If You've Never Made This Fragrant Pork Roast with Crispy Skin, Get Cracklin!
To me, the quintessential taste of Italy is not pasta, not pizza, not Barolo, and not olive oil. It's porchetta, a rich, fatty, herby, crazy fragrant, crazy good, boneless pork roast swaddled in crunchy pork cracklins and served on a rustic bun. Although it is usually made into a sandwich in Italy, there is no reason you cannot serve this roast as the centerpiece of your next gathering.
It is made differently in different regions of Italy, but the concept is basically the same. In the small town of Panzano in Tuscany, the famous butcher Dario Cecchini (below) makes it with the section of the pig between the hips and the shoulders: he removes the spine and ribs and splits the torso in half lengthwise. The cavity is meaty, including the loin and tenderloin, and he loads it all up with lardo and herbs, especially garlic and rosemary (no organ meats). He then rolls it up in a tube and ties it with butcher's string. Each half becomes a roast, which is not quite so large and unwieldy as the whole hog.
In the Roman hills of Lazio, the town of Ariccia is to porchetta as Kansas City is to barbecue. There, they typically take a whole hog, remove the hair, the guts, legs, ribs, and backbone so what's left is a large blanket of superb meat, including the loin and tenderloin naturally wrapped in a thick layer of fat and encased in skin. Gahead, leave the head on like they do in Ariccia. They stuff the whole thing with copious quantities of garlic and herbs, hunks of pork trimmings, and organ meats such as liver, heart, and kidneys. Then they stitch up the cavity like a giant football (now here’s a type of pigskin the NFL can only dream about!), and roast the glorious mass of meat on a spit for about eight hours until the pork is tender and swimming in juices and the skin takes on an amber color and gets so blistered that it makes an audible crackling sound when you bite into it. The porchetta is ceremoniously sliced thin and sandwiched on a bun so each one gets a mix of herbs, lean meat, fatty meat, and of course, the delicious shattering skin. With either this Ariccia method or Dario Cecchini's Tuscan method, you get a lot of sandwiches!
At home, you can make porchetta using either method, but it is a major pain to get the raw meat trimmed properly on special order. And you better have a lot of friends to enjoy it all. I have tried making porchetta with smaller hogs, but the taste and texture of suckling pigs is much different (that recipe is in my first book, Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling). The folks at Cook’s Illustrated and the New York Times tried to do it with pork shoulder. Don't bother - it's not even close.
However, there is another path to porchetta nirvana taught to me by my friends Greg and Kristina Gaardbo of Chicago Culinary Kitchen in Palatine IL. They do it with pork belly. But they do something clever to get it right. Instead of just rolling up some belly, which works OK, they score the skin then butterfly it and roll it up. This technique gives you more surface and more flavor. It works much better.
Pork Belly Porchetta Recipe
This recipe comes close to replicating the original Italian dish but in a smaller, more manageable size. It is an incredibly flavorful, rich showy presentation suitable for a special occasion. We made the porchetta in the photos here for the BBQ Stars video masterclasses https://tinyurl.com/bbqstars, so we used a 10 pound belly to serve a hungry video and kitchen crew. The recipe below is for a smaller crowd. Got a big crowd? It is easy to scale it up. Just double everything and use a 10 pound belly.
Chances are your butcher doesn’t stock belly. There isn't much call for it. But he or she can order it for you. When you order your belly, ask for one that is on the meaty side and ask for skin on. If you can’t get skin on, it’s not the end of the world. I make great porchetta without it as seen in the pictures here. But, oh my, if you can get those cracklins, get 'em!
As for the stuffing, you have a lot of room to play. I usually go for the traditional garlic and rosemary along with sun dried tomatoes for depth. Greg & Kristina love fennel, garlic, and even dried cherries. I have seen them use pistachios. The best one I've ever done had orange and lemon zest in it.
For the BBQ Stars video, we cooked the porchetta on a gas grill with a rotisserie and caught the drippings below in a pan with veggies. Even if you don't have a rotisserie, you can make this porchetta on any grill. Just put a wire grill grate on top of the pan with the veggies and place the porchetta on top of the grate. Place the whole assembly on the indirect side of a grill set up in a 2-zone configuration. About halfway through the cook, rotate the meat.
This recipe serves the porchetta in sandwiches, as it's done in Italy. I like topping them with pickled onions to balance the richness. That isn’t traditional with porchetta, but it should be. The acidity perfectly balances the fat. I have embellished the dish with a fun approach to veggies on the side. A lot of juices come off the meat while cooking, so I roast vegetables beneath the meat, where they pick up the flavor of the drippings. They are unbelievable. These veggies will convert even the most stubborn Brussels sprouts hater.
Makes. 6 servings.
Takes.1 hour of preparation. Cooking time is about 3 hours.
Special tools. About 6’ butcher string or twine. 9 x 13 baking pan. A grill with a rotisserie or a spare grill grate to hold the porchetta on the roasting pan above the veggies.
For the vegetables
1/2 pound potatoes
1/2 pound Brussels sprouts
1/2 pound carrots
1/2 pound small pearl onions
For the Porchetta
1/3 cup sundried tomatoes
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon ground rosemary
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon Morton’s kosher salt
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried sage
1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 (5 pound) piece pork belly, preferably skin on (about 8” long x 8” wide)
1/2 cup quick pickled onions
6 pretzel rolls or another sturdy roll of your choice
About the sun dried tomatoes. I use smoked cherry tomato raisins when I have them.
