Pork belly is a favorite of mine, I prepare it and have it in the refrigerator for a wide range of dishes and because it is low in water, high in fat, and very dense, it will refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Costco always has bellies but interesting to me is that they slice them up rather than leave them whole. I asked the butcher about this and he said people don’t buy the whole bellies because they don’t know how to cook them, and now I just ask the butcher to pull me a whole pork belly from the back.
A traditionally prepared pork belly relies on a long braise to render the fat and then transform the tough meat into a succulent delicacy. This braise relies on a mirepoix (onions, celery, carrots), tomato paste and a braising liquid. I use a combination of wine and chicken stock, which the pork belly slowly cooks in for 3-4 hours. It’s a fabulous and very traditional approach that works.
I have been cooking pork belly in my sous vide machine with great results. Sous vide cooking is not a variation on a microwave that you press a button and walk away from. What sous vide does for you is to remove a big variable that every chef deals with, the application of heat and time. With sous vide I can control heat precisely and the thing that I am cooking will always maintain that temperature and time is then less critical because I am not concerned with overcooking.
For pork belly, I started the night before and brine the pork belly with sugar, salt, star anise, fennel, coriander, and pepper. I don’t think brining is absolutely necessary but could skip it if I was time pressed but the brine does allow the meat to take on more flavor.
4 cups water
2 star anise
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup salt
2 tbs whole fennel seed
1 tbs ground coriander
1 tsp black pepper
Smash the star anise to break it up and grind the fennel course. Boil the water, remove from heat, add the spices to mix thoroughly. Let it cool before adding the pork belly (use ice cubes to speed up this process). Refrigerate with the pork belly for 12 hours.
While I have my spices out, I will also make a dry rub for the pork belly and set aside. A dry rub used at the time of cooking is the critical step for achieving the flavor you are striving for. Pork is a lot like chicken, a canvas to apply sweet, savory, or sour flavors. Tailor your dry rub accordingly.
1 star anise, whole
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp whole fennel seeds
1 tsp coriander
1 tbs whole pepper corns
1 tbs salt
I place the star anise and cinnamon stick on my cutting board, cover with a piece of parchment paper and smash it with something heavy to break it up. Put all the spices in a sauce pan and heat until the spices give off an aroma. Remove from heat and grind coursely.
Remove the pork belly from the brine, rinse off and dry with paper towels. Heat the water bath to 180 degrees. Traditional techniques call for scoring the fat cap before cooking, and with sous vide this is not essential but it can improve the visual appeal. At any rate, I chose not to score the cap.
Pork belly is fat on one side and meat on the other, and the density between the two halves is different. As the fat renders out of the cap, the meat will curl and the fat is essentially shrinking. This can be a problem in the oven and it is definitely a challenge when vacuum packed and cooking in a water bath. To mitigate this, I take 2 skewers (metal or wood) and push them through the pork belly from one corner to the other, with the second skewer forming an X through the long axis of the meat. Push the skewers until they are completely encased in the meat to ensure exposed ends do not puncture the vacuum bag.
Cover both sides with the dry rub. Vacuum bag the pork belly with 1/2 cup of white wine and aromatics, I use celery, parsley, and a single carrot. Place in the sous vide for 8 hours, minimum, but don’t hesitate to go longer, up to 24 hours. I prepare this in the morning in anticipation of having it ready in the evening.
Remove from the sous vide, unpack and discard the liquid and aromatics. Dry with paper towels. Line a baking half sheet with parchment, place the pork belly on it, cover with another piece of parchment and place a second half sheet on top with some weight to press it down. Place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
Remove from refrigerator and brush the fat cap with apple cider vinegar. Place in a pre-heated broiler and watch carefully while the fat cap sears to crisp, mahogany in color.
Pork belly isn’t complicated but I have found that it is very sensitive to overcooking, and indeed undercooking as well. Not enough time in an oven and it’s chewy, a little too long and it is like eating a medium well steak… far from the perfect pork belly that pulls apart but doesn’t fall apart. The sous vide process allows me to focus on the front end and final prep, and what I don’t focus on is cooking time and oven temperature. As an added bonus, because the meat is cooking in a liquid, added and released, it never requires basting.