Smoking Pork Belly

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Months ago I asked Adam to write a blog post about smoking meats, which has become a great hobby of his and one that I am eager to encourage and share. Finally he wrote it…and then I waited another month and a half to post it! Where is my head, I ask?

Anyway, here is the post, with loads of pictures, tips, and wit. I know summer is almost on the way out (please stay forever!), but in most parts of the world you still have time to use the smoker and treat your friends and family to a delicious pork belly meal. A big thanks to Adam for putting all this together–enjoy!

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While living in Charleston I noticed an interesting trend in my restaurant menu selection: no matter the restaurant, preparation, or price if the dish in question included pork belly, then that was what I was eating that night. I wouldn’t even finish reading the menu. It was like some sort of trained response or code phrase for brainwashed subjects in cheesy sci-fi flicks. Must. Have. Pork. Belly.

As you can imagine the options in Switzerland for smoked BBQ is pretty much non-existent. Not to be denied, last summer I picked up a “mini-smoker” for playing around with smoking pork butt, ribs and the like. But I could never get out of my head the pork belly that ensnared me in its wonderfully flavorful and fantastically fatty ways.

If you google “smoked pork belly” you get a bunch of recipes for Asian inspired cuisine that look amazing, but were not exactly what I was looking for. Shecooksshecleans’ wonderful post on her rendition of an LA Times recipe came up pretty quickly and you can assume that upon seeing “Maple Bourbon Smoked Pork Belly” I knew my search was over.

Ingredients and a few notes on each:

  • 2 pounds pork belly, rind or skin removed – we smoked a two-pounder and it provided for 3 meals for the two of us, or “meat-week” as I refer to it now. Make sure the cut has that nice thick fat cap on top and that it has not been trimmed off
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt – kosher is key not because it is kosher, but because kosher salt is typically the right granular size for brining meat (also it usually comes without other preservatives found in typical table salt)
  • 1 tablespoon toasted and crushed mustard seed
  • ½ Tablespoon Black pepper
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup – choose your favorite brand (just stay away from butter-enhanced monstrosities)
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon – again, pick your favorite brand, but please stick to bourbon! Most bourbon’s have a flavor profile that will pair nicely with the sweetness of the maple syrup. For our smoke we used Four Roses which has a subtle sweet flavor. Plus, it’s not so expensive that I felt bad about putting a couple of shots in a marinade.
  • Small hardwood chunks/chips, preferably a fruit wood – I prefer chunks as they burn slower than chips and produce the type of smoke you want, but for this smoke we used cherry chips because that was what I had on hand. Apple, pear, or even peach hardwood would work just fine. Just avoid mesquite as it can be a bit strong and potentially “oversmoke” your beautiful succulent pork.
  • A smoker or grill that allows an indirect heat set up.

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PREP

1.Plan ahead. This recipe calls for a 3-day brine/marinade. Check the weather for the weekend and pick up your pork belly fresh from the butcher mid-week. Does it really need 3 days? I dunno, but I don’t think it is possible to over-marinade the meat (it mainly just coats the surface). However, a 2-3 day brine does give the salt (which will penetrate the meat) time to work its flavor enhancing magic on this thick cut. When you are at the meat counter just make sure it has not been cured (this is also known as bacon). Lastly, if it is of the pre-packaged variety avoid those that include “enhanced” or “injected” which will mean it already has salt added to it and probably a bunch of other chemicals you don’t want.

2. Wash and pat dry the meat with paper towels. It’s always a good idea to wash the meat to clean off any stray bits from the butcher. Cut a crosshatch pattern into the top fat cap. By cutting cross hatches you are increasing the surface area of the flesh and giving the marinade more places to latch on to the meat with its tasty goodness. One thing the LA Times article recommends is cutting the pork belly in half, but strangely, they recommend this after it has been marinated. Next time around, I plan to cut it in half before marinating, to yet again increase the surface area for that mouth-watering crust to develop.

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IMG_92003. Toast and crush the mustard seed. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl and spread about half directly on the meat. Give it good rubbin’ with your hands to work it into the crevices on the fat. Once it’s rubbed in, slide the pork belly into a large re-sealable plastic bag.

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IMG_92094. Combine the remaining dry ingredients and wet ingredients in a bowl and stir. Pour the marinade into the bag and massage gently. Try to get as much air out as possible, seal the bag, and place into bowl or shallow baking dish and refrigerate. Turn it once daily over the next few days.

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SMOKE

1. Again, plan ahead. Start to finish it will take about 5 hours from lighting the coals to pulling it off smoker.

2. Light your fuel. Can’t go wrong with a coal-starter which produces white-hot coals in a hurry and is convenient for transferring onto a pile of unlit fuel.

