the meat content isn’t the main draw of the pork belly, the plethora of fat layers surrounding the meat gather most of the attention. It is these fat layers that allow the juices to thoroughly cook into the meat, providing a delicious final product that will have you clamoring for pork belly whenever it is available.
Is Pork Belly Expensive?
Because of the great demand for large and untouched slabs of pork belly, the price is relatively shocking to most consumers. Additionally, the market fluctuates constantly as the price of pork itself rarely remains static for long periods of time.
Depending in your location, the availability, and even the quality of the pork belly you are purchasing, prices can range from $1.50-$2.75 per pound for untrimmed pork belly when you are purchasing it by the case (up to 40 pounds in some areas; equal to approximately three whole pork bellies). However, buying it in small amounts will usually be more expensive, and can run as high as $3.50-$6 per pound in areas with low supply or inconsistent demand.
The best price available for pork belly will almost always come from meat merchants and butchers able to cycle through larger amounts of pork belly more quickly. If you find yourself forced to settle with a local butcher at a generic grocery store, not only will you likely have to pay through the roof for your pork belly, but you will also struggle to purchase it in bulk.
Where are the Best Places to Buy Pork Bellies?
Each neighborhood is different, especially those in areas that struggle to procure excellent meat, but there should always be at least one place nearby for you to purchase high quality pork belly.
In many areas, specialty niche grocery stores might be the most likely place to find affordable pork belly. Both Oriental and Hispanic grocery stores often have butchers with extensive knowledge regarding pork bellies as well, so after you purchase your required amount they could possibly also offer valuable advice related to cooking your newly purchased pork slab.
Some well-known oriental meat markets that might be able to serve all of your pork belly needs include, but are not limited to: Super H Mart, Jim’s Super Meat Market, Asia Market, 99 Ranch, HK Market and more. While many of the highest quality Mexican and Hispanic meat markets go by a variety of names, keeping an eye out for a local neighborhood La Michoacana Meat Market will usually be very beneficial for hungry shoppers as they are located throughout many towns.
Unless it necessary due to a lack of specialty markets or butchers in the area, it is best to avoid purchasing pork belly at generic grocery stores. While your particular local store might employ a well-trained butcher with exceptional knowledge of all meats—including pork belly—the cost and quality of the pork belly at many generic grocery stores are in direct conflict. So, while you may very well be able to purchase a few pounds of pork belly from there, you will be paying quite a bit per pound, and the chances of securing and taking home an entire slab (or pack of three slabs) is unlikely and will subsequently limit your recipe options. Additionally, much of the pork belly found at generic grocery stories might have been frozen for extended period of time to extend its shelf life.
What is the Difference Between Pork Belly and Bacon?
At the core of their existences, bacon and pork belly are similar—yet are viewed completely differently by those who purchase and eat the two products. The majority of bacon is pork belly that has been cured, smoked, sliced, altered, or enhanced in a certain way. This means that while bacon (for the most part) is a product coming from pork belly, pork belly is not bacon.
The majority of the allure surrounding pork belly is attached to its uncut, uncured, unsmoked, unaltered form. The large slabs, some of which weigh up to 15 pounds, are looked upon with worship for their beauty, and are viewed by chefs as a nearly-pure meat entity. Once a chef or butcher gets to work on that slab, either by slicing, smoking, or curing it, that is when pork belly finds itself transforming into a variety of other products—including bacon.
Additionally, not all forms of bacon are cut from a pork belly. While this is obvious in cases of non-pork bacon (such as turkey bacon, lamb bacon, and veggie bacon), there are other varieties of pork bacon, such as jowl bacon, that has no relation to the succulent pork bellies being discussed. Surprisingly enough, it is jowl bacon that many culinary experts point to as the superior piece of bacon. Jowl bacon is cut from the jowl (cheek) of a pig, and provides a much meatier cut that some people may prefer to the fattier belly cuts.
Pork Bellies Used to be Traded as a Stock Market Commodity
The stock market can be quite interesting to monitor and observe from time to time, and no era was better for stock watching than the nearly five-decade run that pork bellies had as a publicly-traded futures commodity.
Beginning with their inclusion into the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1961, pork bellies were traded as a futures commodity for five decades before finally being removed from the aforementioned Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a direct result of the volatility of pork belly values. While a 50-year run as a tradeable commodity is impressive in its own right, even the reasoning for its removal from the market is a vote of confidence as to the popularity of pork bellies. Because the demand is so constant and the supply has begun to waver, pork belly was too dangerous to continue trading—how many other types or cuts of meat can say that?!
