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The Food Lab: How to Make All-Belly Porchetta, the Ultimate Holiday Roast
It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
Does anyone else feel like porchetta—the Italian roast of slow-roasted fennel-scented juicy pork surrounded with crisp, crackling skin—is appearing everywhere these days? Not that I'm complaining. As far as I'm concerned, the more slow-cooked pork in my life, the better. Indeed, my goal is to get a porchetta on every table in America this year (and perhaps some beyond our borders as well). I'm counting on you all to help me achieve my vision of a United States of Porkdom.
Here are a few reasons why you should consider topping your holiday table with a porchetta roast:
- It's delicious. Easily more delicious than turkey, pretty much definitely more delicious than prime rib, and arguably better than leg of lamb. (Don't even mention veggie loaf).
- It looks awesome. Other roasts can be imposing in the center of the table, but none are as geometrically perfect, so easy to carve, and as breathtakingly covered in crackly skin. This geometric symmetry, by the way, makes for easy, even cooking. No awkward thin regions that overcook or thick regions that stay raw in the center.
- It helps avoid fights. Holidays can be a bit trying for the old family, especially when you're fighting over dark meat or light meat or who gets to gnaw on the rib bones. With porchetta, every single slice is exactly the same, by which I mean perfect.
- It's forgiving. Accidentally overcook red meat or poultry and it'll be so dry you might as well serve the gravy-soaked contents of your paper recycling bin to your guests. Overcook porchetta and... wait, that's right, you pretty much can't overcook porchetta.
- It's inexpensive. Pork belly might cost you about $10 per pound—at a fancy butcher. More likely you'll find it for $4-5/pound, at least a quarter the cost of a well-marbled prime rib. Want an aged prime rib? You must have some deep, deep pockets.
- Leftover porchetta sandwiches are freakin' awesome. That's all there is to say about that one.
Convinced yet? Read on, my friends.
What Is Porchetta?
Traditional porchetta is made by butchering a hog such that the boned out loin is still attached to the boned out belly. This meat is then carefully salted and rubbed with a garlic, herb, and spice mixture that features plenty of fennel and black pepper along with traditional ingredients like crushed red pepper, citrus zest, and rosemary, sage, and other piney-scented herbs (you can, of course, vary this mixture to suit your own tastes). By then carefully rolling the two together, you end up with a single perfectly cylindrical roast with the fatty belly surrounding the lean loin, all covered in a layer of skin.
As the rolled porchetta rests, the salt slowly penetrates into the meat, dissolving the muscle protein myosin and altering its structure so that it's able to retain moisture more effectively as well as giving it a slightly bouncier, more resilient texture (think sausage or ham, not rubber ball). As the pork is subsequently roasted, the fatty belly portion rich in juices and connective tissues ostensibly helps keep the relatively dry loin moist.
But we all know that this isn't really how cooking works. All the fat in the world surrounding a lean, tightly textured muscle like a pork loin will not help keep it moist if you cook it past 150°F or so.
On the other hand, belly, with its extensive network of connective tissue and abundant fat content, needs to be cooked to at least 160°F for a couple of hours in order for that tissue to slowly break down and for some of the fat to render.
So why do traditional porchetta recipes call for both belly and loin? My guess is that at the time porchetta was invented, hogs hand't yet been bred to have large, lean loins and thus there wasn't as big a distinction between the belly and loin sections. Both would have had plenty of fat and connective tissue, making both parts totally tasty even when cooked to a higher temperature.
We, on the other hand, need a better solution, so here's one: discard the loin and go for an all-belly porchetta instead. We all know that pork belly—the same cut that the magnificence that is bacon comes from—is the king of pork cuts, and that pork is the king of meats, and that meats are the masters of the universe.
This makes eating an all-belly porchetta somewhat akin to consuming an aromatic, crispy, salty slab of awesome seasoned with He-Man. Or something like that. You get the picture.
Tracking down a single, intact belly shouldn't actually be too difficult. Far easier than, say, finding a whole Suckling Pig. What you want is a whole, boneless, rind-on belly with the rib meat still attached. This should weigh in at around 12 to 15 pounds or so. Your butcher should be able to order one for you easily, or if you live near a chinatown, take a stroll into one of the butchers there—most likely they've got pork bellies in stock. Special thanks to Pat LaFrieda for providing us with our raw testing materials.
Once you've got your belly, everything else is a piece of cake, just give yourself enough time to execute. Assembling the porchetta itself should take no more than an hour, and once assembled, you can wrap it in plastic and store it in the fridge for up to three days (so long as the belly was quite fresh when you got it). It'll actually improve with age as the salt works its way through the meat.
By the way, if you roast your porchetta in a roasting pan, some par-boiled potatoes added to the pan about two hours into cooking would not be a bad idea. If not, make sure to save the fat for roasting potatoes later on.
Got questions? Take a quick peep through the slideshow for a step-by-step walkthrough of the process.
Still got questions? Fire away in the comments!