Crispy pork belly. If there are three words that make me stop umm-ing and ahh-ing between all the choices on a restaurant menu, those would be the ones. At the best restaurants, the pork belly is tender, almost melt-in-your-mouth with a good ratio of meat to fat and topped off with that all important crunchy pork crackling. For the longest time I couldn’t
There’s no real secret, just good technique involved – the pork is pre-cooked, cooled and held (refrigerated) until service, when it is usually pan fried to order. To get the meat fork tender, most restaurants cook their pork belly for a long time at a low temperature. The high fat content means that the fat slowly melts, surrounds the meat, almost confit-ing it in in its own juices. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to confit pork belly in duck fat either – that’s the French level of luxuriousness for you!
At home, the easiest way to cook pork belly is in a sous vide machine. If you don’t have one, don’t worry – you can get similar results in an oven, though there is a bit more to watch out for and a bit more work. The high fat content makes this cut of meat more forgiving.
If there’s one thing that can make a difference to the quality of this dish, it’s buying good-quality pork. The long cooking time can expose all the flaws in the way the pig was raised – that’s just my opinion. Sometimes after cooking, poor quality pork smells a bit funky – usually a sign that the pig was raised on cheap feed or the farm doesn’t have good farming practices.
Look for a good ratio of meat to fat in quality pork belly. It should smell clean. It’s a good idea to buy a little more than you need – either for leftovers, because you might as well have extra if you’re going to cook pork belly for 3+ hours – and because you’ll need to trim the edges to get perfectly rectangular pieces.
Rub the pork belly with salt flakes and leave for 30 minutes, or uncovered on a baking rack in the fridge for up to 8 hours. This helps remove excess moisture from the skin and cure the meat.
You can cook it like a regular roast, a slow roast or sous vide overnight.
To cook as a regular roast – total time approx 3 hours
*this is the most hands on method, and there’s an element of trial and error. The texture of the meat isn’t quite as good as the other methods, but it’s good in a pinch. Depending on the size and shape of the cut, it can dry out so check the oven regularly.
Preheat oven to 200C fan forced. Pat the pork belly dry, removing excess salt that is clinging to the meat.
You can cover the sides of the meat with a double thickness of foil to stop the meat drying out. Place in a high sided baking tray in the centre oven rack and roast for 30 minutes until the skin is crisp then reduce the heat to 150C and cook for a further 1 hour 15 minutes.
Remove from oven and rest the pork. The skin should already be crisp. If not, pan fry skin side down following the instructions below.
To cook as a slow roast – total time approx 6 hours
Preheat oven to 120C fan forced.
Cover a baking tray with a thin layer of vegetable oil and gently heat on the stove. Add the pork belly, skin side down. Cover with a cartouche of baking paper pr aluminium foil, then cook in the oven for 3 hours or until the pork is soft (check intermittently to make sure there is enough liquid in the baking tray.) Pierce the meat with a small knife or small skewer, checking that the pork belly is tender. Cook longer if necessary.
When pork is cool, wrap tightly with clingfilm and place in a tray in the fridge with a weight on top (i.e. 2L milk or beer bottles) to flatten until ready to cook. An hour before you want to cook the pork, remove it from the fridge.
To sous vide – total time approx 16-18 hours
This is my favourite method and the one most used in restaurants as it yields extremely consistent results.
Seal the pork belly in a a vacuum or ziploc bag, then cook at 70C for 12 hours.
Remove the pork from the sous vide bath, then place in a tray in the fridge with a weight on top (i.e. 2L milk or beer bottles) to flatten until ready to cook. I normally leave it overnight but it can be kept in its vacuum seal bag for up to a week (refrigerated properly). An hour before you want to cook the pork, remove it from the fridge.
Trim the edges of the pork belly, removing excess fat. Cut into serving size portions. Pat dry, making sure to remove any stock or liquid clinging to the pork as it will cause splatter in the next step.
In a heavy based frypan, heat 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil over a low heat. Place the pork skin side down and continue to cook over a low heat – take your time as a longer cooking period allows the fat to render out and the skin to crisp up evenly. Press down with a metal spatula to maximise the contact of the skin to the pan. Cook for a period of fifteen to twenty minutes – you can turn the heat up slightly at the end to get little bubbles in the crackling – just make sure to watch the pork closely so that it doesn’t burn.
The pork should have warmed through by this point. If you are unsure, cook skin side up for a further minute or two. This is a dish best served warm but the skin will stay crisp for a few hours if the weather isn’t overly humid.
With a bit of practice, this makes for an impressive dinner party main. The off cuts of pork belly are great pan fried or grilled for a midweek lunch or dinner.