Albert Burneko is off. Your guest Foodspinner is pudding defender and friend of the program Miserable Shitehawk.
Bacon's fine. Dipped in a runny egg, thrown on top of a burger—there are plenty of occasions when it's good to eat bacon. It's never not good to eat bacon, I suppose, except when it's wrapped around a scallop, in which case it's good to slap the chef across the mouth with the back of your hand and storm away and never return.
But bacon, I'm sorry to say, is a relic of a time when people didn't have refrigerators, and so we had to preserve our pig parts by curing them, and the marbled belly of the pig was the best part to cure because the abundant fat, when heated, would melt and turn the tough, salt-cured, stored meat into something relatively delectable. Bacon is a brilliant way to have a nice meal of delicious pig several weeks after the death of the poor creature.
All this time later, though, we've got refrigeration and, hell, we've even got freezers, and so there's almost never any occasion when we absolutely need to salt-cure what is far and away the best and most delicious edible hunk of any animal on earth. But! Being Americans—cursed with both a leftover puritanical distrust of anything that is good and a xenophobic blockheadedness about challenging our hysterically limited palettes—we're still doing the same old tried-and-true but ultimately destructive drying and/or curing of our delicious pork belly. We don't know any better! And we don't want to know any better. Dang it all, that is what being an American is all about!
Listen. As an edible breakfast utensil, as a salt stand-in aboard a burger, or smashed between lettuce and a good tomato in a BLT, bacon is a solid contributor. But, no bacon you've ever had in your life is as good as a fresh hunk of properly cooked, uncured, slab pork belly. The uncured, undried pork belly is like a hunk of tenderloin absolutely draped in rich, delicious pork fat. When rescued fresh from the clutches of the cynical bacon-makers and prepared carefully, it is the best thing to eat on the entire earth, and a proud use of our thoughtful, filthy, farmyard friend's best physical attribute.
The belly is the pig's greatest culinary gift. If that poor, heroic pig is gonna spend its whole life growing that damn thing, you might as well do right by it. And we are going to, by God. Yes, we are. And it's so, so easy.
Step one will be to find a pork belly. This will be no small chore. Most regular grocers, and even fantsy-pants upscale grocers, rarely ever will have uncured slab pork belly for sale. It's a shame, but it's because of the demand for bacon. Even small, local pig farmers often will not bother selling uncured slab belly. If you're lucky, you'll run into pound-and-a-half butchered slabs of something called Berkshire pork belly, and if you do, you should buy several slabs at a time.
Berkshire pork is reputed to be a prized heritage pig that maybe is too delicious for simple curing. This will be hard to find, like I said, and so I'm going to recommend that you broaden your search to include calling around to any local gourmet grocers, good butchers, trustworthy free-range livestock farms, or farm co-ops. And after you've wasted an hour on that, hop on the internet and order some goddamn pork belly. Look for Berkshire or Kurobuta pork belly in one-and-a-half- to five-pound slabs. It's okay to spend $15-$20 per pound on good pork belly—it absolutely will be worth it. Treat yourself.
Your belly or bellies will arrive vacuum-sealed and likely frozen, which is fine. Sock 'em away in the freezer, and when you're ready, remove your pork belly to the fridge to thaw overnight. For this preparation of pork belly, you'll need a small roasting pan with a rack and the following ingredients: olive oil, salt, cayenne pepper, ground cumin, granulated garlic, smoked paprika, and brown sugar. And a beer or two. No, not for drinking.
Lay the slab fat-side up on a cutting board and dry it off with a paper towel. Now, score the belly. With a sharp knife, cut some diagonal lines across the fat of the belly going one way, then repeat going the other way, so that you've got a nice festive diamond pattern in the fat. Make the cuts shallow so as to avoid cutting into the meat.
Next, make a rub. Mix together garlic powder, cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, brown sugar, and salt in a small bowl. I like to go with a teaspoon each of the garlic, cumin, paprika, cayenne, and salt, and maybe a tablespoon of brown sugar, but maybe you want to do your own thing. Fine. Do that. Stir this up until it's mixed into a nice orange sand. Now, rub your pork belly down one time with a nice hearty drizzle of olive oil, and then rub that orange sand on in there. Drop your pork belly into a freezer bag and put it in the fridge for, oh, an hour.
Heat your oven to 500 degrees. Lay the belly fat-side up on the rack of your roasting pan and place the roasting pan on the middle rack inside the oven. Spend the next 10 to 15 minutes checking it regularly; at some point the fat will start to bubble and turn light brown. When that happens, turn the oven temperature down to 325 degrees and leave it alone for 90 minutes.
After 90 minutes, crack open a beer and pour it into the bottom of the roasting pan. If the roasting pan is, like, Thanksgiving-turkey-sized, pour in a second beer. Walk away for another hour. When the hour is up, yank that fucker out of there and let it cool for, oh, 15-20 minutes on a cutting board. The stuff on the bottom of the pan will be fatty syrup by this time, and it will be a good thing to pour over the meat when it's all sliced or shredded. As for cooking it, though, you're finished.
There are a few things you can do with your pork belly from here. Shredded, it will make the best goddamn taco filling of all time, if you want to go that route. It will also make an indescribably delicious sandwich filling, in a roll with hot sauce and maybe some slaw or something. You can also slice up some scallions and throw them and your pork belly into a Chinese pancake with some hoisin sauce and just fucking die of happiness.
No one will think any less of you if you tear open a steamed bun and stuff it full of dripping hot pork belly and just cram it just right on into your face. Or, you can sauté some diced peppers, diced onions, diced potatoes, and quartered brussels sprouts, throw some shredded or chopped or sliced or cubed pork belly in there, top the whole thing with a couple of poached eggs, and completely ruin all other breakfast foods forever. Roast some fingerling potatoes with olive oil and coarse sea salt, and eat them on a plate with a pile of hot pork belly.
It's also fine to stash the whole cooked thing in the fridge and, when you're ready to eat it, cut off a couple of nice thick slices, toss them onto a hot pan, flip them one time in their own rendered fat, and just stand there in the kitchen and eat hot pork belly, maybe with a squeeze of Sriracha.
The finished pork belly is sweet from the caramelized sugars and salty and spicy from the rub, soft and unbelievably rich from the slow cooking and abundant rendered fat but pleasingly crispy and brittle on the corners from the quick early broil. The finished pork belly will present many of the enjoyable characteristics of bacon, along with welcome textural complexity and an ecstatic diversity of flavor, bite to bite and even chew to chew, that will make your tongue stand up in your mouth and shout about being King of the World. The finished pork belly will be, in virtually every way, so vastly superior to dumb old bacon that you will come to wonder what in the hell you've been eating next to your eggs all these years.
Image by Sam Woolley.