Ask Peter: Crackling
Are there any guidelines when choosing pork belly for roasting if you want crisp crackling? The layer of fat seems to differ widely with this cut. I had some appalling pork belly in a restaurant in Christchurch which was more like a very, very fatty chop with nothing crispy or edible about it; I don’t want to make the same mistake at home.
It’s not fat that makes pork crispy — it’s the skin. You can have some lovely pork dishes with no skin present and the texture is lovely, but it will never get as crunchy, it’s just notable to. I’ve written in the column recently about brining —both wet and dry brines, and these techniques can really help to make the skin crisp, so it might be good to give an abridged version of that now.
The magic ratio of salt to water in a wet brine is this: 6 per cent salt by weight to water. So, that’s 60g salt (just over 2 Tbsp) per litre of water.
Score the skin, and only skin deep (don’t cut into the flesh itself) in parallel stripes no more than 5mm apart. Do this to the whole skin side of the belly. For a 1.5kg belly, bones out (allow 2kg with bones in) mix 90g fine salt with 2 Tbsp ground star anise and rub ¾ of this into the skin side of the belly — really rubbing it into the fat. Then rub the remaining mixture into the flesh side. Place to rest in a dish at least 10cm deep that will hold the belly flat, and leave for 2 hours.
Pour on 1.5 litres cold water, cover the dish with cling film or a lid and leave in the fridge, or a very cool room, for 36-48 hours. When it’s ready, drain well and pat dry. Line the base and sides of a roasting dish large enough to hold the belly flat with baking paper (trust me— this makes cleaning the dish so much easier).
Place 4-6 large, thickly sliced potatoes (unpeeled but with the skins scrubbed) in the bottom to form a trivet, add some fresh herbs, cloves of garlic, sliced ginger etc and then place the pork belly in, skin side up. Add ¼ cup water and roast in the upper middle of the oven set to 170C (fan on) and cook around two hours at which point the skin will change and begin to crisp up.
After two hours the pork is definitely cooked, so turn the heat up to 190C and cook until the skin is really crisp. If, for some reason, you don’t get the skin you’re after, then remove the belly to an unlined dish, skin side up, and cook under a medium-high grill until it puffs up. But, be warned, it can burn fairly easily so don’t take your eyes off it.
That should help you with your skin. However, if you’ve ever cooked a belly before you’ll know that some are simply much more fatty than others. In the restaurant, I’ve cooked a belly and then portioned it and discovered areas of fat and not much else. A good restaurant of course wouldn’t send that out, as there simply isn’t any meat to it, but this may be what happened to you.
I’m not big on pig anatomy, but some pigs are just less lean than others.
Another way I like to eat pork belly without the skin is to steam it, then cut it into chunks and deep-fry. That may sound like a recipe for a heart attack, and it possibly is, but it’s one heck of a tasty way to go.
Brine the belly for 12-24 hours (no need to score the skin as it won’t have any). Drain, then steam it (whole or cut into smaller pieces) for a few hours — in a vege steamer, in an oven bag in an oven set to 150C, or wrapped tightly in parchment and then foil (like a birthday present) and baked the same way. After two hours take the pork out, lay on a parchment lined tray and sit more parchment on top, then another inverted tray. Place some steady weights on top, around 2.5kg worth, and press the belly. Once cooled, place it in the fridge for 8 hours. Then cut the belly into 2cm squares and deep-fry at 180C until golden — it will pop, so make sure your fryer has a lid on it and don’t overcrowd the fryer. Alternatively, pan-fry all over until golden and bake in a very hot oven until sizzling. You won’t have crispy skin, but it’s a great alternative!
Peter Gordon creates a vegetarian-friendly crackling made out of nuts and paprika.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.
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