Basic Butchery – how to butcher & portion a pork belly

Pork belly is such a wonderful and versatile cut, and so under-rated here in the UK.  Most of my bacon making is with belly, so we get through quite a lot of it.  As a result I tend to buy it most-of-a-belly at a time!  The process of butchering it to remove the ribs and prepare it for curing or roasting is quite simple, and worth learning, since it means you’ll end up with precisely the piece of meat you want for the task at hand, and a couple of little bonus items, too!

Large piece of pork belly

Your butcher will probably offer to prepare your belly for you, removing the ribs and trimming it to your preference, but you never quite seem to get exactly what you were after, somehow!  Doing the job yourself means you get exactly what you want.  This is my starting point – just under 2kg piece of pork belly .

Peel away the inner layer of fatStart by removing the layer of fat on the inside of the belly piece, if there’s one there.  You shouldn’t need your knife for this, it should just pull away if you work gently beneath it with your fingers, leaving a clean muscle surface beneath.  Once you’ve removed it, set it to one side (I usually keep an ‘offcuts’ plate or bowl handy when I’m portioning or butchering meats).  This is effectively pork suet.

Belly portion with fat removedNow you can get a better look at the anatomy of your piece of meat.  As it’s laid out in the photo here, the ribs are on the left, you can see the flap of diaphragm meat lying above them.  On the right side of the belly is a band of smooth muscle.  The ends of the ribs lie almost exactly where the visible edge of this muscle joins the diaphragm.

Cut beneath ribsTake a long, thin bladed, sharp knife and first cut beneath the ribs, as close as possible to them to reduce wastage.  The piece has been rotated 180 degrees from where it was in the previous photograph so that the ribs are now bottom right.  You should be able to feel roughly where the ribs end, so extend your cut beneath them as close as possible to this level.

Finding the ends of the ribsNow gently slice beneath the strap-like muscle we identified earlier, where it lies over the ends of the ribs, and peel it back,  You’ll find the ends of the ribs and the strips of cartilage which link them together.  Gently slice around these and then back underneath. By lifting the rib section it should now be quite easy to join up with the cut beneath and remove this as a block.

Rack of ribs, as removedEither put the rack of ribs to one side, or cut them up into individual ribs at this stage.  This couldn’t be simpler – just feel for the gap between each pair of ribs and slice down the centre parallel to them, your knife, if it’s nice and sharp, should cut straight through the connecting cartilage.

Ribs, divided up.You can trim away any strips of cartilage that area easy to identify – you can see this top left.  That bit is genuinely wastage, incidentally, so chuck it away if you want!  Bag your butchered ribs up, label them, and freeze them for another day (they’re great done on the BBQ with a jerk marinade!).

Pork belly with ribs removed

Now let’s turn our attention back to the pork belly itself.

You can really see now that mine is anything but rectangular! It’s actually sitting ‘upside down’ in terms of how it was on the pig – the top as we look at that photo is the part closest to the middle of the pig’s body, the rib side is towards the back.  As we get closer to the abdominal midline, the proportion of fat to muscle increases, so I trimmed the piece to rectangular, discarding the part which is most top-left in this photograph.

Pork belly, trimmedBecause I’m planning to prepare the belly as streaky bacon, this will give me more manageable, even chunks.  You can see the effect of the trimming in this photograph – the piece has been rotated again so the rib-side is now away from us.  Add your trimmings to the ‘offcuts’ bowl.

Belly pieces, divided upNow simply divide up your belly as you like.  Mine weighed almost exactly 1.6kg at this point, so I divided it evenly into four ~400g pieces.   A large piece like this would be fantastic roasted slowly whole, too, perhaps with chinese spices, for a special meal for a big gathering!  Roast pork belly has the *best* crackling.

Bag your ribs and your offcuts – these will make fantastic quite fatty minced pork for adding to any minced-meat dish that requires extra juiciness and succulence, or for sausages.  Then sit back and admire your work.

Fully-butchered pork belly

My belly portions were for curing, so I prepared a maple syrup cure made up of 100g of supracure and 90g of pure maple syrup, applied about half to all the bellies, and then bagged them together in the fridge. (More discussion of the bacon-in-a-bag ‘dry’ cure method can be found here.)

Belly pieces with maple syrup cureI’ll apply the second half after 48 hours and re-arrange the bellies so they’re skin-side together for the second half of the curing process.  The total curing time would normally be 5 days for belly pork, but these pieces are thicker than usual, so I may decide to let them go a day longer, depending on the texture and appearance at the 5 day mark.  It would be great to get some maple smoke into some of them – but that’ll depend on the weather.  I’ll keep you posted!

