Pork Belly Burnt End Buns
It had literally been years since I had made a brisket when my Carne-val celebration rolled around back in May of this year. I had this gnawing desire to get back into the brisket game and had plans to buy two of them, smoking one whole in a Texas fashion, and splitting the second into the flat and point, turning the flat into pastrami and the point into burnt ends. During my shopping for the event though, I only happened upon one brisket, leaving a hole in the menu that second brisket was to fill. I ended up abandoning the pastrami idea, but thought I could still accomplish the burnt ends, but use pork belly instead of beef. Not sure why I never thought of this before because pork belly burnt ends ended up being amazing, and even more so when served in steamed bun style.
Burnt ends work partly because the immense amount of fat in a brisket point means it can smoked, cubed, and then smoked even longer and remain still fairly moist and tender. Pork belly has a similar fat make-up that renders it suitable to this type of excessive overcooking.
I started the burnt ends with picking up two pieces of boneless pork belly from my local Asian market and removing the skin on each. I then used my standard pork rub to season the bellies all over, covering every inch in the spice mixture.
I then smoked the pork just as I would have if I were making them to serve as is. This meant smoking low and slow at 225°F until the thickest part of the meat hit around 203°F. I've found this is when the pork fat is at its more luscious, with it being super soft and tender, giving the belly an incredibly pleasing texture on top of the excellent porcine flavor.
I had decided to serve the burnt ends in Chinese steamed buns, and my favorite part of steamed buns I make are the quick pickles. So while the bellies were smoking, I made a batch of these sweet and sour, thinly sliced cucumbers which would give the sugary, saucy pork both a bit of freshness and contrasting acidity in the end.
Once the pork bellies hit their target temperature, I removed them from the smoker, wrapped them butcher paper, and placed them in the Cambro for about and hour. I use this resting step for most all large pieces of meat because it seems to result in both better edge-to-edge juiciness and softens the hard and crusty bark a bit. I figured resting would also be a good thing to do in the case of burnt ends because I hoped it would keep the exterior from becoming overly hard and dry.
After the rest, I cubed up the bellies, which were so tender they cut like butter. I couldn't help but pop a few pieces while doing the slicing and those quick tastes confirmed that the pork belly had an ideal flavor and texture, which I hoped would translate to perfect burnt ends.
To make the burnt ends, I piled the sliced pork into a foil tray and covered the meat with barbecue sauce. I then tossed to evenly coat and placed the tray in the smoker.
I let the pork cook until the sauce was thick and darkened and the edges of the cubes gained extra crispness. This took about two additional hours of smoking. Once done, another taste test let me know that these burnt ends had a great deep, smoky barbecue flavor with some crusty exterior, but still juicy meat.
Next I quickly steamed some Chinese buns and then assembled the final product by nestling a piece of belly into each bun and topping with pickle slices. While short on ingredients, these buns were intensely flavored. All that spice, sauce, and smoke ensured the pork was as tasty as could be, while the pickles were a nice foil to the fatty meat and the bun made it feel like a substantial snack. I was kind of glad I never found that second brisket because I think these ended up just as perfect as can be, although I can imagine brisket burnt ends would be equally delicious given the same treatment.
Pork Belly Burnt End Buns
- Yield 10-12 servings
- Prep 20 Minutes
- Cook 8 Hours 10 Minutes
- Total 8 Hours 30 Minutes
- For the Pickles
- 1 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon Kosher salt
- 1 seedless cucumber, very thinly sliced on a mandoline
- For the Pork Belly
- 1 4-5lb piece of boneless pork belly, skin removed
- 1/3 cup your favorite barbecue rub
- 1 1/2 cups your favorite barbecue sauce
- 3 chunks of a medium smoking wood, such as oak or hickory
- 1 9 x 13" foil tray
- 24 fresh or frozen Chinese-style steamed buns
- To make the pickles: Whisk together vinegar, water, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat, add cucumber slices, and stir. Place a clean kitchen towel or double layer of heavy duty paper towels on top of pickles and press down until saturated with liquid and in direct contact with the cucumbers. Let sit for 10 minutes, then strain pickles. If storing, reserve strained liquid, place pickles in an airtight container, and add enough liquid to just submerge pickles. Discard remaining liquid and store pickles in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
- To make the pork belly: Season pork belly all over liberally with the rub. Fire up smoker or grill to 225°F, adding chunks of smoking wood chunks when at temperature. When the wood is ignited and producing smoke, place the pork belly in the smoker or grill and smoke until an instant read thermometer registers between 195-203°F when inserted into the thickest section of meat, about 6 to 8 hours. Wrap pork belly tightly in butcher paper or foil, place in a cooler or oven, and let rest for 30 minutes to 2 hours.
- Remove pork belly from wrapping and slice into 1-inch cubes. Place cubed pork belly in foil tray. Drizzle barbecue sauce over pork and toss to thoroughly coat. Place tray in smoker and cook until pork has darkened and become crisp around the edges, about 2 hours. Remove from smoker.
- To serve, steam buns in a bamboo steamer or in the microwave on a large plate under a damp towel. Place a piece of pork in each bun and top with pickle slices. Serve immediately.
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