Naaah, don’t have to thank me for this. Glad to do it. Well… don’t hate me for it either. If you are finding this angelically beautiful but appallingly offensive all at the same time, I can’t help you. Just as the curtain of the swimsuit-season is about to go up in all its rudeness and the rim of jello hanging over your jeans is being increasingly disagreeable, I’m putting this on your HD retina-display screen. I’m bad. But again, gelatinous pork belly confit under a jacket of perforated crispy skin and a lace of amber-like caramelized sugar… Pass?… Nah, you’ll have to go to the beach fat.
Here’s what I’ve been pissing about the scene – if we say we love food, since when is “love” defined by fuss-free or worse, cellulite-free? Shouldn’t love, once in awhile, strive for extraordinary passion? If you thought the kind of crispy-skin pork can only exist in platinum food-porn shows but not in any home-kitchen, you were as wrong and self-belittling as I was. The other day I recalled a pork confit recipe featured NOT in The French Laundry Cookbook, NOT EVEN in the bistro-style Bouchon Cookbook, but in the casual “family-meal” Ad Hoc Home by Keller. Yes yes, that guys is an overachieving maniac but I have to tell you, after adapting the technique with a different flavor-profile for a couple of test-drives, I sort of get why. The entire process was long, yes. But most of it – the brining, confit-ing and chilling – needed absolutely no attending to. 30 mins of prep-time each was followed by hours of just-leaving-it-to-do-its-business. Quite… dangerously reasonable. Because that was where I came in and said, it could even use a little upgrade.
This crazy crème brûlée is a sweet’n-savory inspiration I draw from the Cantonese char-siu pork, and it comes together absurdly successful. Call me crazy but I agree that fatty pork could use some caramel. But note that the addition also inherently changes the way it is prepared. The original steps are to cut up the pork belly into pieces for crisping and serve as is. But the addition of the torching of sugar on top, results in a larger burnt surface-area and edges. So instead, I leave the pork belly as a whole during the entire process including the torching of the sugar. And the cutting comes as the last step before serving. This will give you razor-straight edges of the crackled skin and the translucent film of caramel. Once you realize how doable this is at home, there is no turning back to the mundane love with mediocre pork. It’s done. I’m done. We’re done.
Ingredients: the confit-technique is adapted from Ad Hoc Home
- 570 ~ 600 gram of pork belly, skin-on (approx 5 1/2″/14cm square)
- 3 ~ 4 star anise
- 4 cloves of garlic, smashed
- 1/2 tsp of ground white pepper
- 1/2 tsp of black peppercorn
- 1/2 cup of salt
- 1/4 cup of honey
- 4 cups of water
- To finish:
- 2 tbsp of pork fat, or oil for pan-frying
- White sugar for torching
- Yellow mustard to serve
There is a few things, secrets to success if you will, that I want to list out before I go into details.
* Brine the pork belly for 6 hours only (instead of 10 as suggested by Keller) because I found it more than enough for the desired saltiness.
* I want the pork belly to retain some level of texture to it instead of “meltingly tender” as suggested, which I thought was a bit over-done. 4 hours in a 230ºF/110ºC oven is sufficient (instead of 5 1/2 ~ 6 hours).
* The skin needs to be specially-treated to achieve the ultimate texture, and this NEEDS TO BE DONE right after the confit-ing while the skin is still hot, soft and pliable. Instead of criss-crossing the skin, I’m following a Cantonese technique of “perforating” it, to install as many tiny holes throughout as possible. There is special equipement for this, but it can be easily done by taping a handful of wooden skewers together.
* The pork belly MUST BE COMPLETELY CHILLED and PRESSED before it is ready for crisping. When pressing down the pork, I don’t think it’s necessary to submerge it in fat (as how all confit is kept) unless you are trying to preserve it for a prolonged period of time. And the most important thing I learnt is that the SKIN-SIDE MUST BE FACING DOWN during pressing. This will give you a SUPER FLAT skin-side that’s the basis for success when it comes to crisping.
