Pork belly is a boneless cut of fatty meat from the belly of a pig. Curing and smoking it low and slow makes it tender, juicy, and flavorful. Here's how to smoke pork belly to perfection!
We started making our own bacon a few years ago. Back then, there were not a lot of paleo or Whole30 bacon options on the market. Most bacon you can buy at the grocery store contains sugar, as well as preservatives and chemicals you usually can't pronounce.
I wanted something I could do in bulk easily with off the shelf ingredients, so I started experimenting.
What is pork belly
Pork belly is a boneless cut of fatty meat from the belly of a pig. You probably more commonly know it as bacon, which is what it becomes once it is cured, cooked, sliced, and fried!
Where to buy pork belly
We buy our pork belly in large slabs from a local healthy grocery store called EarthFare. They typically have sales once or twice a year where the price goes from $4.99/lb to $2.99/lb, and we go buy whatever they have.
And when I say whatever they have, I mean WHATEVER they have. We often leave with between 50-70 pounds of pork belly slabs, and stick them in our large upright freezer, then we work with one package at a time. Here's what just one of those slabs looks like:
Regardless of whether you have the storage space for large cuts or not, you can still follow this tutorial to learn how to smoke pork belly on your own! The recipe and amounts here are for a 2.5 pound slab of pork belly.
How to cure pork belly
Making pork belly comes down to two essential steps - curing and heating. The curing step is the trickier of the two.
My goal was to create a sugar free cure that would result in a Whole30 compliant pork belly, without losing out on flavor.
Most homemade pork belly recipes rely on a dry cure, which is basically packing pork belly in a mixture of salt, brown sugar, and other spices for a few days. The majority of the bacon you buy at the store has been dry cured.
An alternate strategy to curing pork belly is with a brine. This entails submerging the pork belly slab in a mix of salt, sugar, spices, and water for a few days.
When experimenting with brining, I was able to skip sugar by replacing the liquid with apple cider. While this worked, the naturally sweet cider had to be diluted or I had to add a much higher volume of salt and other spices to get the right taste in the finished product.
This approach also required much more physical space in the fridge throughout the multi-day curing process, as liquid expands to fill the container you give it!
The secret curing solution
Despite a lot of experimentation, I couldn’t find a dry cure recipe I liked, and I never came up with a sugar alternative (including omitting sweetener entirely) that gave the right flavor in a dry cure. The result of most attempts at dry cured pork belly was just too salty.
Apple cider was too sweet and took up too much space. Dry curing wasn’t sweet enough. The solution I came to was instead an applesauce slurry (get it?). I thought applesauce might solve both the space and the sweetness problems.
I reasoned that some of the sugars in the applesauce had to be locked up in the apple pulp, unlike the cider where it was in liquid, free to interact with the pork belly. Sweet, but not too sweet.
I also determined that applesauce would prevent much of the salt from dissolving into the solution, keeping it against the meat in high concentration.
This meant that I’d need a smaller volume of slurry: more than dry cure and less than brine, which means less ingredients to get the right flavor (and less space taken up in the fridge for 4 days, which makes Jess happy!)
How to cure pork belly
Once you've made your cure, you want to put the 2.5 pound slab of pork belly in a non-reactive (not metal) container - I like either large ziplocks or a large glass container, depending on the amount of meat you're working with.
Add the curing solution to the container as well. Once the meat and cure are in the container, make sure to coat the pork belly well before putting it into the fridge.
Cure it in the fridge for four days, flipping or rotating every 24 hours to ensure even curing. Any less than four days means missing out on flavor. I think you hit diminishing returns by day five.
How long to smoke pork belly
Whatever grill or smoker you use, the first step is to preheat it to 225°. For this tutorial, we are working with a Traeger Ironwood 885 smoker and wood pellet grill.
You'll need to make sure you have a meat thermometer to test the internal temperature of the pork belly. With pork, an internal temperature over 165° is enough to kill off Trichinella or anything else that might be in the meat.
I recommend smoking for 3 hours. Keep in mind that after smoking the pork belly, you’re likely still going to slice it and cook it up, either fried like bacon slices or cooked up in chunks to get that crispy exterior.
I don’t think a longer cook time is necessarily a bad thing when making bacon; though if you get the internal temperature too high, the bacon could be too dry when you eventually cook it the second time.
What about the grease
Longer smoking mostly just serves to expel grease from the pork belly. When you smoke pork belly, it’s normal to lose 30-40% of the weight of the pork belly as grease. Don't throw it out!
Save it. It will last weeks in the fridge and longer in the freezer. It makes a great cooking grease for eggs, veggies, and more. We keep ours in a mason jar in the fridge!
I really like the grease trap on the Traeger Ironwood 885 because it makes doing this easier than any smoker I’ve used before. It drains the grease out of the smoker and away from the open flame.
It's also important to remember that the grease is extremely flammable. If you do have a flare up, stay calm, and do not, I repeat, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO USE WATER TO PUT THE FIRE OUT.
Pouring water on burning grease or oil will not extinguish the fire. It will only cause the burning oil to splash, spreading the grease fire around.
Keep something handy that will help tamper the flames - a fire extinguisher, a box of salt, or a bucket of sand.
When you pull the pork belly off of the smoker, cut off a piece and taste it! Keep in mind that it will be warm and a bit chewier and fattier than bacon would be. You'll cook off more grease and crisp it up when you fry it.
How long will smoked pork belly keep
Once you're done smoking the pork belly, you want to allow it to cool a bit before storing.
You can keep it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or in the freezer for 3-6 months.
If you have a stand alone deep freezer, it will keep for up to a year.
Don't have a smoker? That's ok. Here's how to make homemade bacon with your own cure and your oven at home!
- 2.5 pound pork belly slab
- 24 oz unsweetened applesauce
- ¼ cup salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon cayenne powder
- 1 teaspoon juniper berries
- Combine all dry ingredients except the salt in a spice grinder and grind.
- Combine ground spices with applesauce. Add salt and stir until well mixed.
- Place pork belly in a glass pan or plastic bag, then add curing mixture and coat thoroughly.
- Place pan or bags in the refrigerator for 4 days, flipping daily to ensure even curing.
- When ready to smoke, remove from fridge. Rinse, pat dry, and then let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.
- While resting, preheat your smoker to 225°.
- Once preheated, place pork belly on grill and smoke for 2 hours.
- After 2 hours, begin checking internal temperature every 15 minutes - you want to remove it when internal temperature exceeds 165°.
- Cut and serve. If making bacon, allow to cool slightly, then refrigerate overnight.
Smoked pork belly will last in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
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