Can I Cook Side Pork Belly Strips And Have It Be Like Bacon?

When you learn how to cook side pork belly, oh my gosh. It is scrumptious. Just remember that side pork belly is not bacon. It might look like bacon before you cook it — but not after.

I remember the first time I saw a package of sliced side pork belly in my grocer’s meat case. The ruddy, streaky strips looked like bacon, but they weren’t vacuum-sealed in a branded package like bacon.

Instead, the side pork belly was packaged like the other fresh cuts around it: on a white tray wrapped round with clear cling wrap, labeled by the pound onsite.

I took some home. I cooked it up like bacon.

Wow, was it ever not bacon.

It just turned a tan color, like roast pork. The flavor was mild, like a pork chop. It didn’t fry into a crisp, ripply ribbon like bacon, but into a chewy piece of… pork.

Pork belly — also known as side pork belly or side pork — is what you make bacon out of. First, you cure it. Then, you smoke it. Those two critical steps make the world of difference between the two.

They may look nearly the same uncooked. But, oh boy, when you cook them, you need to know which is which.

I looked for recipes. The ones I found advised me to do exactly what I had done: sprinkle on some salt, and then just cook the side pork strips as if they were bacon.

Evidently a lot of people enjoy side pork belly strips cooked like bacon. You might be one of those people — give it a try and see!

I am not one of those people. My first response was to work on making bacon at home out of the side pork belly. It was a lot of fuss and took a lot of time and I never got anything delicious out of the efforts.

My motto is, if you want to get something really good to eat, learn to make it yourself. In this case, what I got was an appreciation of the craft and artistry that goes into making excellent bacon. Not to mention patience.

It was years before I learned to appreciate fresh pork belly strips for themselves. Finally, we learned the secrets of how to cook side pork belly strips that are fantastic. Just recently, my husband perfected and simplified the method.

In this series, I’m going to share it all with you. Stayed tuned for an amazing and easy recipe for crispy pork belly strips perfect for a low-carb weekend breakfast, appetizer tray, potluck, or picnic. 

Meantime, a little exploration into the difference between bacon and side pork belly.

You know how bacon cooks up red?

That’s because it’s cured. That means it was treated with salt and nitrate. A nitrate is an electrically charged particle left over from the supper of certain rock-eating bacteria.

Mix nitrate with salt and add it to red meat, and nitrate ferments into a new compound — nitrite. It alters the meat so that it looks different and tastes different.

When you cook cured meat, the color deepens into an appetizing, ruddy red color. Without curing, cooking turns meat brown. Think of the difference in color between corned beef and a hamburger. The red corned beef is cured; the hamburger isn’t. 

Curing also develops a complex, compelling flavor that’s almost tangy. Think of how different corned beef tastes from a hamburger. Again, curing.

Nitrates get a bad rap. However, they occur naturally and plentifully in many green vegetables.

Take a look at a nitrate-free bacon or hot dog package and read the fine print. You’ll see that they cured it with nitrate-rich celery.  In fact, they don’t even use the phrase “nitrate free” for these products anymore.

The labeling got more nuanced a few years back. “No added nitrates (except for those naturally occurring in celery” is the kind of wording I see now.

When you see “uncured” on a pack of nice, pink bacon and note celery powder in the ingredient list, know that the bacon is indeed cured. But don’t hold that against the company that makes it.

They would be breaking the law to described their product as cured. The USDA classified celery powder as a “flavoring agent.” Many thanks to FirstHand Foods’ article Nitrate-Free Bacon: Myth or Reality by Jennifer Curtis for help in understanding this point.

If you should find an outlier hot dog or bacon where they truly used no nitrates at all, you will find one of these two things.

Either (1) the product turns brown  like a pork chop when you cook it, and the taste isn’t like what you’d usually expect.

Or (2) it cooks up red and tastes right, and you will see, on the ingredient list, the soup of colors and flavors they used to painstakingly recreate the effects of nitrate salts.

The distinctive color and taste of the traditional curing process that humans discovered hundreds of years ago.

To simulate the alchemy of that one simple ingredient, it takes the full force of industrial food processing. Which do you think is more likely to be wholesome?

Humans have been preserving meat with salt for thousands of years. They discovered curing around the 13th century in central Europe, where the ground held deposits of potassium nitrate and salt interlaced.

When they meat in the natural salt-nitrate blend, they found a marvelous new oomph. It didn’t take long to find and isolate the extra ingredient.

Fine, fine, you say, but how about the cancer thing? Don’t nitrates and nitrites cause cancer? 

Yes. Just look at this article.  (But keep in mind that this particular Guardian writer considers clean eating to be a dangerous “belief system” that we must “kill off.”)

No. Just look at this article. (Chris Kresser points out that a single serving of arugula delivers the nitrate content of 467 hot dogs. Plus an additional barrage of brain-busting facts.)

Does that mean nitrates and their effects are healthful? Of course not. To draw that conclusion would be committing the genetic fallacy.

Lots of natural things are toxic — amanita mushrooms, arsenic, and so on. But if you are in the habit of seeking clues and taking cues from traditional foodways, then know that nitrates belong in that space.

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