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My friends, I probably don't need to clarify this, but I cook a lot. I mean, a whole lot, like, five or six meals worth of food for a family of six every single day, with leftovers. Now, as I cook in the interest of science and to make every mistake possible so that you fine readers won't have to, my kitchen produces quite a few duds which have to be creatively reassigned. I do produce quite a bit of mind-blowingly delicious stuff, if I do say so myself (whether by luck or by brute force), but I wish to make the important announcement today that I recently cooked what is undoubtedly the mind-blowingest of all the mind-blowing meat dishes that have come out of kitchen in perhaps... ever?
Bold statement, I know, but I honestly can't think of anything I've ever made that I was happier with then this porchetta.
If you read this column regularly, then you're already familiar with what a traditional porchetta is (I discussed it on Tuesday.)
Quick recap: pork belly that's lightly cured with salt and aromatics like garlic, fennel, red pepper, and spices, is wrapped around a pork loin with the pig's skin facing outwards into a long cylinder. It gets roasted until the meat inside is fall-apart tender and the skin is crisp, then it's sliced and served. Delicious, and a meal that's perfect for the holidays for any number of reasons including cost, ease of preparation and serving, sheer deliciosity, and of course your basic "holy sh%t what's that awesome looking thing on my holiday table," and "WTF [mom/dad/son/daughter], where've you been hiding these mad pork-rolling skills my whole life?" factor.
A regular porchetta is delicious, no doubt, but I thought to myself, what if I start with the same all-belly porchetta and take it to the extreme?
That's exactly what I did, and the results is a dry-brined, pH-balanced, deep-fried, sous-vide, 36-hour slow cooked, all-belly masterpiece of a dish. If you've got the inclination to go for it yourself, here's how it's done.
The technique starts with the exact same porchetta that I constructed to go into the oven. After scoring, salting, seasoning, and rolling a pork belly, the entire exterior gets rubbed with a mix of kosher salt and baking powder in order to break down some of its musculature and allow it to retain more moisture while cooking, as well as to raise the pH of its' cooking medium, creating an alkaline environment more conducive to protein breakdown in the skin.
Oven baking has a few problems. In a regular oven-roasted loin, the baking powder rub will quickly wash off as the pork starts releasing juices. It has an effect, but doesn't quite perform to its full potential. Additionally, without perfect temperature control in an oven, it's not possible to cook a roast to exactly the same temperature in the center as on the edges, nor is it possible to hold it at a given temperature for extended periods of time. The minimum temperature an oven can hold is too high for totally perfect roasting, and even if it were to be able to hold a low enough temperature, ovens work by fluctuating up and down around a given temperature range, not by holding the set temperature perfectly.
All this is to say that an oven is a difficult to control, imprecise system at best.
Sous-vide cooking, as you probably all know, is accomplished by vacuum-sealing foods in airtight heavy duty bags, then submerging them into water baths to cook. The water baths are kept at very precise temperatures far below the normal temperature range of oven cooking. So while a porchetta roasted in the oven might cook in a 300°F environment, in a sous-vide cooker, you'd cook it anywhere between 155°F and 185°F or so.
Because sous-vide cooking is done at such a low temperature, you achieve two goals. First and foremost, your meat is cooked perfectly evenly from edge to center. For fast cooking cuts of meat like, say, a steak or a chicken breast, you use a relatively low temperature—between 125°F and 150°F, depending on how well-done you like your meat, and relatively low cooking times, anywhere from 45 minutes to 6 hours or so. You end up with meat that is pretty similar in texture to meat cooked through standard fast-cooking techniques such as pan-roasting or grilling, albeit cooked far more evenly from edge to center, and far juicier.*
*For the record, these are the types of thing that you can do at home in a beer cooler.
With connective tissue-rich slow-cooking cuts, such as short rib or pork belly, on the other hand, you use relatively higher temperatures—in the 155°F to 185°F range, and far longer cooking times. As with normal stews and braises, the temperature at which you cook your meat is inversely proportional to its cooking time, and directly proportional to the total amount of liquid it loses.
