Pork belly and bacon are both often derived from the belly of the pig, which has led to confusion over the years over which one to go for when smoking or grilling your next cut of BBQ pork. Find out everything you need to know about the differences between pork belly and bacon in our in-depth guide.
While bacon is also frequently derived from the belly of the pig, what sets it apart is that it is slowly cured, dried, and smoked before use.
In this guide we’ll take a look at:
- The main differences between bacon and pork belly
- The different cuts of pork that can be used for bacon
- When to use pork belly vs bacon
- Some great recipe ideas for each of the pork cuts
When it comes to delicious cuts of pork, it’s hard to look beyond bacon.
Whether it’s crispy bacon on the grill, or smoked low and slow, the pork cut always has us coming back for more.
So it’s little wonder that it’s one of the most popular foods in the US.
It’s a versatile meat ingredient that can be used in a range of ways, and its rich salt and fat content often allows it to elevate practically any dish it’s added to.
Pork belly is a similar cut of meat that is also highly revered, but perhaps not as much as bacon. Despite this, it’s widely used in high-end restaurants, and is a similar melt-in-the-mouth delicious quality to bacon.
It should come as no surprise that both pork belly and bacon are often confused with one another.
But what similarities do they have and, more importantly, what are the most important differences between them?
In today’s guide we’re going to take a deep dive into where each of them comes from in the pig, how they tastes, and how they’re best used.
Let’s get into it!
What is pork belly and where does it come from?
As the name suggests, pork belly is a boneless cut of meat that comes from the belly portion of the pig.
Traditionally the cut of pork has often been cooked by roasting, braising or deep frying it. This is because it has a tender texture to it that lends itself well to the cooking methods, and allows the meat to melt in your mouth.
The really good news though is that it can also be BBQ smoked. More on this in a bit!
The great thing about pork belly is that it’s relatively cheap when compared to other cuts, like pork tenderloin.
In the past, pork belly would often be ground down to make other types of pork, like sausage, and wasn’t really bought as an ingredient by itself.
This has changed now, as more and more people are making the most of the meat. Thankfully, the surge in popularity hasn’t led to a surge in price.
What is bacon and where does it come from?
Bacon is almost always from pork belly, especially in North America and Western Europe.
That’s not to say that this is always the case. While bacon can also come from the belly, it can also be taken from other areas of the animal. In some cases when you buy bacon, your supermarket or butcher might label where exactly on the pig the bacon has been taken from. However this isn’t always the case.
Bacon has been popular in many of the world’s cuisines, and so it can also be cut from the sides, back, shoulder and loin.
As a result, you might be familiar with some of these bacon names:
- Streaky bacon – By far the most common cut of bacon. Taken from the belly cut. It can come in thick cuts, making it perfect for smoked recipes like homemade bacon jerky.
- Back Bacon – Also popular, particularly in the United Kingdom, and often contains the loin and sometimes a portion of the belly. It tends to be much leaner than streaky bacon, and is often from the same part of the pig as pork chops.
- Jowl bacon – From cheek meat on the head, and is then cured or smoked
- Cottage Bacon – From pork shoulder
- Slab Bacon – Made from less expensive side cuts
What makes bacon ‘bacon’ is the curing that it undergoes before cooking. This is a process draws moisture out of the meat with salt very slowly, often over the course of nearly a week. It’s then left to dry for up to 24 hours, and then smoked over hickory or applewood.
So what are the main differences between pork belly and bacon?
Bacon is cured and smoked
Even though bacon and pork belly is often from the same area of the pig, one of the biggest differences between the two is the meat prep that happens prior to cooking.
While pork belly can be smoked almost directly after being cut, bacon needs to go through strict curing and smoking prior to being cooked.
While a lot of people focus on the cure, the smoking stage changes the texture of the bacon in a profound way that really takes it to that stage we know so well.
Check out our other BBQ pork posts:
Bacon is (usually) more expensive
With the curing and smoking process that bacon needs to undergo, usually done by your butcher or supermarket, it makes sense that bacon is often more expensive than pork belly pound-per-pound.
Curing in particular takes days, and bacon quite often has additives like sodium and nitrates added to it to enhance the flavor further.
Pork belly is healthier
Unlike bacon, pork belly doesn’t have the same number of additives tacked on once it’s cut. And because it’s not cured, it doesn’t have any salt added to it either.
For this reason, a lot of people consider it healthier than bacon.
Cooked pork belly is softer (and more versatile)
Regardless of where on the pig you derive it from, bacon is often cooked until it’s near-crisp.
In contrast, pork belly tends to be far softer and more tender. For this reason, it tends to lend itself to a greater variety of cooking methods, even BBQ smoking.
A word of warning though. If you overcook pork belly, or allow it to dry out, then the fat content in the meat will over render and turn rubbery.
When to use pork belly vs bacon
So how do you know which to go for when looking to enhance a meal?
We all know that bacon is great (and I mean great) by itself, but it’s a great meat ingredient to add to elevate recipes.
While it can be added to savory dishes to add a slice of salty succulence to them, it’s also great when matched with sweet dishes.
Pork belly on the other hand is better at adding a far more rich layer of flavor to dishes. That’s why it’s so well used with East Aisan dishes, particularly in China and The Philippines.
Quick guide: When to use bacon:
- As a crispy accoutrement to salads, side dishes, and pasta
- Sandwich fillings
- As a sweet breakfast topping
Quick guide: When to use pork belly:
- As the main protein in a pork dish, especially when BBQ smoking, slow cooking, or over roasting
- When making long-form dishes, like stew or crockpot noodle or soup dishes
- As a pork topping to noodle dishes, like reman
- When BBQ smoking pork
How to eat smoked pork belly
If you’re struggling for ideas once you’ve cooked your pork belly, here are some of my favorite ways to serve it up.
- Shredded pulled pork, which can then be stored and used with one of my leftover pulled pork recipes (that aren’t sandwiches!)
- Chill overnight and then slice the next day for sandwich fillings (be careful not to slice before refrigerating to help lower the risk of drying out)
- Cube up and have as bite-sized pork snacks – but try not to eat them all at once
How to eat homemade smoked bacon
One of the most obvious ways to serve up bacon is as part of an egg and sausage breakfast, or in a sandwich. But why stop there?
- Chili burgers for a total decadent topping
- Jalapeño poppers to help coat one of my favorite types of peppers
- Drunken Brisket – Top off your favorite smoked barbecue brisket recipe with bacon for a mouthwatering finish