Pork belly burnt ends are rapidly becoming a BBQ favorite. Modeled after the cooking method for brisket burnt ends, this pork belly version results in sweet and savory pieces of meat candy.
Cubed pieces of pork belly are dry rubbed then slow-smoked to build a nice outer bark, then wrapped with liquid and honey to braise and render into a melt in your mouth meat nugget.
These are good for almost any occasion as a finger-food appetizer or as part of a larger entree.
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What are pork belly burnt ends
The term “burnt ends” varies in meaning from region to region, but originated from the point side of a brisket after it’s been cooked low and slow.
The fatty brisket point forms a heavy, textured bark on the outside while the inside renders into a juicy, flavorful bite.
What makes burnt ends so special is the succulent fat content and how it renders throughout the meat during the low and slow cooking process. The crunch and texture of the outside pairs well with the moist, buttery inside.
This same premise holds true for pork belly. Pork belly is the same cut of meat from which bacon is made, and if you love bacon, you’ll go crazy for the burnt end variant.
The high fat content of pork belly acts similarly to the fat in a brisket point, rendering down into an almost butter-like consistency.
Tips for buying pork belly
Pork belly is becoming more and more popular these days, but it’s still not easily found in most grocery stores.
For pork belly burnt ends, you want 4lbs to 5 lbs of pork belly with the skin off and a balanced meat to fat ratio. The center cut of pork belly has the best meat to fat ratio and makes excellent pork belly burnt ends.
Specialty grocers like Whole Foods Market or The Fresh Market usually carry small portions of pork belly in the meat case, but if you call ahead you have a better chance of getting a larger, whole cut of the belly.
Big box stores like Costco or Sam’s Club package pork belly commercially. The vacuum packs come in larger sizes and often multi-packs. These stores also allow you to buy wholesale by the case. This is most economical as it’s priced at the wholesale price, and you can freeze the portions you don’t cook immediately.
But the best bet is to find a local farmer or butcher with local ties. Putting in the legwork to find a trustworthy farmer who raises happy animals with humane and ethical standards will pay dividends in the quality of your end product as well as supporting your local economy.
What you’ll need
Before you get started, ensure you have:
- A smoker – I’m using a Backwoods Smoker Chubby 3400
- At least 4lbs of pork belly
- A good meat thermometer
- Aluminum Foil
- Honey – preferably wildflower or locally sourced
- Your favorite pork bbq sauce, or the ingredients to make your own
- Your favorite pork bbq dry rub, or the ingredients to make your own
- Smoking wood chunks – I used a combination of hickory wood and applewood
- Lump Charcoal
- 5 hours before you plan to eat
Prepare your smoker and pork belly
Preheat your smoker to 250°F.
Cube your skinless pork belly into 1” – 2” cubes. Cutting the meat into cubes allows for more surface area to apply rub and a crunchy bark to form on all sides of each piece.
Season each individual cube liberally with your favorite rub making sure that each side is coated. If you are after a good pork rub we have another recipe you can check out.
Pull your smoker grates off the smoker and place the cubes on the grates leaving space around each piece for smoke and airflow.
If the spacing of your smoker rack gratings are too wide apart for the pork belly cubes, you can place them on a cooling rack then onto your smoker grates to keep them in place during the cooking process.
Cooking your burnt ends
With the pork belly cubes on the grates, it’s time to put wood on the hot coals. You want enough wood to give you even smoke for at least the first 3 hours of the cook. I used two chunks of hickory and one chunk of apple wood.
Using tongs or grill gloves, push the wood chunks down into the hot coals and close the firebox door – or close the lid depending on what kind of smoker you’re using.
Put the grates with the meat into your smoker. Smoke the pork belly cubes for three hours, or until a dark mahogany bark has formed on the outside of each piece.
Time to wrap
At this point, the pork belly has started to form a dark, even bark on the surface while the fat has just started to render. They should be pliable, but retain form if gently squeezed.
If so, remove the pork cubes from the smoker, and increase your smoker temperature to 300°F.
Transfer the pork belly to a single sheet of aluminum foil. Make sure the cubes are in one single layer, tightly packed against each other. Fold the edges of the foil up to start making a packet around the meat.
You may have to use multiple sheets of foil to not overcrowd one packet. For 4lbs of pork belly, I made two foil packets split evenly with the cubed meat.
Pour the apple juice over the pork belly, then drizzle it with 3 tbsp of honey. Lightly toss it all together then fold the foil tightly into a packet around the meat, leaving no space for air and steam, and return the foil packets to the smoker.
Packet vs Pan
A lot of recipes for burnt ends, both pork belly and brisket, call for this step to be done in an aluminum pan covered with foil.
Doing so leaves a pocket of air between the meat and the covered lid causing steam to form. This steam softens the bark on the exterior of the pork belly and causes it to essentially melt away.
We want to keep the crunch and texture the bark gives us, so we don’t use a foil pan. By covering tightly in foil with a little bit of apple juice and honey for a braising liquid, the pork belly retains its bark while still rendering soft and juicy.
After 45 minutes to an hour at 300°F and wrapped in foil, the cubes will be very tender. Pull the foil packets off the smoker and open them up to check the meat.
The pork belly cubes should almost fall apart when slight pressure is applied, and their internal temperature could range between 205°F – 210°F.
At this point, you want to add ½ cup of your favorite BBQ sauce distributed evenly between the packets. Drizzle the rest of the honey – 3 tbsp – over the tops as well.
Toss very gently to coat the meat, while being cautious not to tear the cubes up.
With the meat evenly coated in sauce and honey, place the open foil packets back on the smoker. Cook for another 30 minutes or until the sauce becomes tacky to your liking.
Remove from the smoker and serve while warm.
That’s it! If you followed this recipe, your pork belly burnt ends should be glorious chunks of caramelized meat candy.
These burnt ends are pretty straight forward and low maintenance in the grand scheme of BBQ. Plate them on a platter and serve with toothpicks, or serve them with slider buns for people to make their own sliders.
The possibilities of pork belly burnt ends are really up to your imagination. You can fit them into a keto or paleo diet too, so long as you make sure your sauces and rubs are compliant.
Have fun and don’t be intimidated by this succulent cut of meat!
Pork Belly Burnt Ends
- 1 4-5 lb whole pork belly, skin removed
- pork rub
- 1/2 cup apple juice
- 3 tbsp honey
For the glaze
- 1/2 cup barbecue sauce
- 3 tbsp honey
- Preheat the smoker to 250°F using lump charcoal and hardwood/fruitwood combination like hickory and apple wood.
- Make sure the skin is removed from your pork belly. Cut the pork belly into 1” – 2” cubes.
- Season the cubes with rub of your choice making sure to cover each side evenly.
- Transfer cubes to grates and place on the smoker uncovered. Smoke until a dark brown bark is formed on the meat exterior, approximately 3 hours.
- Remove pork belly cubes from the smoker and increase temperature to 300°F.
- Transfer pork belly to a sheet of aluminum foil, packed tightly into a single layer.
- Pour the apple juice and 3 tbsp honey over the pork and toss to coat. Wrap tightly with foil and return to the smoker.
- Continue cooking until pork belly cubes are very tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Internal temperature will be around 205°F – 210°F.
- Open the foil packet and pour half cup BBQ sauce of choice and remaining 3 tbsp honey over the meat. Toss lightly just to coat being careful not to pull the meat apart.
- Place back on the smoker until sauce becomes tacky and starts to caramelize, approximately 30 – 60 minutes.
- Remove from smoker and serve warm.