A while back I wrote about the “snake method” of cooking on a charcoal grill. It’s a cool way of turning your charcoal grill into a smoker without having to babysit the whole process, continually adding and adjusting charcoal briquettes.
If you haven’t read it yet, check it out here. If you have read it, hopefully you’ve already used the method a couple of times.
Today, I want to give you something fun to cook with the snake method: pork belly.
Pork belly, as its name reveals, comes from the belly of the pig. Most often, this part is cured and turned into what we know as bacon. If you love bacon, you’ll really have fun with pork belly. Let’s get started.
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There are three steps. The first step is to dry brine the pork belly overnight. The second step is to cook the pork belly. This should take about 2 hours and 15 minutes of actual cooking time. Overall, a very short time. The third step is to figure out all of the fun dishes that you can use pork belly in.
So here you go:
Smoked Pork Belly
3 pounds pork belly, skin removed (can be used for chicharones later) (There will still be a small layer of fat left on one side of the pork belly)
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Place the pork belly on a rack over a shallow rimmed pan. In a medium bowl, mix the salt and sugar until thoroughly combined. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the pork belly, including the sides. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours but no more than 24 hours. Overnight is what I usually do.
When you are ready to cook the pork belly, remove from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour, still covered with the plastic wrap.
Set the grill up in the snake method as described in my earlier blog post. Since this will be a shorter cooking time, place 12 briquettes on the outer row and 11 briquettes on the inner row. Repeat with another stack on top of the first rows. You should end up with a 2x2 snake, meaning there are 2 rows of briquettes, stacked 2 briquettes high. Add the smoking wood and light the snake. While the snake is igniting, place a disposable aluminum pan on the charcoal grate, opposite of the charcoal. Fill the pan half full with boiling water.
Let me answer two questions you might have right about now:
Why water? The water will help to stabilize the temperature of the grill so it will stay below 300 degrees.
Why boiling water? Water absorbs heat. If the water is at ambient temperature, you’re just going to waste a lot of time and fuel to heat the water up to its boiling point. If you know one thing about me, it’s that I hate to waste time and money; heating up cold water in a grill wastes both.
Place the cooking grate on the grill, set the bottom vent(s) to one quarter open, the top vent to half open and put the lid on the grill. Our target temperature for this is 250 to 280 degrees. You may have to adjust the vents slightly.
When the grill is at target temperature, clean the grates with a good quality grill brush (see my grilling “must have” blog). Using paper towels, pat the pork belly very dry. Then place the pork belly (fat side up) on the cooler side of the grill, directly over the pan of water. If you have a remote thermometer probe, place the probe so that it reads the center of the pork belly. Put the grill lid on with the vents over the pork.
After 30 minutes, check on the grill temperature to verify that you don’t have to adjust the vents.
At the 1 hour and 45 minute mark, light a full chimney of charcoal. We’ll use this later.
At the 2 hour mark, check the temperature of the pork belly. The goal is to get the internal temperature up to 160 degrees, which is fully cooked. (It took about 2 hours and 10 minutes at 275 degrees during my most recent pork belly cook to reach 160 degrees.) When that temperature is reached, remove the pork from the grill, place it in a disposable aluminum pan, loosely tent with foil, and set aside.
Next, we’re going to create a raging hot fire. This is somewhat similar to the Reverse Sear method that I’ve referred to before.
Remove the cooking grate. Then, using long-handled tongs, remove all of the smoking wood (you can place the smoldering pieces in a stainless steel bowl filled with water to extinguish them). Using grill gloves to protect your hands, remove the disposable aluminum pan of water and empty it. Put the now empty aluminum pan back on the charcoal grate. This will be used to catch drippings later.
Completely open the bottom vents of the grill and, using the tongs, arrange the remaining coals (used and unused) into a small pile opposite of the pan. Pour the chimney of fully lit coals on top of that pile, covering only one-third of the charcoal grate surface opposite of the aluminum pan. The rest of the charcoal grate surface should be free of any charcoal; you want to concentrate the fire in one spot. Leave the lid off for 3 minutes to flush the coals with oxygen.
Put the cooking grate back on the grill. Wait 3 minutes, then place the lid back on the grill, top vents fully open. Allow the lid to sit slightly off-center so it creates a side crack to allow more air flow. More air equals more heat. After about 3 more minutes, the grill should heat up to at least 500 degrees. Our goal is 500 to 600 degrees. Clean the cooking grates with the grill brush.
Remove the pork belly from the resting pan and pat completely dry using paper towels. Put the pork belly (fat side up) back on the grill (the side without the coals) and place the lid back on the grill with the vents directly over the food and the lid slightly cracked open on the side where the pork belly sits (again, for maximum oxygen flow to keep the temperature high).
Cook for 10 minutes until the pork belly is golden brown. Take the pork belly off of the grill and let it rest, loosely tented with foil, for at least 10 minutes.
Now here’s the fun part: What do you do with it?
What I like about pork belly is that it’s so versatile. You can use it now or wrap it in plastic and store it in the refrigerator to use at a later date (heat up, sliced or cubed, in a nonstick pan).
Need some inspiration? Here are a few examples of what you can do with pork belly.
Slice it and eat like brisket; you can lightly sauce it or leave it dry. Slice it and create your own BLT sandwich. Slice it and create your own version of Joe’s Kansas City Z-Man sandwich: pork belly, BBQ sauce, provolone, topped with an onion ring on a Kaiser roll.
Cube it up and use on salads. Cube it up and use in fried rice. Cube it up and use with various dipping sauces — BBQ and Asian come to mind. Cube it up and make the ultimate pork and beans. Cube it up, put on vanilla ice cream and then drizzle with warm honey.
Instead of bacon and eggs, have sliced pork belly and eggs. Cube it up, and put in ramen soup.
There are 10 quick uses for pork belly, but I’m sure you can think of more on your own. I’d love to hear about what you come up with. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Pork belly recipes can be replicated on a gas grill just by following all of the procedures and suggested times and temperatures.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.