In order to maintain standardization on the market, pork bellies were traded in 40,000-pound units comprised of pork belly cuts weighing between 7 and 19 pounds. The market would often fluctuate between seasons as individuals would purchase large amounts of pork belly in cold weather while demand was low, and then attempt to sell it, at markup, as demand has increased along with the temperature. This paid off very well for many investors, as countless American business magnates identify early pork belly trading as one of the keys to their financial success.
How Can You Cook Pork Belly?
Pork belly can be cooked a variety of different ways depending on the taste of the chef in charge of preparation or the tastes of the individuals set to enjoy the pork belly. Regardless of the technique eventually chosen, one of the greatest benefits of pork belly is the lack of additional ingredients required in most recipes including this succulent slab of meat.
Braised Pork Belly- Braised pork belly is often the first thing a chef thinks of when they have a slab of pork belly in their position. It is simple, makes the kitchen smell amazing, and can yield large amounts of finished product that are perfect for recipes ranging from gumbo, to grits, to casseroles, to basically whatever a chef can imagine.
Braised pork belly can be booked very easily in a lidded oven. Just take about a pound of pork belly (chopped evenly into small chunks), throw them into your Dutch oven, cover about halfway with your choice of cooking liquid (wines, salty seasoning sauces, and even chicken broths work), add additional seasonings, and then let cook (covered) for approximately 60 minutes on high (or 400 degrees Fahrenheit).
After that important first hour, merely lower your oven to its lowest temperature (200 degrees or so) and let it cook for between four to eight hours—depending on how you tender you prefer your meat, or how long you can survive the delicious smells carrying through your house without caving in and chowing down.
After those additional hours, removed the cooked pork belly from your oven, let it sit long enough to become firm for slicing, and there you go: dozens of slices and bite-sized chunks of the richest pork you have ever tasted-all with only a few ingredients and even less steps involved.
Crispy Pork Belly- The newest trend in pork belly seems to have spun off from bacon lover’s tastes, and that is crispiness.
In this recipe, it will be necessary you to take your slab of pork belly and tenderize it by stabbing the skin lightly in order to allow the fat to render. You can use a toothpick, a poker, a fork, or any similar kitchen instrument with sharp tines. Just be certain not to damage the meat, as only the skin need to be poked for aeration.
Next, in order to create the correct texture and moisture (or lack thereof), it is recommended to rub both salt and baking soda along the entire area of the skin. Then just simply let it sit for anywhere (even hanging if you prefer) between 6-12 hours to allow additional drying to occur. Gently rinse the remaining baking soda on the pork belly with vinegar and prepare to cook it!
Before you throw it in the conventional oven however, season it to your liking. Lemon, ginger, jalapeno, brown sugar, plum juice, whatever you’d like, the ingredient possibilities are wide open when dealing with pork belly because of overflow of natural flavors within the meat, so definitely don’t be afraid to experiment.
Put the slab (skin side facing upwards) in the oven at 375 degrees for between 75-90 minutes, and then at the very end of the cooking process, crank your oven up to 450 degrees for a few minutes and allow that skin to rise and crisp more than you could have ever imagined.
Remove the pork belly from the oven, allow it to sit for a few minutes, and then slice yourself off a decadent piece of crispiness and clear your future schedule so you can do it all again soon.
What Do We Know About Pork Belly Now?
- Bacon often comes from pork belly, but an uncured, unsmoked, unaltered slab of pork belly is NOT the same thing as bacon.
- Pork belly was a legitimately-traded futures commodity on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for 50 years before finally being removed in 2011 due to market volatility.
- If you are paying more than $5 per pound for your pork belly, you should widen your search range as you might be able to pay much less.
- Specialty grocery stores—especially Oriental and Mexican meat markets—are often the most convenient and affordable suppliers of pork belly in many areas.
- It is best to purchase the entire slab of untrimmed pork belly if you’re looking to experiment with the meat, as you’ll get a much better deal and have a larger amount of meat to work with.
- Pork belly is used in a variety of recipes, though mainly as an add-on due to its rich, succulent taste. Small cracklings can be shredded over salads, chunks can be dipped into gumbo, and there are even desserts that use the rich flavor of pork belly to their benefit.
- If you haven’t had pork belly before, you are missing out. It might not be available on the stock exchange anymore, but it will definitely be available at a nearby butcher or specialty store. There is a reason bacon has become commonplace in society—the flavor. Pork belly finds itself on the next level above that, so do yourself a favor and indulge into the delectability of pork belly the next chance you get.
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