CANTONESE-STYLE ROAST PORK BELLY

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On the 20th of May 2013, I made a recipe that up to this day, more than a year later, still haunts me.  It was a glorious, beautifully crafted specimen of pork belly confit, originally created by the Thomas Keller of whom I almost always, agree with.

There was nothing fundamentally wrong with it.  The belly went through long hours of brining process before taking a hot-fat-tub bath that was equally as elaborate, then it went on to sit through an overnight pressing procedure… for reasons I followed without asking.  Then, finally, 24 hours later in this excruciating climb to climax, it was sent into a skillet to fulfil its actual purpose – to form a golden, perforated crackling from the skin.  The final torching of a caramel crust, although not from the original recipe, added a nice and thoughtful crunch and sweetness to the overall score.  Like I said, there wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong with it…

Except that it was just too damn, unnecessarily complicated!

OK, you’re right.  For those who only stop by once in a while, I’m evidently not someone who, by principle, seeks kitchen-shortcuts.  I receive considerable amount of twisted pleasure from fiddling with obsessive cooking behavior I mean, I have an entire section named “Got nothing but time” (which I do) for crying out loud.  But the premise is that the extra fusses should always be because a) it’s absolutely necessary by science (like fermentation), or b) it actually saves the overall effort by doing so (like leaving something to roast overnight).  I guess all I’m asking for, the pole that I’m curbing my insanity to, is that the time and effort spent are not for some minuscule, or sometimes, undetectable differences.  And I’m afraid that in the case of pork confit, I’m gonna have to prove myself right by proving myself wrong.


BEHIND THE PORNOGRAPHIC MASK, IS PURE UNADULTERATED PORKINESS


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I guess it’s helpful to first clarify that all the ruckus wasn’t about “pork belly confit”.  It was originally intended at producing what’s in my mind, one of the very few that qualifies as, a perfect definition of pork.

Siu (roast) yuk (meat).  You’ve all seen it – Cantonese roasted pig, hanging whole in all its magnificence behind a greasy, steamy glass-window from a Cantonese restaurant in any China-town.  Its entire elongated and salty torso is suited in a shimmering, blindingly golden jacket of crispy, perforated crackling skin.  The dish is chopped to order and among all the tasty treasures this glorious beast has to offer, is the crown jewel of siu yuk, and that is siu (roast) nan (belly).   It is specifically the more expensive, more hawked over part of the belly with the optimally 5 intersecting layers of glistening meat and fat.  The sticky soft parts melt as the crackling explodes, behind its pornographic mask, siu nan is a flush of pure unadulterated porkiness.  Profoundly simple and uncomplicated perfection.

And turned out, the process of making it should be just as.

So now, coming back to my first, less simple attempt of making siu nan at home.  First and foremost, the No. 1 of vain effort was the brining and the confit-processs (cooking meat submerged in its own fat or oil).  Hey, let’s not forget that this is a fat-laden, self-sustaining piece of cut that embodies the true virtue of forgiveness.  Unlike other mortal, leaner cuts such as briskets or duck legs, pork belly is saint-like.  A cut that will not get mad at you because you so clumsily undercooked (bouncy and fatty), or overcooked (melty and gelatinous), let alone needing to be submerged in more fat.  Instead of 6 hours of brining and 4 hours of slow-roasting in fat, the result would not be much different than if you just do 2 hours of salt-rub marinating and another 2 hours of roasting, by itself, at a slightly higher temperature.

Then there was the pressing… oh the fucking overnight pressing…  Completely unnecessary.  Yah yah I know I said that “it has to be pressed” in order to get a marble-like flat surface of the skin to be evenly blistered, but as it turned out…

Nope.

A couple hours of chilling just to firm up the meat for clean trimming is all it needs.  OK fine!  Hell you can even skip that if you are wondering how much easier can trimming get? (it’s… it’s the laser-straight, laaaser-straight edges that I so SO mentally need, you know…).  But of course, we wouldn’t need to have this argument if we’re talking about having the convenience of prepping ahead for the big dinner party tomorrow.  Chilling overnight, two birds with one stone – check!

