Homemade Preserved Pork Belly – 五花臘肉
When pork is cured by drying, it takes on a lovely sweet-taste reminiscent of golden apples. This quality is capitalized upon in the traditions of Italian Prosciutto, Spanish Jamón Serrano, and a host of other culinary specialties, including Chinese-Style Preserved Pork Belly (五花臘肉). All of these products, as with pickles, or other dried foodstuffs, were developed before the advent of refrigeration in order to preserve harvested food for later use. Nowadays, we continue the traditions because the results are so tasty and satisfying. Making Homemade Preserved Pork Belly takes a little time, but the process isn’t especially difficult, and the results are terrific.
An Introduction to Preserved Pork Belly
Preserving pork and quite common around the world but this particular Chinese product is essentially a fattier cousin of the more familiar ‘Jerky‘. The main difference, however, is that the meat is designed to be used as a cooking ingredient, rather than a snack to be eaten without further preparation.
Here, you can see a commercially prepared product of the sort readily available in most Asian or Chinese grocery stores. On the label, you can see the Chinese characters for the product, which read:
The first two characters translate as ‘five flower’, which is a poetic description of the layered appearance of fat and lean. The second two characters are most simply translated as ‘preserved meat’, but the actual meaning is a bit more involved. The character ‘臘’, which appears in simplified form as ‘腊’ can mean December, or the twelfth lunar month. It was typically during this period that animals were commonly slaughtered and the meat preserved for winter, so you will often see the term translated as ‘winter sacrifice meat’. By the way, although the character ‘肉’ is strictly rendered as ‘meat’, in Chinese, unless you specify otherwise, ‘meat’ is taken to mean ‘pork’.
If you compare the appearance of this product, with the homemade Preserved Pork Belly in the introductory picture, you will note that the color is considerably darker. This is so because the meat has been dried for a little longer (and is also thus proportionally harder), and also because Dark Soy Sauce is used during the curing process. Light Soy Sauce is to be preferred in my opinion (and that is what I use in the recipe here), as it results in a more natural color, generally tastes better and, having a higher salt content, increases the preservative effect.
Finally, many recipes for making preserved pork belly are quite complex and employ quite a variety of spices to flavor the meat, and some, especially recipes from Hunan, cold smoke the meat as well as salt-curing and air-drying. Sichuan pepper is often used, as are Fennel, Cinnamon and Star Anise, the latter being especially common in Cantonese varieties. All those things are fine, and certainly have their place, but the version I will be making here is very straightforward and simple, and thus a bit more versatile.
Notes on the Ingredients
Obviously, you will want to choose the best quality Pork Belly you can find. Above you can see some of the meat that was later sliced for curing in this recipe. There is a good proportion of fat to lean and the rind is also present. The rind is not crucial, but it works for some recipes and, for those where it doesn’t, it can always be removed later.
The recipe, as you will see below, calls for a curing salt such as Prague Powder #2 (recommended and used in this recipe) or even old-school Saltpetre. Now, if you are unable to source these, or don’t wish to use Nitrates or Nitrites, then you can omit their use. If you go that route, however, I would be inclined to dry the pork belly in a dehydrator or oven, and consume it relatively quickly.
The Basic Method
As mentioned above, Chinese-style Preserved Pork Belly is a sort of ‘Jerky’, meaning that it is first ‘wet-cured’, then ‘dry-cured’. In the first process, the meat is marinated with flavorings, salt, and, if used, a curing salt containing nitrates or nitrites. After that, the meat is the air-dried to dehydrate it, either in a dehydrator, or else in the open air. The removal of water affects the cure and the drier the result, the longer it will last in storage.
The first step in making 五花臘肉 is to cut pork belly into slices. You can cut as thick or thin as you like, but slices between 2 or 3 cm are probably best. The slices will become thinner as they dry, so slicing them less than 2cm is not really advisable, while thicker slices are more difficult to dry.
The Pork Belly slices for this recipe are ‘wet-cured’, or marinated, in a light brine with added Sugar, Rice Wine, Light Soy Sauce and Prague Powder #2. The process requires at least two days, but going longer is fine too. The easiest way to do this is to put everything in a bag and place it in the refrigerator, turning it several times so that all the meat is properly cured
If you are going to air-dry, rather than use a dehydrator or an oven, the best way to do it is to pierce each slice at one end and thread a loop of string through the hole. The slices can then be hung over a rod of some sort for the drying process.
You need to hang your pork in a place that is fairly cool, dry, and not open to insects. Ideally, your space should have some sort of air-flow to assist the drying and, if a natural breeze is not available, you can always use a fan.
How Long Should You Dry the Pork Belly?
The length of the drying time will vary depending upon the thickness of the sliced Pork Belly but anywhere from 4 to 10 days will generally suffice. After a day or so, the surfaces will become ‘tacky’ as a ‘pellicule’ forms, and after that it will continue to dehydrate and harden. After about a week, given favorable drying conditions, the exterior will be quite hard and leather-like, but the slices will still be somewhat flexible. The longer it dries, of course, the harder the pieces will become.
Storing and Using Preserved Pork Belly
Once dried to your liking, you can store the pieces for later use. If you dry it to the point that it is completely dehydrated and brittle, you can store it for ages without refrigeration. Realistically, though, you want somewhat soft and flexible slices rather than rock hard pieces and it is recommended, Nitrates notwithstanding, that you store your Homemade 五花臘肉 in the refrigerator. You should check periodically, but slices dried for a week or so should last a month or two quite easily.
Most Chinese sources will tell you that the meat must be cooked before consumption. However, Chinese cuisine has traditionally never much favored raw foods (even fresh salads are uncommon), and the process for making this is not dis-similar to that of Prosciutto which is frequently eaten without cooking. Indeed, if you try a piece of the uncooked product, you will find it has a delicious, almost apple-like taste, and much the same consistency as a good prosciutto. Personally, I could snack on this with all the same gusto as a good beef jerky, although it must be pointed out that the fat content of this product is WAY higher.
For cooking, it is best to use a relatively gentle moist heat. You need to keep the cooking time brief enough to just allow the meat to be heated through and get a little more tender. If you go too long, the sweetness disappears and the texture also suffers, with the meat taking on a fibrous, card-board like quality.
Steaming is a great method. Try steaming thin slices with a green veggie of your choice, or else on top of rice (perhaps along with some mushrooms). The latter is really delicious as the steaming juices from the meat soak down into the rice giving it a lovely flavor.
Dishes Made with Preserved Pork Belly
Your Recipe Card:
Homemade Preserved Pork Belly
- 1 lb. Pork Belly
- 1 level tbsp. Salt
- 3 tbsp. Sugar
- ¼ cup boiling Water
- 3 tbsp. Shaoxing Wine substitute with Sherry or Brandy
- 2 tbsp. Light Soy Sauce
- 1/8 tsp. Curing Salt Prague Powder #2 or Saltpeter
- In a small bowl, dissolve the sugar and salt in the boiling water and then add the Rice Wine, Soy Sauce, and the Curing Salt (Prague Powder #2 recommended).
- Cut the Pork Belly into slices 2 -3 cm. thick.
- Place the slices of pork belly into a plastic bag, or other suitable container and pour over the curing solution.
- Refrigerate the pork for two days, turning as necessary to ensure all the pork comes into contact with the curing liquid.
- After wet-curing, dry the slices and hang in a cool, dry place, ideally with a breeze or draft, and air-dry for a minimum of 4 days until the exterior is leather-hard and dried.
- Store the cured product in the refrigerator until needed.