Whenever I see a recipe which relies on salt-crusting, I’m sceptical. It makes no sense that having food in contact with a great deal of salt for a considerable period of time while cooking, does not make the food inedibly salty.
One such recipe is salt-crusted pork belly, which I tried last weekend.
The idea intrigued me, because getting a uniformly crisp layer of crackling on a piece of pork belly is devilishly difficult at the best of times.
The salt-crusting is intended to desiccate the skin during the initial cooking, and once you scrape it off, the exposed skin ought to crisp into perfect cracking with little or no burning.
Previously, I would make a viscous marinade, which would be liberally painted all over the pork belly, including on the skin.
The newfound wisdom – well, newfound to me at any rate – is to keep the skin as dry as possible, so the marinade is painted only onto the sides and bottom of the pork belly.
The other thing I did, at the suggestion of dear sweet Elspeth, was to place the pork belly on a rack in the fridge, uncovered, for a few hours to dry the skin, and it worked like a charm.
The crackling does end up being salty, but pleasingly so, and it is just amazingly crispy.
Ingredients, selection and preparation
1.5-2kg pork belly: pat it dry and if the butcher did not score the skin, do so with a really sharp knife, in a diamond pattern, but only just cutting through the skin
1/2kg coarse salt: ideally the salt should be somewhere between fine and coarse. If too coarse, it is difficult to pack it right to the edge of the skin.
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp ground pimento allspice
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp pure white pepper
1 tsp fine salt
Combine all the ingredients for the marinade in a small bowl and mix well.
Pat the entire pork belly dry with kitchen paper towels. Paint the marinade evenly on the bottom and sides of the pork belly, being sure to keep the skin dry.
Place the pork belly on a rack in the fridge, uncovered, for about four hours before roasting.
Pre-heat the oven to 150°C, and set the kettle to boil.
The idea is to present a completely level skin surface while the pork belly is roasting. By so doing, you will avoid the high points of the skin blackening before the low points are properly crisp. You need to get it as close to billiard table level as possible, and the best way to do so, is to use pieces of bundled up aluminium foil placed at strategic points under the pork belly.
Once you’ve levelled the table, so to speak, carefully pack an even layer of salt, about 4mm thick, all over the skin, right up to the very edges.
Carefully place the pork belly, on its rack, in the centre of a roasting tin, taking care to not disrupt any of the salt crust.
Once the oven is at temperature, place the roasting tin in mid-oven, and carefully pour boiling water into the roasting tin to just below the rack, but not deep enough to wet the base of the pork belly. The water keeps the pork belly moist while roasting.
Roast the pork belly for two hours, then remove it from the oven.
The salt will have formed a solid crust, and because the pork belly will have shrunken somewhat, you can carefully lift off the salt crust with an egg lifter or large spatula.
If there is any moisture or fat on the skin, dry it off thoroughly with kitchen paper towel, taking care not to burn yourself.
Turn up the temperature to 230°C, and return the pork belly to the oven for a further 45 to 60 minutes, until the skin is uniformly crisp and crackly.
You now have the choice of cutting the pork belly into servings while preserving the integrity of the super-crispy crackling, but I find it works best if you remove the entire layer of crackling with a long-bladed knife, and carefully break it into even size pieces for the number of servings, in our case at dinner on Saturday night, four.
Serve with accompaniments of your choice.
Preparation time: 5 hours
Cooking time: 3 hours
Yield: 4-6 servings