What’s the difference between side pork and pork belly? | Part 1 in a series

What is side pork? What is pork belly? Is it exactly the same thing, or not? Why does it look so much like bacon? Can I cook it like bacon? Why would I want to eat it? And what does any of this have to do with the futures market?

First of all, pork belly is fantastic. In this series, I’m going to give you an amazing recipe for crispy pork belly strips perfect for a low-carb weekend breakfast, appetizer tray, potluck, or picnic. It’s my favorite recipe for side pork strips. It’s not quite pure keto. I’ll be working on a keto pork belly strips recipe, too.

  • See Part 2 for how come a pork belly recipe doesn’t cook, look, or taste like bacon.
  • See Part 3 for the best crispy pork belly recipe for Costco pork belly slices.

And now for those burning questions.

What is side pork? What is pork belly?

Side pork, pork belly, fresh pork belly, side pork belly: all of these (and some other variations, too) mean exactly the same thing on the label in your grocer’s meat case.  Despite what you might find when you look it up.

You see, once upon a time on the Internet, somebody made a mistake.

Way back in 2010, someone on Chowhound’s home cooking forum posted a question asking how to prepare sliced side pork. Somewhere deep among the responses, another Chowhound member piped up to say that they had “no idea” how to prepare sliced side pork. Unfortunately, they prefaced their non-answer with a detailed statement about where side pork comes from, where belly comes from, where they get their names, and how one is leaner than the other.

Only problem is, all of it is wrong.

And now (2018) when you search Google about this, Google pulls out that bit of misinformation from from way down in the thread and shows it as a top result. Sometimes the top result.

I went down a rabbit hole looking for more info and clarification. I pored over dozens of those diagrams that show a silhouette of a pig divided up into cuts like “loin” and “ham” and so forth. I looked through the most likely of the books on my shelves. And of course, websites. I couldn’t find anyone who said the same thing as the Chowhound member. Not the National Pork Board. Not any meat processor, no farmer of heritage pigs, no blogger, no one. Well, there was one website that said something sort of similar in the first paragraph of its article on side pork, but then contradicted itself in the second paragraph. Not to mention identifying “back fat” (the usual term is fatback) as part of the belly. Actually, it is from exactly where it sounds like it’s from.

It turns out that there are interchangeable terms for the same parts of a pig. Some sites and diagrams showed some terms, and some showed others. What’s more, some diagrams broke things down to different levels. To make matters works, I even found articles with illustrations that didn’t match the text of the article. I guess someone in editorial just got the assignment “Find one of those dotted line pictures of a pig and stick it in this article.” An article on the Weber Grills website, A Butcher’s Guide to Cuts of Pork, had the best summary of terms all in the same place I could find.

Here’s what I pieced together in today’s journey.

“Primal” is the butcher’s term for one of the main sections of an animal. Each animal has two sets of primals: right and left. They divide a pig into four primals. There’s (1) the loin (back), (2) the back leg (ham), and (3) the shoulder (butt, which means “wide end” and refers to the traditional blunt barrels New Englanders packed them into). And finally there’s (4) the side, also known as the belly.

Why is the side also known as the belly? These terms sound like they’re about different parts of an animal. Ah, but that’s only so for us city folks who have lost touch with the shape of the animals we depend upon. When we hear “belly,” we’re thinking about how we bipedal humans are shaped. Our torso is generally wider than it is deep. So our bellies go straight across the front of our bodies, or with a gentle curve like a shallow “C.” A quadruped’s belly is more of a hard-angled “V” shape.

A pig is shaped more like a fish than a human. The belly wraps around the sides. It is the sides.

I finally grasped this when I watched Bon Appetit’s video How to Butcher an Entire Pig: Every Cut of Pork Explained.

The side/belly primal is a slab that’s nearly flat, like a tabletop. Under the skin, it’s only as thick as a piece of bacon is wide. Literally. That’s what bacon is cut from. Plus the thickness of a sparerib. Also literally. In the video, you can see this very clearly, much more than any still image or 2-D drawing can show. You can see the guy peel the rack of ribs away from the slab of muscle that will later be cured and smoked and made into bacon.

It only takes a glance at that 14″ x 10″ slab to recognize it as future bacon. The white streaks of fat look so distinctive — in fact, it’s hard not to see it bacon when you look at it.

Now, get this. This subprimal slab can go by any of a few different names. Like “side pork.” Or “pork belly.” Or “fresh pork belly.”

That’s right. The side (or belly) yields a cut known as side pork (or pork belly). In other words, remove the bones (and a couple of other small bits) from a belly, and you get pork belly. Put another way, remove the bones (and other bits) from a side, and you get side pork. All the other permutations are also correct.

After figuring all this out, I was inspired to click the “Feedback” link on the Google searches that featured the mistaken Chowhound result and send them what I hoped was a convincing counterpoint. Perhaps our robot overlords will listen to me.

1 thought on “What’s the difference between side pork and pork belly? | Part 1 in a series”

  1. Pingback: Crispy Costco pork belly slices recipe | Part 3 in a series – How to Cook With Vesna

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