They’re both fatty cuts of pork, that’s for sure. But the similarities between them end there.
Pork is hearty, flavorful, and economical; the centerpiece of many meals on the American dinner table. And yet, although so many home cooks buy, cook, and serve pork meat so often, most know little about the various cuts of pork other than ham, chops, and bacon.
Nowhere is this more true than with the fattier cuts of the hog, such as the fatback and the belly. Both provide a layer of fat that, when rendered, yields lard. But that’s where the similarities between them end.
If fatback vs. pork belly is the question, then we encourage you to read on! When it comes to home butchery and cooking, we have all the answers here to sate your hunger for knowledge.
The pork fatback is the strip of pure fat that runs down the back of the pig. It is usually rendered into lard. Pork belly is the cut of meat from the belly of the pig that provides not only rendered fat, but also salt pork, bacon, and spareribs.
Both the fatback and the pork belly are fatty cuts from the pig. They yield a large amount of lard that can be used as cooking fat with an approximate smoke point of 190°C (374°F), which makes it good for baking and medium-heat frying. This is where the similarities between them end.
The big difference between the lard from the back of the hog and lard from the belly is that the former has a yellowish color and a stronger smell of pig, and the latter is whitish color and a milder, bacon-like smell.
The fatback—literally, the “fat back” of the pig—is the fat layer that sits between the skin on the back and the top part of the loin. The loin, in butcher’s terms, extends from the sixth to the fourteenth rib. It is the cut that yields pork chops, roasts, and baby back ribs.
Nine times out of ten, the fatback is separated from the loin, trimmed from the skin of the back, then rendered into lard or cured to make the Italian delicacy known as lardo. (In southern cooking, the skin is fried to make pork rid.)
Few supermarkets, if any, sell fatback. Some carry the lard that’s made from fatback in tubs in the meat section or near the cooking oils. So you will have to look for it in the butcher shop or from a farmer.
The Pork Belly
The pork belly is the fat and flesh of a pig that’s located right under the loin. Attached to the ribs (though it is almost always sold removed from them), the belly provides lard, bacon, and spare ribs.
Salt pork, bacon, and spare ribs are readily available at the grocery store. For the best flavor and the most succulence, look for a high-quality cut from the farmer’s market, butcher shop, or gourmet store.
Cooking With Fatback
The fatback, although fatty, is a raw piece of meat. As such, it is a highly perishable product that ought to be refrigerated at all times and shouldn’t be left out on the counter for longer than 1-2 hours.
Refrigerated, fresh fatback will last for 3-4 days in the fridge. As with all foods, frozen fatback stays safe to eat indefinitely, but only retains its peak quality for 6-12 months. Treat it as you would any raw pork product, cleaning your hands and sanitizing cutlery, utensils, and work surfaces accordingly.
There are two ways to make use of pork fatback: You can cut it into pieces, then refrigerate or freeze it and cook with it. Or you can render it into lard, which is done by melting the fat off the meat to make it shelf-stable.
Cooking With Raw Fatback
You can use the fatback as a substitute for cooking oil. Cut as much of it into blocks as you would were you using butter or lard, and heat your skillet with it until it melts and is hot enough to cook in.
It is an excellence choice for when you want to add a porky flavor to your home-cooked meals, whether that’s cutlets, fries, or sweated onions, celery, and bell peppers (a.k.a. the trinity) for the base of a gumbo or stew.
When cooking with fatback on the stove, be sure to use medium heat; with high heat, the fat can exceed its smoke point and start to burn. Fat that has exceeded its smoke point gives off a steady stream of bluish smoke that dirties the wall in the kitchen and gives the food an acrid taste.
Rendering Lard From the Fatback
It is easy to render lard from the fatback at home. You can do so in a Dutch oven, whether on the stovetop or in the oven (we explain both of these methods below).
To prep the fatback for rendering, place it in the freezer for 2-3 hours, which stiffens it up and makes it easier to cut. When the time is up, take it out of the freezer and cut it into small cubes, as small as you can, with a sharp knife.
