Pork belly can seem intimidating, but a good brine and a backyard smoker make it easy to prepare. Most often used to make bacon, pork belly has turned into a must-have menu item as chefs use it in both gourmet appetizers and entrees. Despite its name, pork belly is not actually the stomach of the pig, but rather a fatty cut of flesh from its underside. Brining cures the pork belly and adds moisture, while cooking it in a smoker imparts an intense smoky flavor. You can enjoy your smoked pork belly on its own, in a sandwich or even in a salad.
Create a brine for your pork belly by combining 1 cup of kosher salt for every 1 gallon of water in a large pot. You can then add additional seasonings and herbs to flavor the brine, such as white wine, rosemary, thyme and oregano, black pepper, sugar, chopped onions and garlic.
Bring the pot of brine to a boil, then remove it from the heat and allow it to cool completely. Store the cooled brine in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours to ensure it is fully chilled to at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. You can set the pot of brine in an ice water bath to chill it faster, however. The brine must be kept cold so that when you add the meat it will also be kept at 40 F or below to avoid dangerous bacteria from growing.
Submerge the slab of pork belly into the brine and return it to the refrigerator, covered. Let the pork belly brine for up to 10 hours. If necessary, place a plate over the pork belly in the brine to weigh it down so that it stays fully submerged.
Prepare your smoker by adding water to the water pan where indicated and lighting the charcoal. Bring the smoker to a low heat of between 225 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit, using the vents to adjust the temperature. When the coals start to ash, add soaked wood chips on top, which can be any flavor you prefer, such as hickory, mesquite, or cherry.
Place the pork belly slab on the center rack in your smoker skin side up and close the lid. Allow it to smoke for 4 to 5 hours, until the pork belly reaches an internal temperature of 160 F. You can baste with a barbecue sauce or other flavorful sauce in the last couple of hours, if you would like. Remove the pork belly slab from the smoker when it is ready and cut into squares, slices or chunks, depending on how you plan to serve it.
Use a cooking thermometer to make sure the temperature of the brine is at or below 40 F before adding the pork belly. The brine's ideal temperature is anywhere between 38 F and 40 F -- any colder makes it harder for the brine to infuse into the meat.
If you do not have a smoker, you can set up a regular grill for indirect smoker cooking by placing a water pan in the center of the grill bottom and piling the coals on either side of it. Add the wood chips on top of the coals and keep the grill closed to maintain the temperature.