Now finally, for all you fellow labor-junkies who thrive on pure caffeines and building warships out of cakes and buttercream, your high-time has come.  The only, actual work of this entire recipe is the 5 minutes of perforating the skin-layer with a bunch of wooden skewers, and 20 minutes of standing by the stove and watching so diligently as the skin blisters and crackles in a non-stick skillet over low heat…  Then there’s nothing left to stop the sticky parts melting, and cracklings exploding…

Sorry fellow kitchen sickos.  This one is that simple.  Next time we’ll build the Death Star out of frozen spinach, ok?

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Servings:  4 as appetizer or 2 ~ 3 as rice-combo

When you choose your pork-belly, it’s important to pick the part where there’s optimal layering of meat and fat.  It goes without saying that the better quality of the pork, the more porkiness and aroma will be in the end result.  That is something that cannot be added through seasonings or techniques.  So choose good pork.

This recipe is really, really simple.  It only reads long because I’m trying to include every last details that might help you achieve the perfect result, but I mean… this dish pretty much can’t be bad.  I’ve once under-blistered the skin which gave me a golden crispy crackling-layer with a little bit of sticky and gelatinous skin underneath.  Does that ever hurt anybody?  And I’ve also once left the belly in the skillet, forgotten… for like 30 min, which gave me a mildly burnt but super crispy crackling.  I mean is that the worst thing to eat in the world?  Two hours in the fridge for marinating, two hours in the oven for roasting, leaving you with only 20 minutes of actual work by the stove and during which, you pretty much don’t have to do anything.

* Everything up to “blistering the skin” can be done up to a few days ahead.


Ingredients: 

  • 1 slab of skin-on pork-belly approx 8″ × 8″ (can be a square or rectangle)
  • 2 tbsp of salt
  • 1/2 tbsp of granulated sugar
  • 3 slices of lemon peel (approx 1/2 lemon)
  • 3 dried bay leaves
  • 1 tsp of black peppercorn
  • 1 tsp of white peppercorn
  • Yellow mustard to serve

To marinate the pork-belly:  Pulse salt, granulated sugar, lemon peels, bay leaves, black and white peppercorn in a spice-grinder or blender until coarsely ground.  Place the pork-belly in a baking-sheet then rub the salt-mixture evenly on all sides of the pork belly.  Let sit in the fridge for 2 hours.  In the last 30 min, preheat the oven on 300ºF/150ºC.

To cook the pork-belly:  Rinse off all the salt-mixture from the pork-belly and the baking-sheet, then place the belly back into the sheet skin-side down (to keep the skin layer relatively flat).  Cover tightly with foil then roast in the preheated oven for 2 to 2:15 hours.  The meat should be tender that a small knife can be easily inserted, but not falling apart.  Remove the sheet from the oven and let cool for 30 min, then chill in the fridge for 1 hour (skin-side down still) until firm (for easy trimming).  Everything up till now can be prepared the day ahead.

To blister the skin:  30 minutes before serving, carefully remove the pork-belly from the baking-sheet.  Take a look at the cut-side and get familiar with the anatomy of the belly.  The skin is a very obviously translucent and darker layer apart from the white, opaque fat-layer underneath.  Then grab a big handful of wooden or metal skewers, evenly and thoroughly, make tiny punctures through the skin down the the top layer of fat.  Instead of random jabbing, move systematically from left to right/top to bottom.  The skin should be soft and easy to puncture without too much pressure.  The more thoroughly and densely the skin is perforated, the more crispy and delicate the cracklings will be.

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Now trim off irregular edges so you have a 90º∠ brick all around.  It’s not just because we’re anal, but this helps the belly brown more evenly and beautifully.

Heat a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, then place the belly skin-side down in the center of the skillet.  Cover with a piece of foil just big enough to leave steam-holes around the edges (this prevents splattering as well as warming the belly as it cooks).  Once you hear sizzling sounds, turn the heat down to LOW.  If your pork-belly does not have a flat and levelled skin-surface, you can apply weight (I used a small cast-iron skillet) where it needs it for the first 10 min.  We want the entire layer of skin to be thoroughly blistered without burning, which is a process that will take no less than 15 min, up to 20 min.  You can check by uncovering the foil and look if the entire thickness of the skin-layer is blistered through (if not, you’ll see a translucent layer attached to the crackling).

The meat should be warmed through after the skin is properly blistered, so there’s no need to flip.

To cut/serve the pork-belly:  Place the belly skin-down down, then with a shark knife, cut through the meat part by zig-zaging the knife, then once you get to the skin, simply press the knife down with swift and firm pressure.  Cut the belly into small cubes and serve with yellow mustard, or on rice drizzled with sweet soy sauce.

