A slab of pork belly, skin on, is simmered in salted water, drained and cooled then lowered into a pot of very, very hot oil. During frying, the surface of the pork is browned and the skin puffs and turns crisp.
The slab of pork is then allowed to rest for a few minutes before it is chopped into serving-size pieces.
I hate frying and, since 2005, I have cooking my crispy pork belly (lechon kawali in the Philippines) in the oven which makes it more roast pork belly than the traditional lechon kawali. Back then, I called it lechon sa hurno.
Consider this post as a more detailed version of that 2005 experiment.
Boil the pork belly in salted water
Why boil the pork first? The size. If you place a large piece of pork in an oven at a very high temperature, the outside will be burnt before the inside gets thoroughly cooked. There is an exception though but more on that later.
For home cooking crispy pork belly, boil the pork first in very salty water. I like adding garlic cloves and peppercorns too. But don’t stop there because there are a lot more than you can add to to add flavor and aroma to the meat. Onions, scallions and lemongrass will do wonders. Add them all, if you feel like it.
Add all your aromatics to the water (don’t forget to include a generous amount of salt) and bring to a rolling boil. Drop in the pork, lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer the pork until tender. Depending on the quality of the meat and the size of the slab, that should take anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours and a half.
When the pork is done, turn off the stove and leave the pork to soak in the broth. Leave it there until it cools to room temperature. As the meat cools, it will continue to absorb all the flavors and aroma from the aromatics.
When the pork has cooled, scoop out carefully so that nothing breaks apart (a kitchen spider is useful for this task). The pork skin is very tender at this point so treat the pork lovingly.
Roast the pork belly over very high heat
Place the pork on a roasting rack and place the rack in an oven-proof dish. The rack ensures that the heat touches every part of the pork’s surface so that it browns evenly. The dish underneath is for catching the melted fat. Unless you want a messy oven, place the rack inside a dish.
Preheat the oven to 475F — higher if your oven allows it. When the oven is hot enough, slip the pork in. After 20 to 25 minutes, look what happens… Perfect roast pork belly!
Here’s the other side. Nicely browned all over and the skin puffed and crisp.
Let the roast pork belly rest for about 10 minutes to allow the juices to settle. If you chop it at once, the wonderful juices will just drip onto your chopping board. So, let the pork rest. Then, chop. Into slices first. Then, into cubes. Transfer to a plate and serve.
I used to roast pork belly in a convection oven. A convection oven is a fan-assisted oven that makes the heat go ’round and ’round. But I have sinced roasted pork belly in a traditional oven, both gas and electric, and the results were just as fantastic. If using a traditional oven, just preheat it very well and keep the temperature at the highest setting.
Can the boiling part be dispensed with? Yes, actually. Chinese roast pork belly is cooked without boiling the meat before roasting.
Chinese roast pork belly
The Chinese method for cooking crispy pork belly is to roast the slab of meat in two stages. First at 350F and then at 475F. Cooking time is about two hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Wipe the pork belly dry with a kitchen towel. Place on your chopping board, skin side down.
- Mix together rock salt, five-spice powder and ginger powder. Rub on the meat, not the rind.
- Transfer the pork belly to a rack nestled inside a baking tray.
- Spread the rest of the rock salt on the pork rind.
- Pour enough water in the baking tray to reach a depth of two inches. The bottom of the pork should not touch the water. The water will create steam to help keep the meat moist. It will also catch the fat. If you don’t add water, the rendered pork fat will burn.
- Roast the pork belly at 350F for an hour and a half.
- Take the pork out of the oven.
- Turn up the oven temperature to 475F.
- The salt blanket on the pork rind would have hardened; just remove it and discard.
- Put the pork back in the oven and roast for another half an hour.
- Take the pork out of the oven and place on the chopping board. Let the meat rest for about ten minutes before chopping into two-inch squares.
Truth be told, the rind wasn’t as puffy as that of pork belly cooked using the boil-and-roast method. Does that mean pure roasting is an inferior technique? Nope. I’m saying there may be other tricks involved to achieve the best results. The best crispy pork belly I have eaten did not undergo boiling but was purely roasted.
Earthen Jar Roast Pork, Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai, there is a famous stall that sells crispy roasted pork belly. Seasoned slabs of pork belly are pierced with metal hooks and hung from the mouth of oversized clay jars with glowing charcoal underneath.
It was the best crispy pork belly experience I have ever had. Ever. But using the same technique for home cooking is an altogether different story. The cooking time is two hours, we were told. But how the cooking temperature is controlled and what other techniques were used to tenderize the meat and ensuring that the skin would puff weren’t things that the seller shared with us tourists.
So, to date, I stick with the boil-and-roast method for cooking crispy pork belly.
Updated from three posts published sometime in 2005, and in October 29, 2010 and October 26, 2017