3.  in the picture below you can see my set-up which consists of foil wrapped bowl filled with water (which will also serve as a drip pan). The way I understand it, a water pan can help add moisture to the smoke thereby making it cling easier to the meat and imparting more of its delicate but delicious flavor. In addition, it forms a barrier acts as a diffuser to the heat below creating that nice indirect cooking environment for low temps and slow smoking. I place a thermometer above the grate itself to keep tabs on the cooking temperature. It is key that it is not too close to the wall of the smoker but also not too close to the meat. The meat is obviously cold when you start cooking and while it cooks it will “sweat” which creates an artificial cool zone around the meat therefore throwing off your temperature reading. The old adage is true, low and slow. 225 °F is your goal, but if it creeps up to 250 °F for a bit, it won’t do much harm.

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4.  Once you have the smoker at your desired temp, place the meat fat side up, and throw on some wood chips. I use roughly a few handfuls at a time. After about 45 minutes to an hour, go ahead and throw another handful on there. Repeat once more in an hour if you feel like it.

5.  Find some shade, put away your phone, tablet, or phablet, crack open a cold one and watch the smoke waft by. Life is good.

6. About once an hour I take a peek and give it a good spritz with apple juice from a spray bottle to help keep it moist. Don’t over-do it when you spray it down. You don’t want to wash off that beautiful crust that is forming.

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7.  After about 3 hours check the internal temperature in the very middle. LA Times says you are safe to eat the pork when it reaches 150 degrees, but I agree with shecookshecleans in that letting it sit longer until 170 or 180 degrees is probably a better bet. As mentioned it may take 4-5 hours to get to the 175 range, but the timing will depend on many variables like the weather, your smoker, etc. If you don’t have a good digital meat thermometer, go out and get one today. There is literally no excuse to play the guessing game on any cooked meat and especially one that you just spent 5 hours on!

8. Let the meat rest or hold for a good 15-20 minutes to cool back down before you cut into it. It’s hard to resist, but the meat is finishing what is called carryover cooking while the internal temperature evens out within the belly itself. Then slice, dice, cube, shred, you name it, there is no wrong way to eat this.

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9 thoughts on “Smoking Pork Belly

  1. That really looked good. You both are great writers and I really do enjoy reading your blogs. Dave and I are in Phoenix taking care of Amy’s pugs while she is on vacation in New York. We ate at a very delicious bbq place the other night and it was so good. I am thinking the smoking thing runs in our family. Both Gary and Mark smoke meat all the time. I will admit I don’t recall any pork belly though. I will share this with them. Have a great end of summer and like smoking the meat let the fall weather soak in and prepare you for the often beauty of winter. Love to you both.

  2. Adam and Kristina- What a wonderful meal you came up with!I am sure Adam’s Dad is proud of his son who is following in his foot steps with smoking and grilling!You are a great pair!!! I learn something from you Kristina all the time!!Thank you for sharing! Looking forward to seeing you both! Love you Grandma

  3. Great post guys, I’ve cooked with pork belly before, but never smoked it. I’ll be grabbing a slab for some experimentation soon. I’m curious to see how my 3 little meat eaters will react, they tend to chow on Dad’s BBQ.

    • I also was going to provide feedback on the rest time. When I cook brisket, pork butt, or even chicken, I wrap up the meat in foil then put it in a cooler packed with towels. This lets the meat continue to cook, but keeps the temp ramp down very slowly so you have plenty of time to cook sides or anything else. I’ve left meat in a cooler for a couple of hours and still had it piping hot when i take it out to eat. I’m sure you could do this with the PB as well.

      The other reason i like to do this is it removes any pressure around having the meat done at a certain time for dinner. By planning on letting meat sit in the cooler for 2 hours prior to dinner it no longer matters if it takes a little longer to cook than originally expected. I think this really comes into play with cooking brisket, which I find the most difficult meat to consistently time correctly. With my type A personality and lack of patience, I used to get really stressed out when the internal meat temperature wasn’t rising on the same curve I had planned out. Now that I’ve adopted the cooler method I just don’t worry about it as I know I’ve got plenty of time for variation.

      Just a few thoughts. Have a great weekend guys.

      • Great tips! We haven’t done brisket yet simply because it seems like a finicky cut of meat and I’m not sure Adam has the timing down yet. I like the idea of the keeping meat wrapped in a cooler because I understand the drama of trying to get everything on the table at once, especially when there are friends and family involved. It can be stressful! Let me know if you decide to try out the pork belly. You won’t regret it! : )

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