Dining date: 3/28/12
I’ve made pork belly confit once and it turned out great. It can be crispy and tender both at the same time, and is usually succulent and full of flavor. However, it was a ton of work, and cooking something in two pounds of lard didn’t make me feel good about my health. Almost a year and a half later, I was inspired to try again…this time sous vide.
There would be two big pluses with sous vide. One, I could cook at a lower temperature for an extended period of time. Two, it would require much less fat, since the lard was sealed in a vacuum-sealed pouch with the pork.
I decided to go with the same brine as before, Thomas Keller’s pork brine from Ad Hoc at Home. The time and temperature took some thinking, and I consulted a variety of sources. Heston Blumenthal recommended cooking the pork at 60C for 36 hours. Thomas Keller opted for 82C for 12 hours. 82c seemed like a higher temperature than I wanted and 36 hours was too much of a test of my patience, so I went right in the middle and decided on 71C (~160F) for 24 hours.
I have a pretty big tub for my water bath, so I figured I’d go big. Heck, if I’m cooking something for 24 hours I’d better make a large batch. Plus, the cooked pork (stored in its own fat) would stay good in the freezer for a long time. I purchased about 6 pounds of pork belly and got started.
For ease of storage and cooking, I sliced my pork belly into individual servings first, cutting them into neat rectangles. I brined these guys overnight (brine recipe here).
After brining overnight, I rinsed each piece of meat thoroughly and dried them off. Each piece got its own vacuum-sealed pouch along with salt, pepper, and a generous amount (2-3 tablespoons) of lard. Once sealed, they were ready to take a bath!
24 hours later, the bags were removed to yield a cooked piece of pork belly and a large amount of fat and juice. I cooled them in a ice bath, putting a weight on top to try to push out any excess fat within the layers. I put some in the freezer and some in the refrigerator, knowing there was no way I was going to consume all of this in a short period of time.
Once I was ready to eat, two main steps came into play: reheating and crisping the pork. For refrigerated belly (or thawed), I like to heat the pouch up with hot water from the sink – not hot enough to re-cook the pork but hot enough to liquefy the juice/fat and take the chill off the meat. I usually just fill a small pot with hot water and let the bag sit in there for 10 minutes. It makes it much easier to drain the pork and dry it off, rather than scraping off the jelly and solidified fat. Also, by heating the meat just a little bit, it would help me re-heat the pork evenly on the stovetop.
Sometimes I leave the skin on, but I actually prefer to remove the skin and some of the first layer of fat, leaving a remaining thin layer of fat (something Blumenthal recommends in The Big Fat Duck Cookbook). It reduces the fat:meat ratio considerably, and I find the skin to be a bit chewy sometimes. Searing the fat layer would still yield the crispy texture I was aiming for. It’s all about personal preference though.
I next cut my rectangle into smaller pieces…not quite bite sized but maybe into two- or three-bite pieces. More surface area equals more meat/fat to make crispy, and the interior of the meat would heat quicker.
After patting the pork dry, I seared each side of the pork belly, starting with the fat cap. Sometimes I just sear the fat side, sometimes I sear each side. Again, personal preference depending on the amount of texture. I had a bunch of lard leftover so I thought it’d be fitting to fry it in lard, though any oil (preferably neutral) works here. Deep frying would get the job done, but I went with the pan-searing method in order to conserve on the amount of fat used.
I pan-fried each side until golden brown, making sure the interior was heated though. This might have been the most important step post-sous vide, as the pork needed to be fully warmed through so as to avoid a cool, gelatinous interior from the fat. Cool fat is never really pleasant.
I patted the cooked pieces of pork dry with a paper towel and plated them. Ready to eat!
With low-and-slow cooking and a cut of meat this fatty, it’s hard to go wrong. The pork was moist and tender on the inside with a delightful crispiness on the outside. Within each belly there’s definitely a gradient with the fat and muscle – one side is fattier and one side is leaner. For me, my sweet spot is right in the middle, with the perfect amount of luscious fat and succulent meat. It was totally worth the effort. I could see this incorporated in a number of entree-type dishes, but I like to keep the servings on the small side due to the richness. In fact, I’ve been eating many of these as a small snack.