So, for instance, cook a porchetta at 185°F, and it may be tender in 5 hours or so. However, this high temperature will cause it to squeeze out an undue amount of liquid, leading to a less juicy finished product. Take it to the other extreme, and you get far less moisture loss, but cooking times that can range all the way up to 36 hours.**
**In some even more extreme cases, I've seen proteins cooked for as long as 72 hours, though honestly, in my admittedly limited experience cooking meats for 3 days at a time, I haven't noticed a significant improvement past the first day and a half
Fortunately for us, as Mick Jagger said, time is on my side. All I've got to do is set my Sous-Vide Supreme at 155, drop my pork in, and walk away. Heck, I could do a full on marathon of The Office (the original, of course), Extras, and the entire second season of 24 with time leftover for bathroom breaks and a couple long baths before I had to come back and retrieve the belly.
When you finally do take it out of the hot bath and chill it (I use a whole lot of ice), you'll find that the juices it has exuded are extraordinarily rich with gelatin, turning into a hard gel as it cools. This is a good sign indicating that you've had full breakdown of tough connective collagen into smooth, rich gelatin in your pork. The exuded liquid also makes a fantastic sauce for the finished pork, so keep it handy.
At this point, I know what you're thinking: there's no way that pale, anemic blob could possibly taste good, and you're right. Half the fun of porchetta, in fact, I'd say a good 90% of the fun is the contrast between the juicy, fatty center and the super-crisp, salty crust. So what's the best way to form a crust on this puppy?
Now, I could throw it into a hot oven for a while, but that presents two problems. First and foremost in the time it took that great crust to develop, far too much of the exterior of the pork would overcook, completely negating any of the benefits of cooking it sous-vide in the first place. Secondly, getting a pig skin to crisp perfectly evenly in an oven is like trying to win a limbo contest against a three-legged dwarf: very very difficult.
What we need is a way to transfer heat energy very rapidly and very evenly into the pork. The faster it goes, the better we're able to crisp the skin before the meat underneath has a chance to overcook, and the more evenly we do it, the better our crust will be. So what's the solution?
How's about this: Deep-fry the sucker. (But you already knew that...)
Of all the most common cooking methods, frying is by far the most efficient at transferring lots of energy, in a very even way, very quickly. Oil (or in this case, a mixture of lard and peanut oil) heated to 400°F will cause your pork belly to start bubbling and blistering basically on contact.
What I wouldn't give to have a full-on fryolater in my apartment, but neither my building's safety code nor my marital director's*** style book allow it. I have to make do instead with my wok, which has seen more than its fair share of deep frying.
***That'd be my wife.
As you can easily see, the porchetta doesn't exactly fit in the wok, and it's dangerous to add any more oil lest I risk an overflow. Instead, I decided to treat it much like a peking duck by constant ladling hot oil over upper surface to help it cook at the same rate as the lower. Eventually, I flipped it and continued pouring oil over the now-exposed bottom surface.
After frying, all that was left to do was pop it on a tray in a very low oven to finish just barely heating through to the center, reheating the reclaimed juices and mounting them with a bit of butter, then serving the sucker.
I don't often curse out in the open here at The Food Lab, but then again, rarely do I ever come across something that is so worth swearing for, so here goes:
Holy shit this is some awesome grub!
The crust comes out blistered, bubbled, and outrageously crisp, making an audibly crisp shattering noise as the knife slowly saws its way through to the soft meat underneath.
The texture of a sous-vide porchetta is nothing like that of a roasted porchetta. Ok, so they're both moist, fatty, and delicious, but a sous-vide porchetta is just so much softer, with tender, nearly gelatinous sections of fat-streaked meat and a rosy central core that's soft enough to nearly scoop out with your fingers (believe me, you'll be tempted).
I'm not gonna lie: this is by no means a light meal. Even a thin, half-inch slice will end up almost overwhelmingly rich (that is, if you don't have a nice sharp salad of some kind or at least a crisp white wine on the side to lighten up your palate with).
It's also not a low-maintenance job—is spits and sputters like a kerosene cat in hell with gasoline drawers on. I heartily recommend wearing a long-sleeved shirt that you don't mind getting pork grease on—not to mention the extra equipment it takes.
But if you've got the guts, you will have on your table one of the finest pieces of meat you've ever had, and I guarantee that.
Sick of reading?
Take a peep at the slideshow for a step-by-step walkthrough of the process.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.