Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Smoked Pork Belly! Bacon or NOT Bacon?

God, in his infinite wisdom, gave us the pig.  Pigs are packed with a variety of amazing, tender, delicious bits, and their rotund little bellies are the best, hands down.  There is no more flavorful, juicy, or soft and tender portion of meat than pork belly.



Humans have savored pork belly for years.  Prior to refrigeration, we knocked ourselves out trying to preserve such a valuable morsel.  We finally settled on a process of salt curing and cold smoking the belly and "bacon" was born.  I submit to you that today, 100 years later, we have refrigerators and freezers and while bacon has its place in the world, there are other ways to prepare pork belly!  Some of them might even be MORE delicious than bacon!  There, I said it....

You will need:
  • 1 Whole, 10lb untrimmed/unsliced pork belly (with or without the skin)
    Chunks of Apple Wood / Charcoal
  • Pork Rub
  • Yellow Mustard
The first thing you have to do is to find yourself a pork belly.  This is easier said than done, due to our insatiable demand for bacon, but it's possible.  Recently, Costco offered raw pork bellies to the masses at $2.29/lb!  I've seen it at restaurant supply stores like Restaurant Depot, and you can always find it on the internet.  The instructions say to cook to an internal temperature of 145 degrees, followed by a 3 minute rest.  No... we're so NOT doing that!  Don't worry, everything will be fine!  Just make sure you don't buy a pork belly that has already been cured/smoked, or you'll be bringing home a huge slab of bacon.

Open it up, drain it, rinse it in cold water, and pat it dry with a paper towel.  Trim any excess or obvious lumps or "tailings" of fat away so you have a nice squared chunk of belly.

Now, flip it over so the fat side is up.  Do you still have the skin on your belly?  It will be easy to tell, you'll see a few pig nipples and hair follicles here and there, and you'll feel the toughness of the skin.  If yours does still have the skin on, great!  Leave it in place.  If not, no big deal; we will make it work either way (more on this when it's time to hit the heat).  Skin or no-skin, you'll need to score the fat side with a good sharp knife.  I like this nifty diamond pattern, but you can score it however you like.  Extra points for creativity here, as long as you keep the lines nice and straight!  Just make sure to cut through the skin, and through the fat to the top layer of muscle.  Don't cut through the muscle!  Just the fat...

Have I mentioned how delicious this is going to be?  Imagine a hunk of pork that is as rich as a cheesecake, but softer, in texture.  Yes, it's going to happen... 

Now, rub the fat side with yellow mustard.  Make sure you get full penetration down into the cracks of your score marks!  Rub, rub, rub, keep everything nice and uniform and pretty.  You're about to apply the rub and you want a nice uniform layer of that as well.  No extra thick pockets of mustard or spices to bite into.  Take your time, it will all be worth it in the end!

Apply the rub.  I like an even mix of Smoked Paprika, Brown Sugar, Honey Powder, Salt, Cracked Pepper, and Chipotle Chili powder, myself.  Your mileage may vary.  Just be sure to use a rub that you've had before and that you like!  This poor pig spent a lifetime growing this belly, there's no sense in ruining it with a rub that is too bitter or spicy!  Note, I did not apply the rub to the other side of the belly.  It's thin and I felt that a single layer of rub was plenty.  I'm glad I did it this way, because the spice was perfect, you do want the flavor of the pig (not the rub) to shine here.

Now, *IF* your belly has the skin on, you'll need to park it in a disposable pan and bake it in a 500 degree oven for about 15 minutes.  This will crisp the skin and help enhance your scoring pattern.  If you don't have the skin on, SKIP THIS STEP because you'll just burn the fat layer that's on top of the belly and you don't want that!   Now, whether you're skin on or skin off, after this step, it's time to move to the smoker!

Pour yourself a nice cold beverage.  Take a long chug, wipe your mouth, and put on some latex BBQ gloves.  Once you have your smoker up to 225 degrees, lay down a layer of non-stick foil that's just as big as your belly, and then lay your belly on top of the foil.  Insert a temperature probe into the meaty center of the porcine goodness and take one last look at your belly(ies) to make sure they look happy.  Close the lid to your smoker and walk away until the internal temperature hits 160 degrees.

At 160 degrees, it's time to check on your little piggy.  Caution, you'll be tempted to just eat it right then! Don't do it... discipline!  Technically, the meat is done and it's certainly safe to eat at this point, but there is more fat to render and more connective tissue to break down so; we're going to cover the whole belly with foil and continue to cook until the internal temperature hits 195 degrees!  So, don your gloves again, put down your beverage, and get your belly(ies) covered!
When they touch 195, pull them off the heat and lay them down in a cooler.  Close the lid and walk away for one hour!  I know, it's hard... but consider they just spent 4-6 hours in your smoker; what's another 60 minutes?  Let the juices re-orient themselves and let things settle down.  Do NOT skip this step!
When you're time is up, you'll be ready to serve.  How do you serve pork belly?  You have options!  You can slice it into "Squares of Wonder!"
You can slice it into thick ribbons of decadent goodness!



You can pull it into ribbons of soft "pork-sicles," softer than your mouth has ever known!