Slow-cooked pork belly is pretty hard to improve upon. The uncured bacon steak is meaty and tender, with melty portions of delicious pork fat running through. It’s already indulgent, but you should make it even more so by giving it a sweet and crackly brûlée crust.
Let's be serious for a moment: without that crackling, crystalized sugar crust on top, crème brûlée would just be custard. It would be very good custard, but that torched sugar is what makes it special. Brûlée-ing however, is not an act that should be reserved for crème. You can brûlée all sorts of foods, bringing a touch of decadence to every meal.
This may sound excessive, but I am an excessive person. A spoonful of sugar isn’t needed to help the pork belly go down, but it creates a ton of delicious contrast. The caramelised sweetness accentuates the pork’s saltier qualities, while the brûlée skin gives your teeth something to snap into. Plus it just looks so pretty.
But before we can brûlée the belly, we have to cook it, and for that we reach for our sous-vide circulators. There are a surprising number of ways to sous vide pork belly but, like ChefSteps before me, I like to go extremely low and slow, so that the fat has time to melt but the meat retains some of its spring.
(If you want a more braised texture, jack the heat up to 80C and drop the time to seven hours, or try something in between.)
Though you probably associate the cut with aggressive, salty flavours — ahem, bacon — pork belly is, like all pork, very mild without seasoning, so you can make it as salty as you like.
Mirin and soy sauce are both fine cooking liquids for pork belly, but I was out of both. I did, however, have some almost-too-oxidized vermouth in the fridge, along with a bit of maple syrup and (obviously) kosher salt.
That, coupled with some leftover black garlic and leeks, all made for an extremely effective and flavorful bag of flavorful friends — that said, free to play around with the aromatics (and the liquids, if you fancy). To make it yourself, you will need:
1kg of boneless pork belly, skin left on
1 cup dry vermouth
1/2 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons kosher salt
5 cloves of black garlic (Use roasted if you don’t have black; raw does not do well sous vide.)
10cm portion of a leek (white and light green parts only), cut into 1/2-inch ribbons
Add the vermouth, syrup, and salt to a gallon-sized freezer bag and squeeze and swirl to mix. Smash the garlic with the flat of your knife and add it to the bag along with the leeks. Add the belly, squish out as much air as you can, and place in a 70-degree bath for 24 hours. At the end of the cooking time, remove the bag, drain the juices through a sieve into a pot, and bring the liquid to a boil. While that’s reducing, brûlée the pork.
If you followed my recipe above for the cooking liquid, you’re dealing with a fairly salty hunk of pig, and you should feel completely comfortable with piling on the sugar. I used about 1/2 a teaspoon for every 3 1/2 x 10cm of pork, and I’m quite pleased with the results. Just sprinkle it on and, using a butane torch set to a medium-low flame, gently caramelize the sugar with slow, sweeping motions.
Let that rest so the shell can harden, and turn your attention back to the pot on the stove. Give its contents a taste and, if it’s a bit salty, add a little brown sugar and/or rice vinegar to balance it out. Let it reduce until it’s basically a syrup, then serve it alongside the belly as a dipping sauce.
Grab a knife, cut off a slice, and revel in the excessiveness of it all.