Weekdays can be tough for us amateur cooks. As much as we’d like to spend the day prepping something fresh and wonderful to serve one’s family for dinner, the reality is our jobs kind of get in the way. That’s why I do a lot of cooking on weekends, making things that I know won’t lose any flavour or freshness when frozen and defrosted several days later. One of the best methods for cooking this way is sous-vide.
I’m a big fan of preparing certain foods using this method of vacuum-packing ingredients (often with flavouring agents) and slow-cooking them in a water bath at a constant (and often low) temperature. Certain foods only need a short period of time (a steak for example is best when cooked between 20 minutes to at the very most an hour) while others, especially fatty tough cuts, benefit from overnight or even multiple night stints in the hot tub. Not only does this process allow you to ensure that ingredients are never over or undercooked, but it also allows you to plunge your vacuum-packed bags of cooked foods into an ice bath, thus rapidly chilling products which staves off the growth of harmful bacteria.
One of my favourite cuts of meat to prep ahead of time is pork belly. The method I’ve adopted actually takes quite a while, but the good thing is you can prep quite a large quantity at a time. I usually make enough portions for several meals for my wife and I, or enough for one of our larger dinner parties.
The secret to a great, full-flavoured hunk of pork belly, I have learnt over the years, is to brine it overnight. This injects savoury and aromatic elements into the pork. I then add an additional flavouring base when vacuum-packing and cooking the pork, which just adds more depth and character. Once the pork is done and when you want to eat it, you just have to slice it then fry it, fat side down; grill it fat side up under a salamander; or blow-torch it to your perfect level of charred yumminess. When cooked this way, the fat literally melts in your mouth, while the meat is perfectly moist and tender.
As an example, the above is a super-quick weeknight dinner I made the other night for my wife and myself. This batch of pork belly was prepped using the Nomiku immersion circulator, which I had crowd-funded via Kickstarter and quite like. (I have another more hardcore immersion circulator which has a few more control options than the Nomiku, but the Nomiku is both slimmer and way more attractive.) Having debagged my little slab of belly, I cut a diagonal pattern into the fat and popped it under my salamander until charred gorgeously. I then carefully sliced up the pork, and blow-torched the pieces briefly to add a bit more char around the edges. The pork was then plated with a fried egg and some pickled cucumbers (another thing we make on weekends and keep in jars in the fridge) over rice with seasoned sesame seeds. Perfect dinner which took no time at all to prep.
1 Kilo Pork Belly, cut into slabs about 6cm across and 15cm long (this is entirely up to you; I cut it this way so it fits into different vacuum bags and because I know one slab is good for my wife and I for one dinner)
1.5 litres of cold water
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup sea salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
2 star anise
6 black peppercorns
1 carrot, peeled and rough chopped
1 onion, peeled and rough chopped
1 bunch coriander
1 stalk lemongrass
2 tablespoons five spice powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup kecap manis
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon Sriracha
2 teaspoons sesame oil
For the brine, take a small pot and over medium-high heat, mix together 250ml of the water with the salt, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and black peppercorns. When the salt and sugar has melted, pour this into a large pot or basin that you will use to brine the pork. Add the rest of the water. Make sure the water is cold so that the brine mixture is not warm at all when you place your pork in it. Add the rest of the ingredients. Then add the pork. Cover and place in the fridge overnight.
The next day, set up your immersion circulator so that your water bath is 82.2 degrees Celsius.
Mix together all the sous-vide marinade ingredients in a bowl. You want it strong tasting but not crazy salty. More of a just tolerable salty-sweet. Adjust to your own preferences.
Take your pork out of the brine, rinse the pieces off in cold water and pat dry. Mix the pork with the sous-vide marinade. Then place each slab into one vacuum bag and pack at high pressure with some of the marinade liquid in each bag. Place them in your water bath and cook for 12 hours.
When finished, quickly ice the bags and either place in fridge or freezer.
When you want to cook, strain off the liquid from the bag. Gently take the pork out; I say gently because the fat will be soft and delicate. If you are going to fry, then cut the slab into cubes and over high-heat, pan-fry fat down in an oiled nonstick pan. When the fat is golden brown, you can gently turn the pork to sear the rest of the sides. Alternatively, grill under a salamander or blow-torch it. Or do both, which is what I like to do.