To render lard from the fatback on the stove, fill the Dutch oven with the fatback, then turn the heat up to the first and lowest setting. When melting fat, you want to use as little heat as possible to obtain clean lard with a mild flavor.
To render lard from the fatback in the oven, preheat the oven to 225°F for 15-20 minutes, then fill the pot with the fatback and slide it in. Leave the pot uncovered to allow moisture to escape.
In both cases, the cooking process takes a few hours. During this time, the fat melts and separates from the cracklings. The cracklings first rise to the top, then fall back, and then rise to the top again. When they rise a second time, the lard’s ready.
Run the fat through a sieve to separate it from the cracklings. Some home cooks also pour it through a clean cloth, like muslin or cheesecloth, to filter it even more. Then let it cool at room temperature. You’ll know it’s ready when it hardens and changes color from lemon yellow to snow white.
Cooking With Pork Belly
Fresh pork belly is rarely made into lard because it contains at least as much lean meat as it does hard fat. Instead, it is cut up and used for salt pork, pork bacon and spare ribs.
The only difference between salt pork and bacon is the cooking method. When the boneless part of the pig’s belly is salted and cooked—whether whole, in strips, or cubed—it’s salt pork. When it’s cured and smoked, it’s bacon. (However you look at them, spare ribs are spare ribs.)
Tips for Cooking Salt Pork and Bacon
There are many ways to cook salt pork and bacon, and the use for pork belly meat is limited only by the imagination and ingenuity of the home cook. And yet, one thing’s for sure: no matter the recipe or cooking method, this kind of meat is almost always better when cut into cubes than used in slices.
The best way to make use of this type of meat is to sauté or roast it, which crispens it up and brings out its rich, meaty flavor. You can then make Bacon Mac and Cheese, Spaghetti Carbonara, or Potato Bacon Omelet with it.
How to choose between the stovetop and the oven, some of you may be wondering? For a weekday breakfast or Sunday brunch, use the stovetop. When cooking for a family gathering or a large crowd, use the oven.
Tips for Cooking Spare Ribs
There are certain types of meat, spare ribs included, that taste their best when cooked low and slow. Continued exposure to mild heat yields spare ribs that are crispy on the outside and fall-apart-tender on the inside.
The best way to prepare spare ribs is in a 250°F gas grill or convection oven. Rub the ribs with your seasoning of choice, slide it in the hot grill or oven, then close the lid and let it cook uninterrupted for 3-4 hours, checking it no more than once every hour.
When the internal temperature of the thickest part of the spare ribs has reached 190°F, they are done. This threshold tells you two things: First, that the bacteria and parasites in the meat are killed. Second, that the connective tissue called “collagen” has melted into succulent juice called “gelatin.”
Don’t be in a hurry to carve and serve the spare ribs once you’ve taken them out of the grill, smoker, or oven. Rest them for 20-30 minutes to allow for carryover cooking to take place and to let the juices in the meat settle.
Pork Fatback Substitutes
To substitute fatback is to use another cut of pork for its lard. When in doubt, the best substitutes for fatback are hog jowl, pork shoulder, and side meat, such as salt pork or pork bacon.
It is important to use the right amount of meat lest your dish come out greasy. Generally speaking, you want to cut the hard fats into small cubes, and use only as much of them as you would use butter or lard (nine times out of then, ⅓ to ½ a handful is all you need).
You can, of course, use olive oil or vegetable shortening as vegetarian substitutes for fatback or pork lard. Just keep in mind that your dish will come out with a different flavor, and will probably be lacking some of that heartiness and savoriness from the pig.
Pork Belly Substitutes
The best pork belly substitutes are the jowl, fatback, and shoulder. Pork bacon, although it comes from the pork belly, is a good alternative as well. The nitrates and nitrites it’s cured with, however, can impart undesired flavors on your final dish.
Alternatively, you may opt for beef belly, duck bacon, or goose meat. That said, beef tallow and bird fat taste nothing like lard—substitute with caution as you may alter the flavor of your dish in unexpected ways.