When reading the term "salt pork," you may assume it's just another name for bacon, while others might believe it's a reference to an antiquated foodstuff, best left to Little House on the Prairie, militaries, or 18th-century sailor rations. But if you're not cooking with salt pork, you're missing out on affordable, long-lasting meat that is sure to add flavor to every dish.
Salt pork comes from pork bellies--the same bellies used to make pancetta and rashers of bacon--but, unlike those, it is not smoked and contains substantially more fat. Sometimes confused with fatback (the uncured and unsalted layer of fat that runs along a pig's back) salt pork has in fact been salt-cured before purchase, meaning it will last for quite some time if wrapped properly. And while it can sometimes be used interchangeably with pancetta and bacon, salt pork is considerably less costly than either of those items.
It would be easy to dismiss salt pork because of its basic nutrition facts. But consider: you never eat this meat whole the way you would a pork loin or pork shoulder. Rather, it's an excellent ingredient to provide base flavors to vegetable and carbohydrate-based dishes, similar to a ham hock or a turkey neck. And while pork consumption is often associated with the American South these days, salt pork's history and uses span the entire globe.
Pigs originated in Eurasia, and as such, salted pork belly first appeared on tables in China thousands of years ago, according to The Spruce Eats. In addition to adding flavor, salting the pork belly in this manner helped to preserve the cut of meat for extended periods of time. Because of this utility, similar pork-curing techniques spread across the globe, making their way to the Roman Empire and beyond. In America, salt pork is often associated with New England thrift and is featured in Boston baked beans, clam chowder, and other similarly cozy stews.
Below are a few recipes to get you started with your journey with salt pork. Disclaimer: Depending on your meat purveyor (Hormel, Oscar Meyer, or other brands), the saltiness of your salt pork can vary widely. The salt mixture depends on the pork recipe used by the brand you choose. If yours is extremely salty, the meat may need to be rinsed or blanched to remove the excess before being cooked with. Paper towels can also help with this as well. Tightly wrapped, salt pork will last in the fridge for up to a month.
Salt Pork Recipes
Homemade Salt Pork
You added salt pork to your shopping list, only to find it wasn't accessible through your local grocer. Never fear! Salt pork is easy to make on your own at home, as long as you have a cut of pork belly, bay leaves, sugar, and, of course, salt. Find the recipe here.
Brussels Sprouts with Shallots
Although many assume any dish made with this ingredient has to be hearty and heavy, the slab of meat can add considerable seasoning to myriad vegetable dishes. This quick and easy brussels sprouts dish serves the pork alongside the vegetable, rather than using it for flavoring alone. This addition adds a savory crunch to the side dish without any overpowering smoky notes. Find the recipe here.
In the American South, you'll often find a slab simmering in a pot of greens. Slow-cooked greens typically rely on pork fat for their savory oomph, whether through the addition of bacon or ham hocks. This recipe ups that flavor quotient considerably with the addition of ham hocks, turkey wings, and salt pork. And with a recipe as simple and straightforward as this one, there are endless ways to personalize the dish to suit your exact tastes. Find the recipe here.
Arroz con Tochino
Von Diaz adds salt pork to rice in her Puerto Rican dish arroz con tochino. Although arroz con grandules is the typical rice dish served at Thanksgiving, Diaz advocates for this twist on white rice, with the pork replacing the oil and salt typically used. This swap gives "this staple a decidedly porky essence." Find the recipe here.
Manhattan Clam Chowder
One of the pinnacles of American cuisine, infamous chefs Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey explored hundreds of iterations of clam chowder in 1984. After an exhausting period of recipe testing, the pair declared this recipe the "ultimate Manhattan clam chowder." In a rare recipe editorialization, the New York Times declared, "This is one traditional American dish that, in our opinion, must be made with salt pork or it will not be worth producing." Find the recipe here.