* Every pork belly, depending on which part of the pig/which type of pig it is from, has a widely varied thickness of the skin. The crisping-time largely depends on the thickness of the skin. When checking, you must make sure that the entire depth of the skin is rendered into a layer of blistered, crackled and very fine “foam-board-like” texture, in order for it to be crispy and not sticky. This will take anywhere from 18 ~ 35 min on low-heat depending.
* When creating the crème brûlée-crust, hold the torch further away rather than closer from the sugar so you don’t burn the skin. Once the sugar has solidified, you want to cut it skin-side down, then invert it back on the serving plate.
Start the day before serving:
10:00 am ~ 11:00 am: Combine all the ingredients in “brining” except for the pork belly, in a pot. Bring to a simmer and let cook until the salt has completely dissolved. Chill the brine in the refrigerator until cooled.
11:00 am ~ 5:00 pm: Place the pork belly in a zip-lock bag and pour the brine into the bag to submerge it. Rest the bag on top of a deep plate and leave in the fridge to brine for 6 hours. Make sure the pork belly is fully submerged at all time.
5:00 pm ~ 5:30 pm: Preheat the oven on 230ºF/110ºC. Take the pork belly out of the brine and rinse it clean of any scraps, then really pat it dry with a clean towel. Place the belly, SKIN-SIDE DOWN in an oven-proof container that’s just wide enough to hold the pork belly, and deep enough to allow 1″ or 3 cm of room on the top. The better the fit of the contain, the less fat you’ll need to confit the pork (a square cake-pan is great). Heat up enough oil (I just used light olive oil instead of pork fat) to cover the pork belly by at least 1/2″ or 2 cm, in a pot until warmed through (but not hot enough to cook the belly). Pour the oil into the baking container, then cover with aluminum foil.
5:30 pm ~ 9:30 pm: Confit the pork in the oven for 4 hours. It should be easy to pierce through with a fork.
9:30 pm ~ 10:00 pm: Carefully remove the pork belly out of the baking container with a wide spatula, WITHOUT breaking the skin or meat. Set the belly on the cutting board, skin-side up. Wrap a handful of wooden skewers together with tape. Pierce the skin ALL OVER with the tip of the skewers until you have made densely populated, mini holes throughout the skin. Do this GENTLY without breaking up the fat-layer underneath. I find it more efficient to move slowly from one side to the other, instead of random jabbing.
10:00 pm ~ overnight: Invert and place the pork belly SKIN-SIDE DOWN on a flat-bottomed baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap, then another piece of flat-shaped plate (the bottom of a cake-pan, or another baking dish) over the top of the pork belly. Rest something relatively heavy on top (2 cans, or a pot). Chill in the fridge for at least 12 hours, or until needed.
The next day, 40 minutes before serving: Unwrap the pork belly and place it on a cutting board. The skin-side should be as FLAT as a GRANITE-FLOOR. Trim the pork belly, according to the shape of the skin, into very clean, even and straight-edged square or rectangle. Heat up approx 2 tbsp of the confit-fat in a wide, NON-STICK pan over medium-high heat. Carefully lay the pork belly, SKIN-SIDE DOWN on the pan then turn the heat down to LOW. Take a piece of parchment paper and rest it over the pan, with a opening on the side FACING AWAY from you. Trust me, the skin is going to mini-explode and splatter. The opening allows the steam to escape, but also retain enough heat inside the pan to warm up the pork.
Leave the skin to crisp up over low-heat for 18 min, then REMOVE the parchment paper (we want to eliminate the moisture inside the pan now) and cook for another 5 min. Check the skin and see if the entire depth is blistered thoroughly. If not, keep cooking for another 5 min. It took mine about 30+ minutes.
Once ready, turn the pork belly over to heat up the meat-side slighly, approx 1 min.
Move the pork belly to a board, skin-side up. Cover the skin with an even layer of granulated sugar. It should be thick enough that you don’t see the skin underneath. Caramelize the sugar with a blowtorch until completely melted and browned. Let the caramel harden. Invert the pork belly with the crème brûlée-side facing down. Use a VERY SHARP KNIFE, cut through the meat-layer and once the knife hits the skin-layer, PRESS THE KNIFE DOWN hard until you hear a crackle and feel the knife has cut through the skin.
Serve the crème brûlée pork belly with yellow mustard.