Words Harriet Boucher, Images by Ashlee DeCaires
Pork belly is one of those special occasion meats where a lot of love goes into achieving the perfect crackle and juicy meat. It’s one of the richest meats on the market, so a little goes a long way.
If I go to a restaurant where pork belly features on the menu, I’ll often snap it up, as I hardly ever cook it at home. The perfect belly must have tender, flavoursome meat, rendered fat and, of course, epic crackling. Getting all three perfect often proves difficult, so I set out to change this.
Week one of pork belly testing was dedicated to Annabel Langbein’s Crispy Pork Belly from The Free Range Cook. A very simple method, you pat the scored skin dry and season it with salt and pepper. It sits in a roasting dish on top of 3 sage leaves, goes into a hot oven until the crackle forms, then milk is poured around the dish and the belly is cooked at 160°C for a further one and a half hours. Annabel suggested it would take 20–30 minutes for the crackling to form on the belly, but mine took 50 minutes, and even then, there was a patch that refused to pop. I was worried the meat would dry out, so I went ahead with the milk step.
I had expected the sage leaves to infuse into the meat, but the flavour was lost. Instead, the pork was a bit bland and almost cheesy in the bits where the milk curds had clung on. The meat itself was tender, but I think it would have been even more succulent if it had less time in the hot oven at the start. The fat had rendered down beautifully, but the crackling was a bit of a miss. The recipe only called for half a teaspoon of salt to be rubbed into the skin, which just wasn’t enough to get that salty hit I crave in crackling. Salt also helps dry the pork skin out, which is essential for it to crackle, so not enough salt just won’t cut it.
Chelsea Winter, like Annabel, is a household name in New Zealand. One of her famous recipes is her Slow Cooked Pork Belly with Perfect Crackling. This is the recipe that my mum uses, and it’s always a hit. You start by patting the belly dry, rubbing olive oil all over, sprinkling the top generously with salt and massaging it in, then placing it on a wire rack, set over an oven tray and cook at 130°C. It cooks low and slow for four hours, then for 30 minutes at 150°C. I don’t understand what this extra 30 minutes at 20 degrees hotter does. Once the slow roasting is complete, the pork gets blasted on the grill setting until the skin puffs up.
Most of the skin on my piece of belly crackled impressively, but there was a small patch that just wouldn’t budge. The belly was slightly uneven and through my research, I’ve found that belly will only crackle if the skin sits at an even level. You can level the meat by simply tucking a piece of tin foil or rolled up silicone baking mat under the lower side to prop it up. The meat was bursting with the quintessential roast pork flavour but was slightly less tender than Annabel’s milk braised belly. The bits of crackle that did work were incredibly crunchy but not break your teeth tough, and just salty enough without needing to reach for a glass of water.
America’s Test Kitchen
In my third week of pork belly testing, I tried Dan Souza’s recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. It’s well known that Americans love their bacon, and Dan’s recipe epitomised this. To start, you cut the piece of scored belly into thirds, then rub the flesh with a mix of half salt and half brown sugar, ensuring no sugar touches the skin. It’s flipped back over and placed in a dish, then the skin is sprinkled with salt. The belly is then dried out, uncovered, in the fridge for 24 hours. Once dried, the pork is transferred to a wire rack set over a tray and cooked low and slow at 120°C for 3–3 ½ hours until the meat is tender and the fat is rendered. The pork is then cooked in a pan of oil, skin side down until it’s evenly crunchy and crackled.
To me, this seems somewhat of a cheat’s way to achieve the perfect crackle, but out of the four recipes I tried, it was the best tasting, textured and easiest to get right albeit rather messy. The meat was beautifully tender and took on a sweet-salty bacon flavour, although was a tad on the salty side. This may have been mellowed out if we served it with a sauce, but the belly should be balanced on its own.
The fourth belly I tested was CJ Eats’ Cantonese-Style Crispy Pork Belly recipe. This recipe had the longest preparation time but the shortest cooking time, so I was drawn in to see whether the meat would be as tender as the others. Instead of scoring the meat, you start by pricking it with a sharp knife or fork to puncture the skin. The flesh side is cut a few centimetres deep, then marinated in a Chinese 5 spice-based paste. It’s then placed into a tin foil parcel with the skin exposed and left to dry in the fridge for 48 hours. Once dry, the skin is brushed with vinegar, topped with an egg white/salt mix to form a crust and baked at 150°C for 30 minutes. The crust is then removed, more holes are poked into the softened skin and it’s baked for a further 30–45 mins at 230°C to form the crackling.
This was the most visually stunning piece of crackling out of the four bellies I had cooked, but looks can be deceiving. It was quite a thin crackle, which meant that the top was crunchy but the bottom part of the skin was still chewy and hadn’t completely aerated, which is how you get the ultimate crunch. The fat hadn’t rendered down properly, probably due to the short cooking time, but it wasn’t a very fatty piece of belly in the first place so this was forgivable. The meat was intensely salty and had an overpowering 5 spice flavour. As expected, this belly wasn’t as tender with the short cooking time, proving low and slow is the way to go.
Each pork belly method has shaped my final recipe. I preferred the slow cooking at the start and crackle to finish when comparing Annabel’s and Chelsea’s. I loved the America’s Test Kitchen sweet/salty marinade over CJ Eats’ 5 spice. Chelsea Winter’s crackling was all round tasty, successful and achievable, but I also liked the theory behind how the skin was prepared in CJ Eats’ recipe. So for my final recipe, I’ve marinaded the belly in a salt/sugar mix, used CJ’s method of pricking and not scoring the skin, dried the skin out with the boiling water method I use at home and based the cooking on Chelsea’s recipe.
Pork belly is so worth the effort, which is why this recipe isn’t a quick cheat method. Take the time to impart flavour into the flesh and give the skin the best foundation to crackle. Serve pork belly with an apple and fennel slaw, a celeriac puree and seasonal greens.
1kg unscored pork belly
3 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp fine sea salt
extra sea salt
Place the pork belly on a flat surface, then using a sharp knife, prick the skin all over to create little holes. Don’t stab into the flesh, just the skin.
Boil the jug, set a wire rack over the sink and place the pricked belly skin side up on the rack. Pour boiling water over the skin, you will notice it tighten and lighten.
Mix the brown sugar and salt together, then flip the pork over and rub this mix into the flesh, taking care to not get it on the skin. Place the belly in a dish, skin side up, and rub a little extra sea salt into the skin. Place the pork, uncovered, into the fridge overnight so the skin dries out and the flesh cures in the sugar/salt mix.
The next day, preheat the oven to 130°C. Place the pork on a wire rack set over an oven tray and cook for 3½ hours. Turn the oven setting to grill at about 200–220°C (some oven grills are more vicious than others). Move the pork to the top half of the oven, and grill until the skin crackles all over. WATCH THIS CAREFULLY, it can burn in minutes if your oven is too hot. It happens to the best of us, myself included in this very picture, but I cut the burnt part off so you wouldn’t know.
Allow the meat to rest for 5–10 minutes once the crackling has formed before slicing and serving.
Tip: Before you turn the oven to the grill setting, check that the pork is level. If it isn’t, prop the thinner part up with a piece of tin foil to even it out. This will help it crackle evenly.