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26 Comments

  • God my nemesis of Chinese cooking is pork belly… I have got to use my next pork belly (I use the first one this week for a red braise) with this technique and maybe I will get mine to to look half as good as yours! Damn I am hungry…

  • DROOOOOOL! That looks amazing.

    Interesting use of spices to marinade; I usually use fermented red beancurd for the flesh side but I’d love to try this instead.

  • This pork belly looks totally professional. That skin is to die for, and the little layer of fat underneath always has me beating my family members off to shovel as much as I can on to my plate… Thanks for sharing your recipe and cooking technique – maybe one day I’ll attempt it when I’m feeling brave! x

  • Ha! Great explanation, and love that you’re willing to pare down that super-intense recipe (and offer explanation of why it isn’t really necessary)!

  • Really beautiful post and beautiful photos. I’ve always pressed the pork – I don’t do it to flatten the skin but rather because it presses out some of the top layer of fat. I have also found, however, that there’s no difference between pressing for a couple of hours or pressing overnight like most do. I like to pair it with celeriac, pickled mushrooms and an apple caramel and pork sauce. If you want the recipe, here it is http://www.timedeating.co.uk/braised-pork-belly-celeriac-puree

  • I have been making roast pork belly for a long time. And I have tried a few methods too, including the “death by a thousand holes” style. Unfortunately, the recipe I followed called for stabbing the skin when the pork is raw. And this you can imagine, took me an age due to the rubbery texture of the raw skin (woden skewers dont work so I had to use a sharp knife). So I never used this recipe again. Same with the french confit style. Too much hassle.

    So my go to method is to salt the pork, and slow bake at low temperature with foil covering the sides of the belly but not the skin, and then upping the temperature to 200-220 Celsius. This results in a very thick, firm but crunchy pork rind.

    And then I came across your post. Who knew completely covering the pork belly when baking at low temperature makes such a difference (kudos to you for thinking of this). And stabbing a zillion holes when the skin is pliable makes it so much easier. And just to be difficult, I deliberately left a 1 inch strip in the middle of the skin which I did not perforate, just to see what would happen. I ended up with thin, delicate, crunchy crackle on the bits which I perforated, and crunchy, but firm and sticky crackle on the bits that I didnt perforate. The meat was the moistest belly I’ve ever had. So thank you for making this my go to recipe, although next time I will try baking it at high heat in the oven instead of using the skillet (I hate washing up) to see how it turns out.

  • Hello, I am following from france and butchery is totally different, but I had had this question for ages about many types of recipes i try to recreate here. So when you say skin on, do you mean the ‘rind’ or just the fat with the rind cut off after boiling? You may think this is basic but our incredible butchers here, and i mean they are superb have been giving me sidling glances for years when i try to ask for like a christmas ham, or a roast pork…..its just different cuts here, but if i ask in advance and explain they are usually excited to find out what the weirdo wants..hehehe…..i think skin is rind but i really want to make this and be sure, there have been quite a few weird christmas and easter dinners in this house over the last 15 years. would you believe we can now get ribs here!

  • looks so good! but do you guys know there’s a technique called “photoshop”? Yes, it can be used on food!

  • Great recipe! Not only was the pork tender as can be, the crackling skin was a fool proof method. My pork came out just as nice as the photos, which was unbelievable for my first attempt. Thank you very much for this recipe.

    Leon

  • Thank you for this recipe. Before I couldn’t even dare to think of doing this but your recipe was super easy to follow! I lost some of the skin because the butcher scored the skin. Will remember for next time! And there wi definitely be a next time! Thank you for such an awesome recipe.

  • Aloha Mandy,
    Could you please explain to me what “3 slices of lemon peel” is. Is it the fruit or the rind? I grew up eating “lemon peel” as a snack. It was lemon fermented in the sun with sugar. A kind of sweet yet sour flavor. Perfect for “scratchy” throats. So if you could clarify it for me I’d really appreciate it. Looking forward to trying your “broke da mouth”, “onolicious” Cantonese roast pork.
    Mahalo’s Nui Loa;
    Jeff (808 State)

  • tried this recipe and it’s by far the most amazing pork crackle i have ever achieved ! really really really good!!! highly highly recommended!

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