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"Whole Fresh Picnic" + Slowcooker + Chinese Prep

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I am in the awkward position of knowing what I want (and having the hardware!), but not being quite sure how to get there.

I am the new owner of a Hamilton Beach slow-cooker (the one with the temperature probe that sticks inside the meat) and a "Whole Fresh Picnic" hunk of pork (five pounds, looks like most of it is still covered by skin.)

What I am shooting for is a super-unctuous slow-cooked pork that is absolutely falling apart, a holy gelatinous mass of flavor. The best example I have ever seen of this was ham hocks fresh out of ceramic pots at upscale Chinese buffets. I am wondering if there is some way to translate that to this similar-if-larger piece of meat, but I'm stumbling a bit on the mechanics. Brown the picnic before it goes in the slowcooker?
Brine it before browning?
How far up the meat should the standing moisture go in the slowcooker?
And exactly what spices would be best? I've got candied ginger, star anise, five-spice powder, and even packets of Chinese pork flavorings from a local market (lots of big dried herbs and who knows what. Ingredients: Radix Codonopsis, Radix Gleniae, Ginger Slices, Polygonatum, Yam, Lily Bulb, Coix Seed, Haricot Bean.)
And of course I'm curious exactly how long to go and at what temperature. Time is of no concern, heck if it needs a week I don't care. If I need more ingredients that's no problem either.

Sorry for the complexity of the question, but I'm going to make this one of my most frequent dishes at home if I can get it right. The nearest restaurant I know that serves this pork preparation is just over two hours away and I'm totally entranced by it. Can anyone help?

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  1. The packets of Chinese pork flavoring are ingredients that can be added to a very light brine. Add a little mushroom soy sauce to the brine in lieu of some of the salt, if you want to get authentic about it. Brine in a plastic bag, with the spices, for 24 hours, at least.

    It would do no harm, and add flavor interest, if you fired up a hot skillet and browned the pork all around. Traditional Chinese preparation doesn't do this, however.

    I would use a lot of liquid. Chicken stock works best. At least half-way up the meat. Plunk in plenty of scallions and carrots. Add star anise, a little allspice (whole) and some slices of fresh ginger. Do not add any garlic at this point. A few whole dried chili peppers add interest and zip at this point, too.

    Bring the whole deal to a boil and then turn down to about 190 and cook it for eight hours, at least. Better twelve. Take it out and cut it up or rip 'er apart.

    Sadly, once you're finished doing the meat the broth is going to perhaps be a little strong-scented for your taste. We reserve a little of it, that we thicken with corn starch, to moisten the pork once it's cut up. The rest of the broth we boil hunks of daikon radish and whole mushrooms in, and serve these cooked vegetables up with the meat.

    3 Replies
    1. re: shaogo

      Step one's complete, I have it brining now (it was marked down at the grocery so I didn't want to let it hang out untreated very long.) I'm going to reply to this thread once it's cooked to report back. Anyone having additional suggestions or pointers has a 24-48 hour window. :)

      1. re: shaogo

        I actually disagree with shaogo regarding the lots of liquid -- in my experience, pork shoulder cooked in a crockpot releases tons of its own juices, and there is no need to put much if any liquid in the pot unless you are looking for soup at the end. To get the real unctuousness, you want the pork to basically slow cook in its own fat, rather than steam in a bunch of liquid...

        1. re: fearlessemily

          Indeed, going with a relatively dry, slow cooking will give a fresh ham plenty of great porky flavor. The method I recommended is more traditionally Chinese, that's all. I have nothing against more traditional methods of braising at all.

          This is a choice the OP will have to make.

          fearlessemily, for a not much if any liquid braise, what temp and timing would you recommend? Would you use a little wine to bring out the flavors of the ginger and other spices? I've been a slave to tradition when preparing the Chinese style braise with a lot of liquid -- poached, almost. I've had various cuts of roasted pork (particularly in the Japanese restaurant) that were very flavorful but also had that "unctuousness," full of porky, fatty, collagen-mouthfeely stuff going on. I guess my using lots of liquid ensures that the seasonings get deep into the meat. But maybe you can enlighten me.

      2. Brining is nearing the end. I've been reading in different threads about how the connective tissues really dissolve around 220 degrees, but I'm also seeing suggestions for cooking low and slow at 190. Is there a best path? Should I go 190 for hours, then hit 220 for a few hours as well to gelatinize the skin?

        1. Cooking completed somewhat earlier. Results were positive, but reflective of a somewhat compromised cooking method (which I now understand.)

          It would appear that there are two totally separate ways to go with this kind of meat, and I tried going both ways at the same time (which has some positives and negatives of both). One can either cook dry and maximize meat texture, or cook wet and maximize flavor/skin edibility--for the sake of discussion I am ignoring methods that are looking for crackling skin. The Chinese method involves lots of liquid and basically stews the skin/connectives into jelly, which as it turns out is much better suited for ham hocks in my case. The method leading towards carnitas (which may or may not be Spanish in origin for all I know, let us presume garlic+onions+adobo seasoning) excludes extra liquid, keeping the stewing/steaming effect out of play and thereby leading to a completely different and perhaps superior meat texture due to lower internal temperatures (that do not totally gelatinize the skin).

          I forged a path down the middle road and was left with edible skin and nicely textured meat--but parts of the shoulder appear slightly dry, and flavor was slightly lacking (although this is probably due to a few substitutions I made in the brining substrate, and lack of scallions or other vegetables in the cooker.) I have since discovered, happily, that adding dark mushroom soy sauce and dashes of lime juice directly to the final pulled product totally redeems the experience by reactivating the salivary glands and reasserting the miso-esque flavor the brining was meant to enforce. For the record, internal temperatures reached 198 degrees, and possibly a 201-203 maximum during resting. Only the Low setting was used on the Hamilton Beach, and hitting the 200's (somewhat quickly, around the 5.5 hour mark) did surprise me a bit. I'd like to go lower/slower but I'll have to see exactly how the "warm" feature works in conjunction with Probe mode to see if that is in fact possible.

          Next up, once this shoulder is gone, I will attempt carnitas and compare notes. Finally, I will try the third route and go for carnitas that also produce a crackling skin (I will certainly need the oven for this, however.) And of course, I will run through the recipe again with ham hocks, which I expect will be fantastic. Thanks to previous posters for their helpful comments.