Why It Works
- All-belly cut roasts evenly without drying out, making it practically impossible to overcook.
- An overnight rub with baking powder and salt to lower the pH and final blast of high heat ensures a crispier skin.
- The geometric symmetry of the porchetta makes it easy to carve and serve virtually identical slices.
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 hadn'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.
1 whole boneless, rind-on pork belly, about 12 to 15 pounds (5.4 to 6.8kg)
2 tablespoons (14g) whole black peppercorns
3 tablespoons (18g) whole fennel seed
1 tablespoon (1g) crushed red pepper
3 tablespoons (4g) finely chopped rosemary, sage, or thyme leaves
12 cloves garlic (144g) grated on a microplane grater
2 teaspoons (10g) baking powder
Place pork belly skin-side down on a large cutting board. Using a sharp chef's knife, score flesh at an angle using strokes about 1-inch apart. Rotate knife 90 degrees and repeat to create a diamond pattern in the flesh.
Toast peppercorns and fennel seed in a small skillet over medium-high heat until lightly browned and aromatic, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and grind until roughly crushed.
Season pork liberally with salt then sprinkle with crushed pepper and fennel, red pepper, chopped herbs, and microplaned garlic. Use your hands to rub the mixture deeply into the cracks and crevices in the meat.
Roll belly into a tight log and push to top of cutting board, seam-side down. Cut 12 to 18 lengths of kitchen twine long enough to tie around the pork and lay them down in regular intervals along your cutting board, about 1-inch apart each. Lay rolled pork seam-side down on top of strings. Working from the outermost strings towards the center, tie up roast tightly. Combine 2 tablespoons kosher salt with 1 teaspoon baking powder. Rub mixture over entire surface of pork.
If roast is too large and unwieldy, carefully slice in half with a sharp chef's knife. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate at least overnight and up to three days. If desired, porchetta can also be frozen at this point for future use (see note).
Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and preheat oven to 300°F. Place pork in a v-rack set in a large roasting pan, or if cooking both halves at the same time, on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. Place roasting pan in oven and roast until internal temperature of pork reaches 160°F, about two hours, basting with pan drippings every half hour. If you'd like to cook potatoes along with the porchetta, see note. Continue roasting until a knife or skewer inserted into the pork shows very little resistance asides from the outer layer of skin, about two hours longer.
Increase oven temperature to 500°F and continue roasting until completely crisp and blistered, about 20 to 30 minutes longer. Alternatively, you can remove the roast from the oven and tent with foil for up to two hours before finishing it in a preheated 500°F oven.
Tent with foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Slice with a serrated knife into 1-inch thick disks and serve.
Herbs and aromatics can be substituted or altered according to taste. I find it easiest to work with a whole belly at a time and if a smaller roast is desired, to split it in half and freeze half while still raw. Wrapped tightly in foil and plastic wrap, it should last for several months in the freezer. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and proceed with cooking steps as instructed. To cook with potatoes, cut 4 pounds russet potatoes into 2-inch chunks and boil in salted water until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. Add to roasting pan in the middle of step 6, tossing them with the pig's drippings to coat. Continue roasting the porchetta with the potatoes in the pan. Turn the potatoes with a spatula every 45 minutes or so as they roast.
If you're using a rimmed baking sheet and still want to roast potatoes, you can pour off the drippings in the middle fo step 6, toss them then the par-boiled potatoes, then place the potatoes on a separate rimmed baking sheet in a rack below the porchetta. Turn the potatoes every 45 minutes or so as they roast.
Roasting pan with V-rack or rimmed baking sheet with metal rack, twine