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Smoked Trout – so simple, so tasty, and all home-made

Smoked trout – like its close cousin smoked salmon – is one of the great ‘luxury’ foods.  I find I prefer it – the finished product, while it looks very similar to salmon, has a more delicate flavour with less of the aggressively-fishy oiliness which can characterise smoked salmon.  It’s much less readily available, too – and can certainly be expensive, a quick google suggests prices from £40 – £80 a kilo direct from a number of British producers.  Expect further mark-up in a smart London delicatessen!

Sliced home-smoked trout

Of course, if I were just writing this in praise of smoked trout and telling you to go and buy some from a smokehouse on the internet, it wouldn’t be the country skills blog!  Making smoked trout at home is straightforward, and produces a first-class product which is the match of anything you’ll buy from even the most up-market smokehouse or deli counter.  Better still, it costs a fraction of the commercial product.  The two fillets of rainbow trout I cured and smoked for this post cost the princely sum of £1.53, with a combined final weight of a little over 200g – including other ingredients and consumables, that’s a total cost of well below £10/kg.  A little luxury, then, that we can all afford to enjoy a bit more often!

You’re going to be eating this fish raw, effectively, so freshness is of the essence.  Choose a lovely fresh whole trout – with bright clear eyes, red gills and no ‘fishy’ smell – and have it descaled and filleted for you by the fishmonger (or do it yourself – it’s not that tricky really!).  Good quality farmed trout is readily available, even on supermarket fish counters, and if you can get hold of a lovely fresh wild fish, even better!  Avoid pre-packed fillets, whose freshness it is more difficult to be certain of.  Wash the fillets off carefully under the tap, to remove all the mucus coating from the skin.  Make sure you’ve removed all the rib bones and pin-bones (the small pointy bones that run along the middle of the fillet) – a pair of tweezers is very useful here.  This will take a few minutes, but is worth the effort to do properly.  Then rinse the fillets and dry them carefully with kitchen towel.   Weigh the fillets and make a note of this weight.

Trout fillets with cure appliedThe cure I use for trout and salmon is very simple – made up of 1/3rd sugar (golden caster sugar is my favourite here) and 2/3rd table salt.   I favour a short curing time – just overnight – with an excess of dry-cure so that the cure stays saturated throughout.  Be generous – you can afford to be, since the ingredient cost is very low – in the scale of pence for a couple of fillets.

Weighed down for curingYou want a thin layer of cure in your non-metallic dish below the fish, and a good coating over the top.  The photo gives a good idea of the sort of coating you’re aiming for.

You then want to weigh down the fillets to help draw water out – you’ll need to improvise something – I found a couple of plastic ‘take-away’ containers fitted very nicely in my dish, and then weighed them down with tin cans.  Don’t use anything metallic in direct contact with the curing fish.  Put the salted fillets in the fridge.

Cured fillets, next morningI would tend to get the cure going when I get home from work, having collected my fresh fish on the way home – so just before bed I turn the fillets over in the cure, and replace the weights before putting them back in the refrigerator.  The next morning, there will be quite a lot of liquid in the dish and most of the cure will have dissolved. Take the fillets out of the dish, noting the change in texture – the skin will have taken on a harder, almost cardboard character, and the flesh will be firmer and more translucent.  Rinse and dry the fillets, and weigh them again, and note down the reduction in weight.  My fillets had dropped from a starting weight of 256g to 220g at this stage – a 14% water loss.  You’re aiming for a final loss of ~18% by the end of the process, so that’s well on target. Now place the fillets on an open plate, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 24 hours before cold smoking.

You may have read this far, and are now thinking ‘well, that’s no use to me – who has a cold smoker at home?!’.  At it’s simplest, cold smoking requires two things – a source of cold smoke (from smouldering sawdust, for instance), and a space in which to contain it.  Last year, I built a wooden tower smoker, but there’s no need to start with a construction project.  A cardboard box, or a (clean!) upturned bin or barrel, rigged up creatively with a rack or two, will do just as well for the occasional smoking job!

