Pork belly for me is a magical cut of meat. It’s one of the few cuts that can be roasted or braised with equally excellent results. My favourite way of cooking pork belly is to roast it, and of course roast pork just wouldn’t be the same without crispy crunchy crackling. Pork belly is a fatty cut of meat but as chefs have been saying for decades – fat equals flavour. The good thing about roasting pork belly is that the long cooking time means a lot of the fat is rendered away and as it’s rendering it bastes the meat keeping it super moist. In this recipe, adapted from Annabel Langbein, the pork flesh sits in a bath of milk while it roasts which results in even more tender meat. The combination of moist unctuous meat and crispy golden crackling is very hard to beat.
Now for the crackling – there’s a lot of debate and a lot of techniques out there for reaching crackling nirvana and it can make roasting pork a little intimidating. My usual method is to score the meat (this is one area where everyone’s in agreement) and leave it in the fridge uncovered for a few hours to overnight. I then bring the pork to room temperature and dry it really thoroughly (a blow torch is great for this). I salt the skin generously and put it into a blasting hot oven for 25 minutes until the skin is starting to bubble and crackle. After that time the heat can be turned down and the meat left to cook slowly for another 1½ hours or so. But what I’ve usually found at the end of the cooking time is that the crackling isn’t quite as crisp as it should be so I need to crank the oven up again and cook it for another 20 minutes for the crackling to harden and become crisp. This time I tried something different. I oiled the skin just before putting it in the oven. I know some chefs do this but it went against the whole leave-the-skin-dry school of thought I’ve always fervently followed. I was nervous and pretty convinced that the final result would be flabby soft crackling but to my surprise I achieved the best crackling ever. So I’m a convert and the skin of all future roast porks will be lovingly oiled up. I’ll still do the hot oven then slow oven thing but what I found different this time was that I didn’t need to blast up the heat again at the end – my crackling was perfectly crisp and golden after the slow cook. I served the pork with a lovely slow braised Austrian style red cabbage that is slightly sweet and slightly sour and works a treat with the pork.
Ingredients – Serves 4 generously
Pork Belly Adapted from Annabel Langbein
1 to 1.2 kg pork belly with skin scored
A drizzle of vegetable oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sea salt flakes
Small bunch fresh sage leaves
2 to 2½ cups of fresh milk
Austrian Style Braised Red Cabbage
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely sliced
1 red apple, unpeeled and diced into small thin pieces
1 small red cabbage, cored and very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup vinegar – I like to use half balsamic and half cider
For the Pork Belly: Preheat oven to 240C or 250C if your oven allows. Bring the pork to room temperature (I like to have it sitting in the fridge uncovered as this helps to dry out the pork skin). Thoroughly pat the skin of the pork dry and season the flesh side with pepper and half the salt. Place the sage leaves on the bottom of a baking dish (just large enough to hold the pork) and put the pork on top, skin side up. Drizzle a small amount of oil on to the skin and rub it in. Season the top with the remaining salt.
Roast for about 25 minutes or until the skin is starting to blister and crackle. Remove the baking dish from the oven and slowly pour the milk around the meat to come about half to two thirds of the way up the sides of pork. Do not let the milk touch the skin otherwise it will loose its crackle.
Reduce the oven to 160C and roast for a further 1½- 2 hours or until pork is meltingly tender. Check the level of liquid during cooking and if it has evaporated add a little more to the pan. At the end of the cooking time the crackling should be very crisp and golden. As I mentioned in the notes above I found that by oiling the skin I didn’t need to re-crispen the crackling. But if you do need to, then turn the oven back to a very high heat and cook for a further 15 minutes or so. Alternatively turn on the grill element and cook for a few minutes, but be careful as the crackling can burn quite easily under the grill. Remove the pork from the oven, lift out from pan and allow it to rest uncovered for about 10 minutes before carving. Discard the liquids.
For the Red Cabbage: Place the butter in a medium size heavy based saucepan and place over medium heat. When the butter has melted add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook until slightly softened. Add the apple and brown sugar and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring regularly, until the sugar has melted and the apples have softened a little. Add the red cabbage, the remaining salt and the vinegar. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer.
Lower the heat and cook covered for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 45 minutes the cabbage will have wilted quite a lot. Remove the lid and cook uncovered, over very low heat, for a further 30-40 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the cabbage is meltingly soft and tender. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, sugar or vinegar if needed to achieve a good sweet and sour balance.