Braised Pork Belly

Pork belly is a dish I had for the first time about a year ago.  It’s incredibly fatty, juicy, flavorful, and succulent, so you can only have one small piece at a time.  I think it epitomizes comfort food.  Especially braised pork belly–it’s like a cross between barbecue, a steak (or more like a pork steak!), and a good, hearty stew.  I had only ever had this dish in restaurants before, but this winter, I decided I would try to make it for myself.  It’s quite extravagant for a college student living on her own, but a long, chilly winter night seemed like the perfect time to try it out. And with all the new cooking I’ve been teaching myself this year, it seemed right to attempt something more complicated.

I didn’t follow any one recipe exactly.  Especially when you’re braising meat, it’s not an exact science, so you can easily change it up however you want.  The theory is just to cook a tougher piece of meat for a long time, submerged in a flavorful liquid, at a low temperature so that it becomes tender and delicious.  Pork belly comes from the same part of the pig as bacon, but it’s not cut into strips and it’s not smoked, so it’s very fatty and not particularly tender.  By braising it, I found that the bits of meat on the bottom turn almost to the consistency of pulled pork and that the layers of fat almost dissolve in the braising liquid.

Apple cider or Asian spices (like scallions, ginger, and garlic) are very traditional flavors to pair with pork belly, but the recipes I worked from used a lot of garlic, mustard, onions, and chicken stock.  I’ll list everything that went into the pot later.

Pork belly needs to braise for anywhere from one and half to up to six hours.  I’ve even heard of restaurants cooking it overnight, but mine turned out fantastic after only about one and half or two hours in the oven.  I mention this just so that you make sure you have ample time to make this dish.

To begin, you sear the pork belly.  There is debate about whether to salt meat before searing it, but being an amateur cook, I don’t think it makes much difference whatever I do, so I like to salt my meats about 15-30 minutes before I cook it; that way it can come to room temperature and the salt can start breaking down and tenderizing the meat.  Because pork belly is so fatty on the top, you should score it a few times (but not all the way down to the meat) before rubbing in salt.  This allows the fat to break down and render off more easily.  Use the same pot as you will cook it in to save all the delicious juices and bits, turn the heat on medium, add a bit of oil (I used olive), and sear every side of the meat until it is golden brown and crusty.  Not only does this create a delicious crust, but it also seals in the moisture and juices.

When that is done, there will be far more liquid in the pot (a lot of it is now pork fat, which I save for cooking, sauteing, and making mayonnaise), and you need to remove all but two tablespoons of it.  Now, turn the heat down to medium/medium-low and two sliced cloves of garlic.  Cook them only for about 30 seconds until just barely golden (you don’t want them to burn) and add chopped onion.  I think I used a half a yellow onion, but you can use whatever kind and however much you like.  They are soft and delicious to eat with the pork at the end if you like, but they’re also just there to flavor it.

Once the onions start to soften and turn translucent, add a few chopped carrots.  (Also, I salted the vegetables at each stage to make sure everything is perfectly seasoned.)  You could use a traditional mirepoix of onions, carrots, and celery, but I’m not a huge fan of celery.  Feel free to use whatever vegetables you have or like.  After all the pork belly was eaten just a day later, I actually heated up the braising liquid with the onions and carrots and had it as soup on a cold day.  So this broth you’re creating can serve many purposes.

Next comes some unusual ingredients which I think really compliment the pork belly.  Once the carrots have cooked for a few minutes with the onions, turn the heat to low and add a tablespoon or two of dijon mustard and stir it around until creamy and mixed.  Next pour in a splash of maple syrup and balsamic vinegar.  The amount you use depends on how strong you want those flavors and on how much stock you plan on adding.  I used between 1 and 2 tablespoons of each.  Allow the mixture to cook down for another couple minutes until syrupy.

The final additions for the braising liquid are stock and herbs.  Some recipes called for a combination of beef and chicken stock, but I only had chicken.  I used just about a whole 32 oz. box which ended up cover about 2/3 of the pork belly.  Add whatever sort of stock or liquid you like.  At this point, I also added a bit (maybe 1 tablespoon) of tomato paste for extra flavor and two chopped sprigs of rosemary.  You can choose different herb profiles to flavor the braising liquid and the meat, but I think rosemary goes rather well.

Finally, settle the pork belly (you can put in a whole slab or cut it into portions, but if braising individual portions, all sides of each piece should be seared to ensure the juices don’t escape; in the picture, my pork belly is cut open, but that was just as the end to check it) back down into the pot and as far into the liquid as it will sit.

Cover the pot and put it in a 375 degree preheated oven.  Braise for about an hour and half.  If you want to cook it longer, adjust the temperature down (325 degrees, for example).  I took the pot out of the oven about every half hour, uncover it quickly, and basted the surface of the pork belly with the braising liquid.  I just took a spoon and poured some juice over it to keep it moist and flavorful.  Then I recovered and placed back in the oven until I decided it was sufficiently cooked and tender.  Finally, I removed the lid and turned the oven up to 500 degrees for just about 5 minutes to try to crisp up the surface of the pork belly.

The pork belly should rest, just like any piece of meat, before you cut into it or serve it.  I served just a slice of the pork belly with the braising liquid poured over it and with the carrots and onions on the side.

I think potatoes are a typical accompaniment, but after all that work, I didn’t have time for much else.  Here’s my half-eaten dinner.  I wanted to show the texture of the inside of the pork belly.  The fatty layers are delicious with slightly crispy edges, and the meaty layers were juicy, tender, and super flavorful.  The bottom layer of meat had almost the texture of pulled pork; it completely fell apart, in a good way.  It was one of the most amazing, satisfying dishes.  I couldn’t believe I created the same effect as I had previously only experienced in restaurants.

One of the best parts of this dish is that the leftovers are amazing as well.  I cooked the second piece for dinner the next night by searing it again on all sides in a pan with a bit of the fat I had reserved from the initial searing.  I added some of the liquid and a scoopful of the carrots and onions to the pan and transferred it to the oven, at about 350 degrees, until the liquid was bubbling, the belly looked crispy, and everything was warmed through.  I ate that dinner out of a bowl:

If you’re interested, I highly recommend cooking your own pork belly at home.  It makes for a comforting, satisfying meal with restaurant-quality sophistication.  And it’s all made in one pot!  I will take this experience as a lesson that I really can tackle some of the more complicated culinary dishes on my own and succeed.  If I can do it in my little college kitchen, then so can you!  Enjoy!

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Comments
2 Responses to “Braised Pork Belly”
  1. Mom says:

    I am willing to try the bottom part but will leave the top for you and Dad. I am so amazed that you replicated what we had at RiverPark. If there is ever a Top Chef College edition – you should apply.

  2. Nana and Pop-Pop says:

    Erin, We are surprised, (although we shouldn’t be, given your penchant for trying new foods,) that you actually made and ate pork belly. It’s something that Pop-Pop and I would appreciate, but not too many other people would, except maybe your Dad. Anyway, it looks delicious. Given the caloric and fat content, we might splurge and have it once every two or three years!!

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