ProQ cold smoke generator, litYou will need a smoke source, and I can heartily recommend the ProQ Cold Smoke Generator, which is a nifty little gadget which entirely takes any stress or complication out of the process.  It’s a little pricey (around £35 at this time), but will pay for itself incredibly quickly once you get the smoking bug!  It reliably provides 10 – 12 hours of cold smoke (depending on the temperature, humidity, and your sawdust choice) with very little heat production.  Have a look at the Supplier’s List for suggested sources of smoking and curing supplies.

Trout fillets, loaded in the smokerChoose a day without too much wind or rain (the occasional shower isn’t important), and where the temperature is roughly between 5 degrees and 15 degrees centigrade.  I’ve successfully smoked between 0 and 5 degrees but smoke penetration is less effective.  Colder, and your fish will freeze rather than taking smoke.  Warmer and the risk of spoilage increases considerably – though cold smoking temperatures up to about 20 degrees are cited in some places.  Get the smoker going first thing in the morning, and leave it for the day – though I would keep it under much closer supervision if using a cardboard box!.

I used a mix of alder and maple sawdust for this smoker burn (about 10% maple) – this produced a gorgeous neutral smoke-flavour with very little bitterness and with a noticeable ‘sweet’ note, presumably from the maple.  It’s definitely a mix I’ll use again in the future.

Trout, fresh from the smokerOnce the smoke generator has burned all the way through, unload your smoker, and take a final weight on your fillets. They should have lost another 4 – 5 %.  They will have a lovely orange-pink colour with a noticeable translucency and a glossy surface.  Then wrap them tightly in cling film, and freeze them.  Smoking fish in this way isn’t really a preserving mechanism, and storage time in the fridge is about 3 – 4 days.  Even if I’m going to eat them very soon, though, I tend to freeze them at this stage – a day or two in the freezer should ensure any parasites which may be present in the fish have been killed off.  You can keep them frozen for a couple of weeks without too much loss of quality, but after a month or so you’ll start to notice the deterioration.

Sliced smoked trout fillet

Once thawed, I slice the smoked trout thinly with a sharp knife, starting at the ‘head’ end of the fillet, at about a 45 degree angle.  There’s a bit of a knack to this, but you’ll get good at it really quickly – and who cares if the slices are thicker, or a bit uneven?  This produces small, almost translucent slices which are great for nibbles.  I love to serve these with water biscuits or oatcakes (or your preferred sort of cracker), cream cheese – or a soft goat’s cheese is also very nice, freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  But the limit is really your imagination.  Smoked trout with scrambled eggs on a toasted muffin is a beautifully indulgent breakfast!

I really do hope you chose to give home-smoked trout a try, and that however you prepare and enjoy it, it brings you as much foodie pleasure as it brings me!

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Tinker and Try Again – second burn of the DIY cold smoker

It was obvious on the first burn of the DIY cold smoker that despite my best woodworking efforts (I do *not* possess joinery skills!) it leaked like a sieve from almost every edge and corner.  It was always going to be an iterative design process, so we broke out the mastic and panel pins and sealed the sides as best we could.  Then I cut and fixed batons along the edges of the slate roof to improve the seal between this and the sides of the smoker box.   After leaving it overnight for the mastic to go off, it was time for the second burn.

The morning dawned unconvincingly, grey damp and foggy.  Even the hens seemed unimpressed when I opened their pop door before turning my attention to getting the smoker set up for its second outing.

Smoker set for second burnI chose a mix of oak (~70%) and apple (~30%) dusts for my second burn.  In the smoker I had a whole side of cured salmon, my experimental Christmas bacon, a slab of cheddar, the bulb and a half of garlic from my first smoker run which hadn’t already been eaten, and a mix of already-smoked and unsmoked chillies.  Oh, and a little muslin bag of sea salt.  It was more or less full.

The smoker was greatly improved by the modifications, and breathed whisps of smoke out through the intended ventilation gap at the front steadily for about 11 hours.  The burn time was longer on this occasion, and I’m not sure whether that was due to the different mix of wood dusts or the weather (it stayed damp and foggy all day and never got above about 7 degrees celsius).  The apple smoke smelt wonderful, sweeter and softer than the 100% oak from the previous burn.

I plan to write more about the salmon in due course.  The bacon took the smoke very nicely and I’m very pleased with the results.  The garlic has definitely benefitted from a longer total time in the smoker, so I suspect I’ll batch garlic smoking to weekends I plan to run the smoker for two consecutive days to give a stronger smoke.

