How Burnt Ends Went from Scrappy Snack to BBQ Royalty

published Feb 23, 2021
Old Arthur’s Pork Belly Burnt Ends

Our candied & smoked Pork Belly burnt ends are a riff off the traditional burnt ends made from beef brisket.

Serves6

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Credit: Brittany Conerly

Is there a trendier barbecue item than burnt ends? Once a hyper-local specialty, burnt ends now appear on barbecue restaurant menus across the globe. Burnt ends, also known as burned edges or brownies, come from the charred part of a beef brisket point (the point is the larger cut of the brisket, as opposed to the thinner flat cut) that remain after hours of smoking. Unlike many other barbecue items, burnt ends have a distinct birthplace, origin story, and an African American connection.

It all began at Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, a legendary African American restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, which Bryant ran from 1946 until he died in 1982. Barbecue restaurateurs who sold brisket used to cut off and throw away the burnt ends before they chopped or sliced the remaining brisket for serving. They assumed that no one would want to eat them. Bryant’s stroke of genius was to save those scraps, chop them up, and hand them out as a free snack to customers while they waited for their orders. He realized that the crispy, rendered fat and bits of smoked meat are irresistible.

Things changed dramatically for burnt ends when national food writer Calvin Trillin wrote rhapsodically about them in the 1970s. Trillin, a Kansas City native, declared that Arthur Bryant’s was “the best restaurant in the world.” Business boomed and the burnt ends went from being a freebie to a hot commodity. Other local restaurants got in on the act, and soon what was once Bryant’s special item became a signature of Kansas City barbecue.

Credit: Brittany Conerly

Some may be surprised that a beef dish is an African American barbecue specialty. Pork dishes — especially spareribs and sausage — are often talked about, but beef has deep roots in African American barbecue culture. Cows were barbecued throughout the South well before barbecue emerged in places with a strong cattle-raising culture like California, Kansas City, and Texas. Brisket is served in African American barbecue restaurants across the country, either sliced or chopped, usually doused with sauce. In older, Black-run barbecue joints, burnt ends are rare. The new generation of African American barbecuers work harder to keep up with current trends, and they have made burnt ends a standard menu option.

Today, burnt ends have diversified from the traditional, crispy bits that so many came to love. Restaurateurs now serve well-manicured, social media-friendly cubes of beef with a seasoned crust (often called the bark). The burnt-end concept has expanded to include other types of meat. The current craze is for burnt ends from pork belly — the same part of the pig that gives us bacon. Like its beef equivalent, pork belly burnt ends are succulent cubes of meat with savory crust.

To give you a taste of the pork belly version, I’m sharing a recipe that appears in my forthcoming book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of BarbecueThe recipe comes from Eudell Watts IV, Old Arthur Watt’s great-great-grandson. Old Arthur learned to barbecue during his enslaved childhood on a plantation near Kansas City. In 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation, he was freed at the age of 27. He relocated to central Illinois, where he was known for his incredible barbecue skills. He died at the age of 108, but his legacy lives on via Old Arthur’s, a company founded by his descendants that sells barbecue rubs and sauces based on Old Arthur’s recipes. This recipe calls for a three-step process that candies the pork belly by smoking, then rendering, and adding barbecue sauce at the end of the smoking process to create crispy, smoky, glazed bits of delicious pork. Although Arthur Bryant and Old Arthur might not recognize pork belly burnt ends, something tells me they’d like them.

Old Arthur’s Pork Belly Burnt Ends

Our candied & smoked Pork Belly burnt ends are a riff off the traditional burnt ends made from beef brisket.

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 6 pounds

    skinless, boneless pork belly

  • 1/2 cup

    your favorite dry rub or Old Arthur's Smokestack Dry Rub, divided

  • 1 stick

    unsalted butter, sliced into pats

  • 1 cup

    dark brown sugar

  • 1 cup

    honey

  • 1/2 cup

    apple juice

  • 1/2 cup

    apple or fig jam

  • 20 ounces

    your favorite sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce or Old Arthur’s Barbecue Sauce, divided

Instructions

  1. Cube the whole pork belly into 1-inch squares. Place the cubed pieces into a large mixing bowl.

  2. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the dry rub into the bowl along with the pieces, and then toss vigorously with your hands to coat each piece thoroughly.

  3. Bring the smoker to an internal temperature of approximately 235°F. Use your favorite fruitwood or hardwood to create the desired smoke once the smoker has reached the correct temperature.

  4. Arrange the seasoned pork belly pieces evenly on a wire-mesh baking tray. Take care to space the pork belly pieces so that they do not touch one another. Place the tray in the smoker.

  5. Smoke the pork belly pieces for 3 1/2 hours at 235°F to 250°F. If you have not already done so, add your wood pieces to the fire so that you are now producing smoke.

  6. Remove the tray from the smoker. Using your hands (gloved), carefully transfer each cube from the tray to an aluminum foil pan. Arrange the pieces so that they are uniformly level in the pan.

  7. Distribute the butter, brown sugar, honey, apple juice, jam, the remaining 1/4 cup of the dry rub, and 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce over the pork cubes.

  8. Cover and seal the pan with aluminum foil. Return the pan to the heat of the smoker. Allow it to stay inside for 2 more hours at a target temperature of 250°F.

  9. Remove the pan from the smoker. Remove the foil lid, and carefully transfer the individual pieces from this braising liquid into a new, clean foil pan. Discard the old pan and liquid.

  10. Drizzle the remaining barbecue sauce over the pork cubes.

  11. Place the cubes in the new pan (no lid) back into the smoker for 15 to 20 minutes more to let the sauce get a little tacky, but don’t leave the pan in too long, or you will sacrifice that rendered texture that you have worked so hard to achieve!

  12. Remove from the smoker and enjoy!

Recipe Notes

Oven directions: You can also give these burnt ends a try in the oven if you don’t have a smoker. Bake the spiced pork belly pieces at 235ºF on a wire-mesh baking tray for 2 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and transfer to a baking pan. Distribute the butter, brown sugar, honey, apple juice, jam, the remaining 1/4 cup of the dry rub, and 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce over the pork cubes. Return the pork to the oven for 45 minutes at 275ºF. Turn the oven up to 475ºF and roast for 5 to 10 minutes, until slightly burned edges start forming on the pork and they are caramelized.

Reprinted with permission from Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue by Adrian Miller, 2021. Published by The University of North Carolina Press.