Equilibrium-Brined Pork Belly

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Brining has been in the culinary home cook’s lexicon for the better part of maybe 15 years now. I first heard about it in a beloved episode of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” where he brines the Thanksgiving turkey. It sounded so damn cool and science-y. It is a powerful trick that anyone can do and can make the difference between a tough dry pork chop or a juicy succulent one. It’s a cheap and easy process too, all you really need is salt, water and some time.

The basic idea is that soaking a protein in a salt solution will make for a juicier meat and makes it more forgiving should you err on the side of overcooking, especially for a piece of very lean meat like a chicken breast. The benefit of the addition of some sugar or other flavorings is debatable but I usually add some too. I’ve come to learn over the years of different types of “brining” besides dunking the whole piece of meat into a vat of salt and water. There is dry brining, rubbing the salt/flavoring mixture all over the meat without any added water. I like this a lot for whole birds. It does not make for a rubbery flaccid skin like the traditional immersion brining does. The main downside is that it typically takes a longer time (up to 3 days for a whole turkey).

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Another type is injection brining. I started using it after trying the excellent roast chicken from “Modernist Cuisine“. Just like it sounds, the brine is injected using a syringe at various spots in the meat and it diffuses and flavors the whole thing. Flavorings make an excellent addition here. This also preserves the skin of a chicken or turkey and is pretty quick. Injection brining is my preferred method to prep our Thanksgiving turkey.

Now all of these three brining methods share one important drawback. They lack precision. You are dunking, rubbing or injecting and hoping that the brine does its job in the time frame required while also trying not to leave the meat in the brine too long. Leave it too long and you have a salty piece of meat on its way to becoming a ham. The other challenge is that different parts of the meat can have different salt levels due to varying thickness. This is especially true for stuff like chicken or turkey breasts. Enter the precise process of equilibrium brining. It even sounds cool.

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This is a process I learned about also from “Modernist Cuisine” and it is the ideal way to brine meat, especially whole boneless muscles with no risk of oversalting. Just like cooking in a precisely controlled water bath (sous-vide) is a slow gentle and even process that gives you exactly the result you want, equilibrium brining is the slow precise salting of meat. Dunking the meat in a very salty brine (traditional brining) is more like cooking a steak on a hot pan. They work but need a whole lot more care and attention. Even with all the care and attention an unevenly thick protein like poultry breast will be saltier towards the tip than it would in the thick end.

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I use it a lot to prepare chicken breasts, pork chops, pork belly and to make awesome deli-style turkey breasts for sandwiches. You do need a scale for this one (but you should have one anyways!). The idea is to add only the right amount of salt that will season and never over salt the protein. What is that amount? typically a tasty steak of chop does well with about 1.5% salt for my taste. So you want 1.5% salt by weight of the combined meat AND water. It’s as easy as this:

  1. Weigh the meat and the amount of water required to keep it submerged. More often than not I use a freezer Ziploc bag for my brining. For the pork belly here, it weighed 1000 gr and the water weighed another 1000 gr.
  2. Figure out the salt percentage for the combined weight. So, (1000 + 1000) * 1.5% = 30 gr.
  3. dissolve the salt in the water and add any other flavor components you want, sugar, spices, herbs, crushed garlic, citrus zest…If you do add stuff like herbs and such, it’s a good idea (but not essential) to bring the water to a simmer and turn off the heat. Let the flavors infuse and cool COMPLETELY before brining.
  4. Add the meat to the brine and park it in the fridge. Depending on the thickness of the meat this could be anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. I typically let it sit for a good 48 hours if it is 2 inches or so thick. The beauty of this process though is that the most salt the meat can ever have in it is 1.5%. It will reach that equilibrium between the water and the content in the meat and stay there. After a few days in the fridge you will still have a perfectly seasoned juicy breast of turkey from its thin tapered end to the thick rounded edge. No risk of over-salting ever.
  5. Take the meat out of the brine, pat dry and cook it. I highly recommend cooking it sous-vide to the right temperature at this point. This is an ideal method to make delicious deli-style turkey for sandwiches.
  6. For the pork belly, I cooked it at 70 C for 24 hours to get a perfect tender meat. Usually with brined meat the juice in the bag is on the salty side. In this case the unctuous rich pork stock in the bag is a delicious side benefit. I save it and use it in all kinds of dishes. It’s a flavor bomb.

