Under the skin
Whether perfectly flat or rolled up with string, roast pork belly is all about the crackling
Text Susan Jung / Photography Jonathan Wong / Styling Nellie Ming Lee
For me, the whole point of roast pork is the skin – if it’s not going to be crisp, you might as well braise or steam it (which is good in a different way). After years of cooking it, I’ve come to the conclusion that while rolling the slab of meat makes it look nicer, it tastes better when cooked flat. With rolled roast pork, it’s difficult to get the skin to cook evenly – parts of it remain chewy while only some of it crisps. We rolled ours for this photoshoot, but if you want the whole layer of skin to be crisp, leave your roast pork flat.
Ask the butcher for a nice piece of pork belly, with good layerings of fat and meat, and as evenly thick as possible. If you have the time, rub the marinade into the meat and refrigerate, uncovered, for several hours – this lets the marinade penetrate, and will help to dry the skin.
To puncture the skin (which helps to make it crisp when cooked), I have a rather intimidating implement – bought very inexpensively at one of the kitchenware shops on Shanghai Street, Mong Kok – with a lot of sharp metal spikes imbedded in a wooden handle. Using this requires strength – you need to press it through the skin so it penetrates the fat. If you don’t have one of these, score the skin in a diamond pattern using a very sharp knife.
Pork, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, is cooked sufficiently when the internal temperature reaches 63 degrees Celsius. Because pork belly is so fatty, it needs more time than other parts of a pig to cook to become tender. I test it by inserting a thin-bladed knife into the thickest, meatiest part of the pork; if it slides in and out of the meat easily, it’s ready.
You can add other vegetables to the pan the pork is being roasted in, including whole heads of garlic, potatoes (blanched briefly in salted water, then drained), sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. The garlic, potatoes and sweet potatoes will need about an hour to cook, the sprouts about 30 minutes. Take the vegetables from the pan before turning up the heat to crisp the pork skin.
Roast pork with garlic and orange
1 piece (about 2.5kg) skin-on pork belly
Rice vinegar, as needed
12 garlic cloves
½ tsp paprika
¼ tsp piment d’Espelette or chilli powder
30ml extra-virgin olive oil
5 grams panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
The finely grated zest of one orange
Fine sea salt, rough-flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil, for the pan
Plain (all-purpose) flour (for the sauce)
Put the pork meat side up, sprinkle it with fine sea salt and leave at room temperature for an hour. Turn the pork belly over and check the skin; use a blowtorch to burn off any hairs. Wipe off the skin with damp paper towels. Use the metal spike implement to poke holes in the skin and penetrate the fat. If you don’t have a spike, score the skin in a crosshatch pattern, cutting down to the fatty layer, but not to the flesh. Pour about 45ml of vinegar over the skin and rub it in to ensure an even coating.
Finely chop the garlic (I use a food processor) and mix in the paprika, piment d’Espelette or chilli powder, olive oil, panko, orange zest and salt and pepper. Flip the pork belly over again and rub the garlic mixture into the flesh. If the flesh is very thick in parts, cut slits in it so the marinade can penetrate. For rolled pork, roll it lengthwise, skin-side out, then tie it with kitchen twine at 2cm intervals. If you’re leaving it flat, put it skin side up on a platter that’s been lined with cling-film. With either rolled or flat pork, refrigerate it, uncovered, for several hours.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
Lightly oil a roasting pan. If the pork is flat, flip it over and remove the cling-film (if a lot of marinade has stuck to the cling-film, scrape it off and rub it into the meat). Rub the skin with rough-flaked sea salt. Put the pork (rolled or flat) skin-side up in the roasting pan and bake at 180 degrees for about two hours (if flat) or four hours or longer (if rolled). Insert a probe-type thermometer into the thickest part of the flesh and, when it reaches 63 degrees, turn the oven temperature up to 220 degrees. Roast the pork for about 30 more minutes, or until the skin is crisp – watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn. Check that the meat is tender, and if it’s not, lower the heat to 180 degrees and continue to cook until it’s done. If the skin gets too dark, drape a sheet of aluminium foil over it.
Take the roasting pan from the oven. Put the pork on a carving board and leave it to rest (remove any foil, if used) while making the gravy.
If there’s a lot of fat in the roasting pan, pour off all but about 45ml, and leave behind the meat juices.
Put the roasting pan (with the meat juices and about 45ml of fat) over a medium flame and add about 30 grams of flour.
Use a wire whisk to whisk the ingredients together, scraping up the burnt bits from the bottom of the pan to add flavour. The flour should bind together the fat and meat juices; if there’s too much fat, add more flour to create a loose but cohesive paste.
Stir constantly for about a minute, then continue to whisk while adding enough hot water, a little at a time, for the paste to become a saucy consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste (it might not need any).
Slice the pork into thick pieces then serve with the sauce.