From B., 22 March 2010, rillons – a recipe that works?
Q: In all your work with belly, have you found a satisfactory recipe for rillons?
A: Hey and thanks for your question. I’m pretty excited about this question, because rillons are a great way to use belly. In France’s Loire Valley départements, pork historically has been preserved by first salting lean and fat parts of the pork and then potting both in pork fat. The resulting rillauds comprise two principal types – rillons , in which the chunks of pork remain whole, and rillettes, in which the lean and fat of the meat are combined to form a pâté-like blend. We just discussed rillettes last week, remember? Anyway, the most famous rillons come from Tours, where historically the belly chunks and scraps, after first browning to crisp the surface, were submerged in pork fat and left to cook slowly at a low heat until tender before being finished with caramel (burnt sugar). They’re basically a pork belly confit. Rillons are the essence of provincial French culture and the antithesis of modern Parisian haute cuisine; frugal, rustic, simple, and filling, devoted more to extracting the most flavor from off-cuts and commonplace ingredients than displaying sophisticated technique.
You asked whether I have encountered a “satisfactory” recipe for rillons. I’d like to hear about your experiences, since I don’t think there’s a lot one can do to screw this up, except perhaps over- or under-season the pork, forget to sear the meat, or tinker around too much with too many additional flavors. Really good rillonshave a deep brown crust of Maillard-y awesomeness from pre-searing the chunks of belly, and are seasoned throughout by a short (2-3 day) salt cure before cooking. You can’t rely on salting after cooking to achieve good flavor; salt doesn’t dissolve in fat, so if you try to season after you’ve cooked your pork belly, you’re too late.
Rillons de touraine
I’ve heard of adding things like wine and garlic cloves to the rillons. I don’t think they hurt the rillons, but they do fall into the category of unnecessary embellishment. In addition, at the low cooking temperature and with the preponderance of fat, the wine may not all cook off and may leave an unpleasant alcohol finish.
Most recipes I’ve seen call for a relatively short cooking time (2 hours) at a high temperature, usually from 350F-400F. I don’t know why you’d ever cook pork belly at such a high temperature for such a short time. Belly, like other high-collagen parts of the pig, needs a low and slow treatment, even if you initially blast it at high heat for browning/crisping purposes. So cook it low and slow and let it simmer in its own fat. If you’re the kind of person who makes rillons, you’re not in a hurry.
2 lb/1 kg pork belly, trimmed of rind and cut into 4 cm (scant 2”) cubes
1 tbsp kosher salt [if using Morton’s; if using Diamond, increase to 1 ½ tbsp.]
8-12 sprigs thyme
2 small bay leaves
Rub the salt all over the pork cubes on all sides, especially the meat sides. Refrigerate, covered, 2-3 days.
Line a baking dish that is just big enough to hold the belly cubes snugly with half the thyme.
Place a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the belly cubes, fat side down. Don’t crowd the pan; you can do this in batches. Turn the heat down somewhat. Brown well on all sides. After you turn the cubes once or twice they will be frying in a fairly deep pool of their own melted fat. Turn the heat down low enough that the fat doesn’t burn (under 350F).
Remove the seared bellies from the fat, season on both sides with sugar and ground pepper [I use a blend of black pepper and Pondicherry true red peppercorn for its nutmeg/cinnamon notes]. Transfer to the prepared baking dish in one snug layer. Tuck a bay leaf on each of two opposing sides. Pour or ladle the fat from the skillet over and around the bellies (don’t discard any leftover fat; save it). Cover the pan and transfer to the oven. Poach for six hours, rotating the pan 180 degrees once halfway through.
If you intend to use the rillons right away, remove the lid from the pan, increase the oven heat to 400F/205C, and continue cooking until the rillons are deep golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain. Serve, sliced in 2-3 chunks each, with mustard and sea salt.
Otherwise, for longer preservation, transfer the cooked rillons to a clean container and strain the fat over all. Cover tightly; this will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks. [In the picture below, though, I just kept it in the baking container; I don’t intend for these rillons to last more than a few days.] To use, reheat the rillons in a saucepan or in their original baking dish in their fat until the fat bubbles and the rillons become crisp and golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain.
If you decide not to trim the rind (skin) from your pork belly, you need to dry it out before cooking. Score the rind about ¼” and rub with salt. Cure the meat in one large chunk before cubing. Refrigerate uncovered (or at least with the skin uncovered). Wipe the salt and any moisture from the cuts in the skin before proceeding. Once you have browned the belly cubes, transfer to the pan skin side up. Roast initially at 450F/232C and turn down to 220F/105C after 30 minutes. Do not cover during the remainder of the cooking. Rillons cooked with the rind will have a stronger, gamier flavor.