Despite pork belly’s popularity, not everyone wants to or can enjoy its taste. When it comes to finding a pork belly substitute, we should look at other parts of the same animal before moving to other species.
In fact, different parts of the pork can be good alternatives to pork belly, but there are also other kinds of meat that could serve as a substitute for pork belly, and we also have some vegetarian options for those who dislike or cannot eat meat in general.
The best substitutes for pork belly
Pork belly is a cut of pork meat that is incredibly versatile and tasty because it’s a perfect union of crunchy skin and tender meat. These characteristics, together with how incredibly cheap pork is in comparison with other types of meat, made it very popular around the world.
Good pork belly should have a balanced ratio of meat and fat. You can tell if the meat is fresh from how the fat looks: a fresh pork belly should have a creamy white fat, if it’s too yellow or grey the meat is probably not as fresh as it may seem.
Since pork belly comes from the belly of the pig, it is naturally rich in fats which give it the signature intense flavor, and that’s why pork belly is usually slow-cooked in order to render the meat tender and moist.
Pork belly is sold in slabs or strips, which fulfill different purposes. In fact, given that pork belly can fit a large variety of recipes, it is important to choose the right substitute starting from the recipe you have at hand.
1. Pork bacon
Pork bacon comes from the belly of the pork, but it’s not considered pork belly just as pork belly is not considered bacon. The difference is that pork belly is the whole slab cut from the fleshy part of the pig’s belly, while pork bacon is just a cut from this slab.
Bacon can also come from other parts of the pig, or even from a different animal entirely (in that case, of course, it’s not called pork bacon, but beef bacon, turkey bacon, etc). Also, bacon usually undergoes additional processing while the pork belly is uncured.
Pork bacon is the best substitute for pork belly. You can swap them with little to no difference in the final result. You can cook pork bacon in all the ways you would cook pork belly and you can use the same quantity as well.
The only thing you need to be careful about is the quantity of salt you will use to season pork bacon because bacon is saltier than an unprocessed pork belly. As for other seasonings, you can use whatever you would use for pork belly.
2. Beef bacon
As pork bacon comes from the belly of the pig, beef bacon comes from the belly of the cow.
Beef meat is leaner than pork meat, which is why beef bacon lacks the amount of juicy fat that pork bacon has and may feel drier in comparison. Beef fat also has a higher melting point, so you won’t get the same crisp you’d get with pork fat.
Despite these differences, beef bacon is considered one of the best pork belly substitutes because it is very versatile and its taste is so similar to pork that it’s hard to notice the difference.
If you’re unsure about the outcome or you feel like it tastes too different from pork belly, you can easily fix the flavor by adding pork seasonings. For a richer flavor, it is recommended to buy beef meat from grass-fed cows.
Beef bacon can be cooked in all the ways you would cook pork belly. On top of that, being a leaner kind of meat, it is ideal if you’re trying to cut down on fats but you can’t renounce the pleasures of bacon!
3. Fatback meat
Fatback is the slab of hard fat that is found on the backbone of the pig. It serves many purposes, such as:
– Adding flavor to leaner kinds of meat
– Being used as an ingredient in mortadella and cured salami
– Being used as a cooking medium or alternative to sautéing (lard)
– Adding moisture and flavor to ground meat preparations, such as sausages
Fatback and lard come from the same part of the pig, but are not quite the same thing and shouldn’t be confused.
In fact, lard is rendered fatback, which means fatback that has been melted and strained before being left to solidify again. As a result, lard resembles smooth butter, while fatback is hard and fibrous.
Fatback is extremely tasty when cooked and can work very well as a pork belly substitute. It is also used to prepare salt pork in the same way you would use pork belly, seasonings included.
Fatback, as the name suggests, will have a lot more fat than meat, so it’s not recommended for people who prefer the flavor of the meat over fat.
4. Shoulder cut
Pork shoulder is also known as pork butt, despite being located on the shoulder of the pig. A pig’s actual rear is called ham.
