I wouldn’t say I’m a “Baco-holic,” but I DO like bacon…a lot.
I’ve often said that if many people had their way, “B” bacon would be listed in the Periodic Table of Elements. As a chef, I’ve used bacon in everything from appetizers to desserts, and personally, when I see bacon as part of a description on a menu, my eyes focus in on the dish like a heat-seeking missile.
Bacon gets my attention.
But a few years back, under the guise of “if a little is good, a LOT is better,” pork belly began surfacing on the menus of trending chefs, and it has since become an almost mainstream item on menus.
To clarify, basically, pork belly IS bacon, bacon in an un-sliced slab form. If pork were a tree, bacon would be a thin slice of wood veneer and pork belly would be a 2” x 4”.
So why is something so similar, so different?
In short, pork belly actually has a culinary advantage over its skinny cousin bacon. Mostly due to the fact that pork belly can be cured and smoked to taste just like bacon, but afterwards it can be seared, roasted, braised…even grilled, something that a thin strip of bacon just can’t do.
If you can imagine super-sized “dino-bacon,” well…you’ve got pork belly. And personally, I also love its ability to be crispy on the outside (like bacon off the skillet) while at the same time being meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender like the meat from a succulent baby back rib. That dual personality is what makes pork belly both similar and different.
Pork belly, like packages of bacon you spend time sorting through at the grocery store (and don’t tell me you don’t do it), can sometimes be fatty or meaty. And the same goes for pork belly. Therefore, when you buy pork belly, you should choose one that will be just right.
What’s just right?
Well, believe it or not, you don’t want it to be TOO meaty. A half meat, half fat ratio is just about perfect. Don’t worry, when you cook it, most of that fat will melt away, leaving you with a super-moist, tender piece of pork.
How do you cook pork belly?
There are many popular ways to cook pork belly, including the fashionable sous vide. Sous vide cooking is done by vacuum-packing the meat, then poaching it in a hot water bath (the water itself doesn’t touch the meat) until the product is moist and tender. The advantage of this type of molecular gastronomy is that you can precisely cook, for example, a pork belly, for 24 to 36 hours in 145 F water (keeping it completely protected from dry heat) until it is fork tender and juicy. If afterwards you want your sous vide cooked meat to be crispy on the outside, just sear it for a few minutes on each side to finish since it’s already cooked to perfection on the inside.
I enjoy sous vide cooking, and I’ll write more about its virtues in the future.
For most people, marinating then searing and braising is the best way to enjoy pork belly, and here is a good recipe to begin with.
ROAST BELLY PORK with Cracklings (Crispy Skin) (Serves about 4 persons)
Begin with a slab of pork belly about 3 lbs in weight. It will likely be a square or rectangular shape. Either is fine.
Place the slab on a cutting board, and with a very sharp knife, score the top skin of the pork belly about ¼” deep in a crisscross pattern about 1” apart. Try to avoid cutting into the meat beneath it.
Next, place the scored meat on a wire rack, either over a sink or a large pan that you can drain afterwards.
Bring to a boil about 1 gallon of water, then slowly pour the boiling water over the scored skin, using it all. You’ll notice the skin will shrink back and the cuts will widen a bit.
Discard the water, pat the meat dry on both sides and season it with a good rub of sea or kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and if you’d like, some granulated garlic. Leave the slab uncovered and refrigerate it overnight (which will help the skin dry out some…and make great crackling).
The next day, when you’re ready to cook, set the slab once again on a roasting rack (or grate) within a roasting pan and set the temperature to 475 F.
Roast on the middle shelf at this temperature until you see the skin puff up and get bubbly and crisp (about 45 minutes or so). Then, reduce the temperature to 325 F and continue cooking for about 1 ½ additional hours or a total time of 2 ½ to 3 hours combined, depending on the size of your pork belly.
While the pork is roasting at the lower temperature, make time every 15 or so minutes to baste the meat with the fats and juices that have collected in the bottom of the pan (like you might a turkey).
In the end, the roast will be ready when the skin pulls away from the meat and before anything starts burning.
Remove the pork belly and carve it into 3” to 4” pieces. You can make gravy from the drippings by straining off the fat and thickening it with a bit of cornstarch mixed with water.
Any type of roasted or mashed potato goes well with pork belly.