My husband, John Stewart, and I were named King and Queen of Pork in 2011, when we won Grand Cochon, a national snout-to-tail pig-cooking competition. Needless to say, I’m enthusiastic about the whole hog. If I had to choose just one cut, though, it would be pork belly.
Pork belly is exactly what it sounds like
Quite simply, it’s the belly of the pig. You probably know it as bacon, which is cured, smoked pork belly. Left uncured, it’s incredibly tender meat layered with silky, lustrous fat, both of which have intensely porky flavor. Often served in restaurants, it may seem tricky to cook, but it’s easy enough to enjoy at home.
The key to cooking pork belly is time-preferably two days.
In some of my recipes, I season the pork the day before cooking so that the seasoning can penetrate. In others, I braise it the day before serving, because everything braised is better the second day. Cook times are long, too, to break down all the connective tissue in the meaty part of the belly and melt the fat so that the whole thing is tender enough to give at the mere sight of a fork.
I have several methods for cooking pork belly. I often like to use a rub that has sugar in it, and then roast it so the dry heat caramelizes the sugar on the surface. Other times, I’ll give it a quick sear to enhance the pork flavor, then braise it in a really flavorful liquid to break it down into silky luxuriousness. I love pork belly with the skin on, too, for a crunchy pop. When I’m cooking it skin on, I simmer the belly in water so that the meat and fat get the tender quality that comes with wet cooking; then I broil it skin side up before serving to puff and crisp it.
The surrounding elements on the plate are really important, no matter how the belly is cooked.
The meat is so rich that you eat only a small portion, so you want to incorporate it into a delicious dish. Below, you’ll find three of my favorite pork belly dishes. Try one, and soon enough, your friends and family may be calling you the king or queen of pork, too.
The Pork Queen Manifesto
If I told you I was a vegetarian for more than 20 years, you might wonder how I came to win a pork-cooking competition. Well, I met a guy. He made his own bacon and salumi, and wanted to raise pigs. He eventually became my husband, so we had to come to an arrangement. We agreed that our pigs would be raised on pasture so they could roam and enjoy each day with their faces in the sun and the wind. This isn’t just an ethical imperative—pigs raised this way taste better. Eating diverse diets of foraged food (plus scraps from our kitchen) makes the meat flavorful. Heritage breeds, which we raise, have more fat, which means more flavor still. When you’re buying pork, try to learn about how it’s raised—find a local farmer, or talk to your butcher. if your butcher doesn’t normally stock pork belly, the shop can get it for you with a few days’ notice, or you can mail-order it. it comes in slabs that weigh from 1 to 5 lb., and you can ask your butcher to remove the skin or leave it on. Occasionally, it’s sold bone-in, but for these recipes, ask for boneless.