Pork shoulder isn’t as easy to find as other pork meat cuts and it’s not very popular as a pork belly substitute, but if you can purchase it, it does make a valid and rather inexpensive alternative.
The pork shoulder is sold both bone and boneless. For time-saving reasons, you may want to buy the boneless version. It appears as a tough and fatty cut of pork meat, but when slow-cooked it actually becomes tender and juicy to the point where you can easily break it apart.
Pork shoulder has more fat content than pork belly, but it has the right amount of meat to be a valid alternative. In order to obtain the best results from the pork shoulder, let the meat marinate in a sauce of your choice for at least one hour before cooking it.
When you swap pork belly with pork shoulder, the best recipes are those that call for grilling, frying, or cooking in the oven. There’s not much to change from the original recipe: just cook pork shoulder as you would with pork belly and add the same seasonings as well.
5. Goose meat
Goose meat looks darker than the average meat cut and it’s very similar to duck meat.
When buying goose meat it’s better to buy from a butcher or from a manufacturer rather than in big store chains, because the quality of the meat will be higher and you can also ask about the age of the goose. In fact, younger geese meat tastes better and is more tender.
Goose meat is very popular in some countries and less used in others. It can be cooked any way you want, so when you use it as a substitute for pork belly you can follow the original recipe and use pork seasonings as well.
Actually, it is recommended to leave it to marinate in a mix of oil and pork seasonings around one hour before cooking it, because goose meat tends to be harder than most meat and you can make it more tender this way.
In order to make sure your recipe tastes as similar to pork belly as possible, choose a meat cut that has a lot of fat or use goose bacon.
Despite not being known as a common pork belly alternative, goose meat actually makes for a successful replacement!
6. Duck bacon
The best duck bacon is the one made from the fattier duck breast fillets (not the skinless ones). Duck bacon is actually pretty popular among chefs and home cooks alike because it’s leaner than pork belly but still juicy and full of flavor.
This kind of bacon is smoked but uncured, meaning that it doesn’t contain preservatives, which makes it healthier than the bacon from other animals.
Luckily, you don’t need to turn your duck cut into bacon, because you can usually find it ready to cook at the grocery store, or you can ask your local butcher.
Duck bacon is extremely versatile. It can be baked, sautéd, broiled, grilled, diced, or basically cooked in every other way you would cook pork belly. Duck bacon is best eaten when medium-rare.
Of course, duck meat doesn’t have quite the same taste as pork meat, but you can easily bring its flavor closer to pork belly by employing a larger amount of seasoning than you would commonly use.
7. Turkey bacon
If you’re out of options, turkey bacon can be your last lifeline. It is actually not often cited among the pork belly substitutes because it’s not really popular as such.
Turkey bacon is often chosen by those who can’t eat pork for religious reasons or those who are looking for a leaner and healthier alternative to pork bacon, which is full of calories, salt, and fats.
However, turkey bacon is about as healthy as pork bacon, so consume both with moderation. Sure, it has fewer calories and fewer fats, but it’s still high in sodium and saturated fats, plus turkey meat goes through a long process to become bacon.
Turkey bacon is best used as a replacement for ham, but you can make your pork belly recipe work with it as long as you use a lot of pork seasoning to reach a more pork-like flavor.
Vegetarian substitutes for pork belly
A healthy diet should be as varied as possible, so even if you’re a pork meat lover, you should try substituting pork meat with different kinds of meat or even go the vegetarian route and take a break from meat altogether every now and then.
There are also instances where eating pork is not possible, whether because of religious reasons (pork consumption is forbidden in Islam and Judaism) or health reasons (red meat is generally considered less healthy than white meat).
You may also be trying to turn your life meat-free because of ethical choices. Luckily, it is easy to substitute pork meat, and the following alternatives are some of the most popular vegetarian substitutes for pork belly.
Soy is a popular substitute for all kinds of meat because it has a texture that is much more similar to meat than other types of vegetarian replacements.
