How to make a tantalising pork belly with perfect crackling and a sublime cider gravy
I read in a book once that evolution is to blame for the weird phenomenon of the designer handbag.
In any prehistoric community, there were alpha males and females: people who just seemed to do everything better than everyone else. These people were celebrities within their own tribes, and they inspired slavish imitation. If you wanted to better yourself, you simply copied everything your local celebrity got up to, from the way they chiselled their flints to the arrangement of their animal skins. This turned out to be a better evolutionary strategy than trying to distinguish between genuinely effective behaviours and mere fripperies - in the time it took you to do that, you'd probably have been gulped down by a crocodile.
If the alpha cave women had carried designer handbags, so would the rest of the tribe - much as they do today. There's a kind of juju to following your heroes, and it applies to cooking as much as any other field of endeavour. So much of what we are taught is not actually necessary - it has just been passed down and accepted without question. I spend much of my life trying to separate the fact from the fairy tales. But sometimes you just have to give in. And such is the case, for me, with pork belly and crackling. If you Google "perfect crackling" you will find any amount of advice. (My money, as someone with a physics degree, is that the guy who talks about the temperature S-curve is probably closest to the truth.) But in all my experimentation, I never get better results than through the method below - passed down by the alpha cook, and my collaborator in this column, Jane Baxter. Guaranteed to produce juicy, melting pork and perfect crackling. And better than a handbag any day.
Jane Baxter's perfect pork belly recipe
Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus overnight
Cooking time: up to 4 hours
1.5-2kg piece of belly pork (bone in, if possible)
1 tbsp sea salt
1 tbsp ground fennel seeds
Freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, cut into thick slices
1 When buying your meat, ask your butcher to score the skin for you. Scoring the skin with deep, closely spaced cuts of the knife is critical for good crackling. A criss-cross diamond cut will give an even better result than straight slashes through the skin.
2 Start the next stage the day before you intend to roast the pork. Place the meat on a rack above a tray or bowl and pour a full kettle of boiling water slowly over the skin. Pour away the collected water, pat the pork dry and then let it dry completely for an hour or so. Sprinkle the skin with the salt and rub it in all over the belly. Cover with a tea cloth and leave it in the fridge overnight. This will make it dry further. Dryness is good for crackling.
3 Take the pork out of the fridge an hour before you intend to cook it so it can come up to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. Pat the skin dry with kitchen roll and rub all over with the fennel seeds and black pepper.
4 Arrange the onion slices on a baking tray. Top with the belly pork and roast in a hot oven until the skin starts to crackle. Check the pork every 15 minutes and move the tray around so that the pork cooks evenly (in a fan oven you will often get charring at the back of the oven). This part of the cooking is important to start the crackling process. When you feel confident that the skin is blistering, turn the oven down to 140C/275F/gas mark 1 and cook for a further 2-3 hours until the meat pulls away from the bone very easily.
5 Remove the pork from the roasting tray and allow it to rest. Pour off the excess fat and pour in the cider. Scrape at the pan to release all those lovely juices. Pour them off into a pan along with the onions and add some chicken stock. Simmer for a 30 minutes,while the pork rests, for a great gravy.
- If your pork is cooked but the crackling is not quite crisp enough, just remove the crackling by slicing it away as close to the meat as possible. Put it back in the oven or under a grill to crisp up while the rest of the meat rests.
- If you have leftovers, slice them into chunks. Place in a hot frying pan to crisp up. Drain off excess fat and add finely chopped ginger and garlic. Fry for a few minutes, stirring well. Finish with a good dollop of oyster sauce, cook for a few minutes and sprinkle with spring onions. Delicious with steamed greens and rice and the greatest hangover dish known to man or woman. (You can also make this from scratch using raw pork belly.)