(Recipe) Sio Bak in 3.5 hours or less

One of the dishes I have been trying to perfect since undergraduate is the chinese bbq roast pork belly, aka Sio Bak (Just one of many iterations)
It probably took me 3-4 tries before I finally nailed it, and boy am I glad I tried. The way the skin crackles as you make your way through the layers of melted cholesterol is akin to how a double bass helps give a jazz band that extra oomph. Just pure decadent delight.

Many Sio Bak recipes call for preparation that last for hours and days. With a craving at hand, it is almost always easier and faster to just buy some from a chinatown near you. What if i told you that you can get something better, tastier, is a far shorter time? Instead of listing the recipe, let me share some of my take away that may help you with your own attempt! Or you may refer to the following articles for more insights!

PorkButt

Meatman

One of the problems with cooking the fatty parts of pork is the connective tissues. Cook it too short and at too low a temp and the meat stays really tough. Cook it too long at a high temperature and you end up with a chewy piece of rubber. Fortunately, there are a couple techniques available to deal with these tough connective tissue – sous vide and pressure cooking.

For sous vide, you want to cook the meat for as long as it needs to melt the fat. It is not uncommon to hear of 72 hour pork belly and frankly, I would be excited to try one. Unfortunately, patience is not a trait I have and when I want sio bak, I WANT SIO BAK. I did attempt a novice sous vide by dumping a vacuum* sealed pork belly into a dutch oven, in an oven at ~170F, for 24 hours. Worked like a charm!

The second technique, pressure cooking, basically raises the temperature of the pork to levels that tenderizes the meat in an hour or so. Of course, it is not without its problems. Submerge the meat in water and you will find that it is next to impossible to crisp the moisturized skin. Marinade too little and you will find a pork belly that is rather tasteless. Pressure cooker has the habit of wringing out all the flavor out of your meat, so unless you cook it in a flavorful broth, you are going to lose some flavor. Brining  will definitely help with both flavor and moisture, but again, that adds too much time, so I decided to skip that step.

To circumvent these, instead of cooking the meat directly in a bath of water, I decided to steam it inside the pressure cooker. By steaming, I mean placing the pork belly in a bowl, on top of an asian steam rack inside the pressure cooking, and collecting the porky juice afterwards. (Time – 1 hour)

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And what about a crackling skin? Here’s the secret.

SALT THE SKIN  (Time – 2 hours)

I have seen multiple recipes that recommend all kinds of treatment ranging from poking the skin with needle, applying baking soda, scoring the skin, brushing with vinegar, scalding the skin ever so quickly with boiling water, and more. The most important process is actually the drying, and there are no two ways about it. Use salt, and let it do its work, for at least 2 hours. Don’t be stingy, you need to cover the skin with enough salt, say 50% sparsity, to draw out sufficient liquid. After this step, you will be guaranteed at least a skin that is not leathery/rubbery. All other methods listed above probably work to give you different types of crackle, taste and texture. Some steps may complement certain cooking methods better than others. You may even want to salt the skin before cooking it. Permutate your own cooking style and have fun.

Since the pork is technically cooked already, you don’t need to oven bake it for another 2 hours or more. Preheat the oven to broil at 400-450F and send the pork straight in. Use too low a temperature and you will find that it takes too long for the crackle to develop, if it develops at all, and the meat will probably be too dry by then. Use too high a temperature, and you will find a very thin layer of crackle which doesn’t quite work its magic in the texture department. In fact, to take things to the extreme, I used a kitchen torch instead, and that left me with a crisp that was a disappointing 1mm deep. Go figure.

As with all broiling, it is important to keep track of the amount of cooking done and to pull the SB out before we get a briquette. That said, the pork belly can tolerate a small degree of char, and some enthusiasts even advocate scrapping the char off to heighten the lightness of the crackle. Also, if possible, try to keep the skin as flat as possible to even the char. Don’t bother placing it close to the broiler since it will only exacerbate the char inequality. Think inverse square law! Use the lowest rack possible to get a more uniform application of heat. (Time – 30 min)

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And there you have it, homemade, tender and juicy roast pork belly, all in under 3.5 hours!

 

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