Dried soy is available in most grocery stores and it’s cheap and easy to cook. Pay attention to how long you let it boil because soy needs to absorb a lot more water than meat before it can be used successfully in your recipes.
While it’s boiling, add all necessary seasonings to the water. You will notice that soy will start absorbing the water as soon as you put it in, much like a sponge.
Of course, soy tastes nothing like meat. In fact, it barely has any taste at all. It is up to you to reach the desired flavor by adding the right seasonings.
Once the soy is boiled, you can cook it following the recipe like you would cook pork belly. The results will improve overtime as you get accustomed to this new ingredient, so don’t give up if your first soy experiment doesn’t go as planned!
Tofu is made from soybeans, so it falls into the category of products derived from soy, just like tempeh.
Tofu is sometimes criticized for being bland, but this characteristic can actually be an advantage because it’s like working on a blank canvas. Basically, tofu can be anything you want, which makes it a successful pork belly substitute, among other things.
Tofu is extremely versatile, its taste is completely adaptable and it fits every kind of dish. It can be boiled, fried, baked, and fixed with seasonings and sauces.
Moreover, being tofu so popular, there are many varieties of it on the market, some of them are made specifically to taste like meat, such as mixed tofu, wheat gluten, and soy protein isolates.
In order to make your tofu taste like pork belly, you need to find the recipe that better fits your taste. Most recipes that turn tofu into pork belly usually feature soaking the tofu in seasoning before cooking it, much like it happens with soy.
Tempeh is largely considered the best plant-based alternative for pork, plus it’s a superfood that is considered one of the World’s Healthiest Foods.
This vegetarian alternative to pork belly not only features a pleasantly rich flavor and a meaty texture, but also the greatly sought-after umami flavor so loved by many.
Tempeh is made from a combination of soybeans and grains that are only just slightly fermented and processed. It is used as a great replacement for all kinds of meat.
You can find tempeh already seasoned in stores. Depending on the recipe you’re going for, you should choose the right seasoned variety of tempeh accordingly.
It is important to thoroughly cook tempeh before consuming it because it’s a frozen good. It can be cooked just like pork and it can also be fried or barbecued.
Some varieties of tempeh include seitan and wheat gluten, which are the ideal replacement for meat in sandwiches.
Beans can be used as a pork belly substitute in certain recipes. They’re mainly used in chili, soups, and sauces.
Even when the recipe already calls for beans, you can always substitute meat with different kinds of beans, which will give the final dish added color, texture, and flavor.
Beans have a lot of varieties, so you can have fun experimenting and finding the variety that best matches your taste. Remember that beans shouldn’t be cooked as long as meat, so keep the cooking time under one hour.
How to choose a pork belly substitute.
There is no right or wrong when choosing a pork belly substitute. Different cuts of pork meat or even different animals may work just as well in your recipe, but it’s a matter of taste.
Availability plays an important role as well: you may find that not all the replacements we mentioned are available in your area, but there are so many possible alternatives to pork belly that even if you can’t find a specific one, it’s no reason to give up on the recipe you have in mind.
When it comes to its vegetarian alternatives, it is useful to become creative and patient, because products like soy and tofu are tasteless in their base form, so you will have to re-create the pork flavor you’re looking for starting from zero.
You may find that choosing the best substitute for pork belly will not be immediately successful, but rather a trial-and-error process, as with many other things in the kitchen.
What cut of pork is closest to pork belly?
There are three different cuts of pork that can be mistaken for pork belly. The first one is fresh ham which is usually the cheapest cut and the easiest to find. This cut is usually lean and it will not provide you with enough fat to make a succulent dish.
The second type of cut is fresh picnic which has a lot of fat but it is not as well-marbled as this first cut and it can be difficult to find because it’s at the market is not really high.
The third type of cut that can be mistaken for pork belly is bacon. Bacon does come from the same animal as pork belly, but they are very different in taste due to bacon being more salty and with a higher degree of fat content.