I use this type of pork belly in all kinds of dishes like tucking in buns, searing and serving on top of beans or greens or as I did in this case, in a savory bowl of soup. To make the dish doctored up some homemade pork broth with a few Japanese ingredients like mushrooms, green onions and kombu. I seasoned it with soy, mirin and sugar and I pretty much had a nice Shoyu ramen broth.

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To get another texture on the meat I made cross-hatch shallow cuts in it and seared it well on the fat side. At the same time I blanched some greens to go in my soup bowl as well and seasoned them with soy sauce. I wanted noodles because, well, they make any bowl of soup better and my kids love them (who doesn’t really?). I went with hearty and thick udon noodles for this. A quick sprinkle of Togarashi spice in my bowl and this was a lovely dinner that took some “time” to make but very little effort.

pork belly udon

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Sockeye Salmon and Mixed Grains Rice with Citrus Miso

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Japanese cuisine is still a bit of a mystery to me. In my imagining of what Japanese food I always think of few ingredients, simple presentation, clean flavors and of course seafood. This is, I am sure, an oversimplification of a diverse cuisine. Recently I found myself at home with a free night. The kids and wife were away with the in-laws and I was free to try something that might or might not be up their alley. It also needed to be quick because I had a lot of chores to get through. That’s how I ended up playing around with some Japanese inspired flavors using pristine salmon, miso and sushi rice.

Fish-Grain Rice-Citrus Miso

Elizabeth Andoh’s book Washoku is one of a few Japanese cookbooks I own but is one I reach for often for inspiration or a quick recipe. I love her approach and the recipe usually deliver wonderful dishes. I knew that I will be making rice for my meal of course and her recipe for “Rice with Mixed Grains” is a terrific method for preparing it. I washed the sushi rice until the water ran clear and then mixed it with a few tablespoons of the grains (I used buckwheat, sesame and some flax seeds). Andoh’s method for cooking the rice is very detailed and relies a lot on the sounds of the covered pot more than anything. That strikes me as very romantic and…Japanese. The end result is a perfectly cooked bowl of rice. I kept some of it warm and slightly cooled some of it for my sushi plate. The slightly cooled rice was mixed with a little Mirin and rice wine vinegar.

I love the flavor of miso and have used it in marinades and sauces. The sharp savory salty flavor works so well with all foods, from meats to vegetables. I borrowed another recipe from Andoh’s book for a citrus miso. This is just white miso flavored with citrus zest and juice (lime and lemon) and cooked with sake to a delicious thick sauce.

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Slicing the fish for sushi is where practice -or lack of it- really shows. Sushi masters practice years to be considered proper sushi chefs worthy of slicing fish properly. If you have not seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, stop reading right now and go check it out and you’ll see what I mean by perfection in making sushi. My fish slices were fine but lacked that proper angle and finesse that good sushi has. The flavor of those bites was fantastic though.  I formed the rice into small mounds and dotted it with a bit of the miso sauce. The salmon went on top and got a garnish of grated daikon radish, finely sliced pickled ginger, sesame seeds and  a pinch of hot pepper powder. I plated the sushi on top of thin cucumber slices to add another texture. This dish was excellent with the perfect textures and lovely fresh balanced flavors ranging from nutty to salty and savory with a hint of sweetness.

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Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of the Nobu restaurant empire is probably one of the best known modern Japanese chefs. He does “fusion” well where the flavors of Japan mix with those of South America in a combination of classical and modern preparations. He was the first person I’ve seen pouring boiling hot oil over pieces of fish in order to barely cook them. He calls the oil “New Oil” in his book Nobu Now. It’s something he said he came up with to appeal to those squeamish about eating raw sashimi. So, I gave that a shot. I placed the sliced salmon on a plate and topped it with grated ginger and shopped scallions. Then I heated a few tablespoons of oil till smoking and drizzled that all over the fish.

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I plated the fish on top of the rice in a bowl and served it with a few small spoons of the citrus miso sauce. The barely cooked fish had a nice texture and was gently warmed. It worked  perfectly with the nutty rice and sharp sauce. It’s definitely a technique and dish that is easy to prepare and I will be exploring some more in different variations.

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