1) Prep the veggies. Chop the veggies to about the same size so they will cook at about the same rate. If you can get small potatoes and carrots, you may not need to cut them up. Same goes for the onions. Slice the Brussels sprouts in half from top to bottom so the root holds the leaves in. I don’t care if you hate Brussels sprouts. That will change after you taste them done this way. I guarantee.
2) Prep for the porchetta. Chop the sundried tomatoes in bite size pieces. Grind the fennel seeds and rosemary in a mortar and pestle or a blender or a coffee grinder, then transfer to a bowl. Mix in the garlic powder, salt, thyme, sage, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Feel free to make substitutions of your choice in this rub. Use fresh herbs if you wish. Be forewarned: If you use fresh garlic it will not cook through so you will taste raw garlic.
3) Score. Place the belly on a cutting board fatty side up. With a really sharp knife or a box cutter, score the skin in a cross hatch checkerboard pattern with a cut about every inch and go about 1/2” deep. In the photo here, you see a belly without the skin since my butcher screwed up the order. Just score the fat.
4) Butterfly. Hold a really sharp knife parallel to the cutting board and place the blade halfway up the belly. Draw the blade along the edge carefully and gently start splitting the belly in half making it half as thick. Don’t cut all the way through the far end so that you can lay the side you crosshatched fat side down but have it still attached to the meatier side. You basically want to open up the belly like a book.
5) Flavorize. Spread about 2/3 of the blend on the open face of the belly and save the rest for after you roll it up. Scatter the sun dried tomato bits around.
6) Let’s roll. Starting on a long side, and the meatiest side, roll the belly into a tight log. Tie it tight with the string every 1 1/2" or so. Trim the ends but leave some extra hanging off to help make it easier to find the string when you are done cooking. Now sprinkle the rest of the rub on the exterior of the roll. Insert the rotisserie spear carefully through dead center and secure the meat with the tines. If you don't have a rotisserie, place the roast on a grill grate large enough to fit over the veggie pan.
7) Veg out. Put a 1/2" layer of water in a 9 x 13” baking pan. Add the veggies.
8) Fire up. If you have a rotisserie, fire up the rotisserie burner to about medium heat. These infrared burners can be quite hot and the fat will brown too quickly if you run it on high. If you don’t have a rotisserie, set up your grill for 2-zone cooking and get the indirect side up to 325°F.
9) Cook. Set the skewered meat in the rotisserie assembly and put the veggie pan underneath. If you don't have a rotisserie, put the porchetta on a grill grate, put the grate over the veggie pan, then put the whole thing on the indirect side of the grill. Close the lid. The veggies will simmer and steam as the fat, meat juices, and rub drip on them. When the water evaporates, they will begin to fry in the fats. Every 15 minutes or so, check the veggies and toss them so they don’t burn. When they are tender, remove the pan and pour the drippings into a jar: save the drippings for soup. Put the veggies back into the pan and keep them at room temp until the meat is done. When the meat hits 140°F in the center, it is done. If the exterior is not dark amber to golden brown and crispy, turn the rotisserie burner on high for a few minutes. Do this with lid open, so you are not pushing too much heat to the center and overcooking the meat. If you don't have a rotisserie and the meat exterior needs further browning, take it off the veggie pan and place it over direct heat. Do this with the lid open, and watch for flareups. You might want to have a water pistol handy.
10) Meanwhile, prep the sandwich fixins. Make the quick pickled onions. Not traditional but worth the 30 minute effort. Toast the buns.
11) Serve. Place the roast on a cutting board. Roll it around til you find the knots, then cut the string there and pull it off. The string can be hidden in there, so get it out. Slicing is tricky if you got a belly with skin on because the skin is so hard: you can cut off chunks of skin and then slice the meat. Load up each sandwich with some lean, some fatty, some crunchy, and if you peeled off some skin, some of that, too. Finally, top with some pickled onion. Divvy up the veggies and serve on the side. Note: If you have leftovers, they are best reheated in the microwave. They also make great carnitas.
"A few slices of porchetta, about 50% lean, with some crispy crust, a piece of liver and guts, on warm bread, with four friends at midday, and a beautiful red wine, is the meal of gentlemen."Website of the Porchetta Festival in Costano, Italy
Porchetta Festivals (Sagras) In Italy
When planning your next trip to Italy, go, ahem, whole hog, and visit one of these uproarious aromatic festivals that celebrate porchetta.
Sagra della Porchetta in Ariccia in Lazio, just west of Rome
Sagra della Porchetta Italica in Campli in Abruzzo
Porchettiamo in San Terenziano in Umbria
Sagra della Porchetta in Costano in Umbria
Porchetta in Rome. If you can’t make a festival, you can get a taste of a first rate porchetta at the restaurant Trattoria Aristocampo near the fountain in the Campo di Fiori, a brilliant open air market in the heart of Rome. The market is open Monday through Saturday mornings, but the restaurant is open much longer, and you can take your sandwich with you onto the streets. Here is a porchetta stitched like a giant football at the Aristocampo. They buy theirs from a supplier in Ariccia.
Porchetta in Hawaii. While on vacation in Hawaii, I stumbled into a street fair where a Filipino man was grilling porchetta over charcoal. Then he put the meat in a vat of boiling oil to really crisp the skin. Yum. Here is the result, and you can see the fryer in the background.
Porchetta in Minnesota. Italian immigrants brought the recipe for porchetta with them to the US and Canada, and there are many variations floating around. Readers from Minnesota tell me that porketta (that's how they spell there) is common in groceries the northeastern corner of the state (called the Iron Range for its iron mines), where it is more like a stuffed pork loin, sans skin.