The cheese was a request from a friend, so we await the verdict!  As for the salt, it *smells* of smoke, though that may be the muslin.  I’m gratified that it doesn’t appear to smell of salmon at all.  It looks entirely unchanged – photos of caramel-brown smoked salt I’ve seen on other blogs aren’t the case here, though most of those have been hot-smoker efforts – but I look forward to tasting it soon!

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Aromatics – experimenting with flavoured bacon cures

I’ve now made a couple of flavoured bacons, which I’ve then smoked in my DIY cold smoker.

Black pepper bacon – 

  • 770g piece of pork belly
  • Dry cure made up from 65g Supracure, 15g dark brown soft sugar (~10% total weight of the bacon in cure)
  • 3g of cracked black pepper added to the salt & sugar cure mix
  • Cured according to the Bringing Home the Bacon general instructions
  • Smoked for 10 hours using oak dust

This is a lovely eating bacon, and is likely to become one of our house staples.  The pepper adds mostly flavour, very little heat.  The sweet flavour from the sugar is subtle, but present, and adds nice balance.  It cooks well, too.  Highly recommended.  I think it would also be very nice unsmoked.

Christmas cure spicesChristmas bacon – first attempt

  • 530g piece of pork belly
  • 10% cure mix made up of 36g of Supracure and 17g of molasses sugar
  • One bay leaf, 10 allspice berries, 4 juniper berries, and the berry of one clove (the small ball bit on top of the stem), ground in a spice grinder and mixed well with the sugar & salt
  • Cured in the usual way and then cold smoked for 10 hours in a mix of oak and apple smoke

While the cure did smell a bit medicinal, with a dominant smell of clove, despite the tiny quantity of clove added, it did at least smell convincingly of Christmas.  The molasses sugar gives the cured bacon a really distinctive dark colour to the flesh and to the rind.  Smoked over apple and oak wood dust, it has a lovely sweet complex slightly spiced flavour, and is almost exactly what I was looking for in a Christmas bacon.  It is probably more suited to a cooking bacon (and would make awesome ‘pigs in blankets’ for Christmas dinner) but does also eat very well, caramelising beautifully, if my lunch today was anything to go by!

A little bit fishy – first attempt at smoked salmon

Time: 15 minutes – Patience: 24 hours – Difficulty: Easy – Knackyness: Low

As the smoker build was progressing well, my mind of course turned to what to put in for the first experimental firing along with the piece of bacon I’ve been curing this week.

I’ve never smoked or even cured fish before but there were a couple of tail-piece salmon fillets in the Co-op this afternoon.  Opinions seem to vary incredibly widely on how long one should cure the salmon for (and indeed whether table salt or curing salt are required), whether to dry cure or brine, and then how long a smoke is required (with opinions ranging from 6 to 36 hours!).  Since I planned to run the smoker the next morning, and the fillet is small and thin (and has also been robbed of it’s skin – something I didn’t notice when I bought it) I went for the lowest of all the estimations, and the simplest of approaches.

I used:

  • A 125g farmed Atlantic salmon tail fillet (skinless – not ideal)
  • Very simple dry cure made from 30g of sea salt and 15g of golden caster sugar

Salmon, with cure appliedWeighed down with tinRub the cure generously into both sides of the fish with some extra under the fillet.  Then weigh the fillet down with a plate and a can of tomatoes to encourage the water to come out of it.  Leave the fillet like this in the fridge for six hours.

Salmon fillet after curingAfter six hours the fillet should be flatter, firmer, darker in colour and lighter in weight.  The photograph is the same fillet as above.  After six hours of curing there was lots of salt still left in the bowl, along with quite a bit of pickle (the liquid which has oozed out of the fish).  The fillet, rinsed and dried weighed 111g, a 14g weight loss in water in six hours.

Now put the fish, uncovered, on a rack in the fridge overnight.  In the morning it will have formed a shiny pellicle, and lost a bit more weight (mine was 109g by this time).  Time now to load my home-built cold smoker for it’s maiden voyage…

Salmon after smoking - skinned sideSalmon fillet after smokingAfter ten hours of cold oak smoke, the fillet is 106g (a 19g total weight loss which is about 16% – not far off the 17-18% I’ve seen recommended).  It has a glossy, slightly oily surface, a firm texture, and smells more of smoke than it does of fish.    I would describe it as ‘lightly smoked’, for reasons I’ll discuss further in the write-up of the first (rather experimental!) burn in the smoker.  Because I don’t know enough about the storage conditions of the fillet before I bought it, I plan to cook with it instead of eating it raw – probably tomorrow night. Expect a post-sampling update!