红烧肉 (hóng shāo ròu) “red braised pork” or “red cooked pork” is a classic home-style Chinese dish with 1500 years of history. The “red” in the name comes from the natural color the pork takes on from caramelizing sugar. Traditionally, the dish uses skin-on pork belly where the layers of fat take on a rich amber color. A low and slow braise results in a perfectly melt-y and tender bite. The meat cooks down in a glossy and rich sauce that’s sweet and savory and aromatic. By bringing in the Instant Pot, my version combines 100% authentic flavor — the traditional recipe in a fraction of the time!
Many home versions today skip the all-important step of making caramel, but it’s really much easier than it sounds. I promise once you try the traditional method you’ll never go back! The toasty caramel adds a depth of flavor that dark soy sauce can’t replicate. You don’t need very many ingredients — everything is part of my two part essential ingredients series Part I and Part II. And with a little Instant Pot magic, we can turn this low and slow braise into a quick and easy weeknight meal.
There is a recipe for red braised pork in the 5th century agricultural encyclopedia 齐民要术 (qímín yàoshù) Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People, published during the 东魏 (dōng wèi) Eastern Wei dynasty. Famous 11th century literato and foodie 苏东坡 Sū Dōngpō, a major social influencer in his day, loved it so much that it became the most popular dish in China. Red braised pork has maintained its position in Chinese cuisine for close to a millennium. It also happens to be one of my absolute favorite childhood foods.
Red Braised = Caramel Sauce
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The first step in authentic red braised pork is 炒糖色 (cháo táng sè) making caramel. Add cold oil to a hot pan, add in sugar (white, brown, demerera, or yellow rock sugar all work), and stir continuously. The caramel will start out a very light gold color and then gradually begin to darken. Keep stirring to prevent it from burning or sticking — also a little extra oil helps a lot. This caramel is much less fussy than traditional dessert caramel.
When the caramel darkens to a deep amber hue, add in the pork and toss continuously to coat. I swapped out the traditional pork belly for leaner and much easier to find pork spareribs, so this dish is more properly 红烧排骨 (hóng shāo pái gǔ) red-braised spareribs. My local Costco carries St Louis pork ribs from Costco cut into 1.5″ strips; these are perfect, just cut them into individual pieces between the bones. You can also buy a whole slab of St Louis ribs and chop them into pieces with a 砍骨刀 bone cleaver.
A note on red braised pork belly
We can use the same method with cubes of skin-on pork belly 五花肉 (wǔ huā ròu). The Instant Pot perfectly breaks down the collagen, resulting in a rich and unctuous but not greasy red braised pork — the Chinese ideal 肥而不腻 (fěi ér bù nì). Cooking times for both pork spare ribs and pork belly are given in the recipe below.
Large pieces of pork belly (1.5″ cubes) are very impressive when cooked; I highly recommend using larger pieces if you can. However, if your local grocery, like ours, only sells smaller strips of pork belly, just reduce the cooking time to compensate. After 13 minutes in the Instant Pot, these 1″ pieces transformed into perfectly tender and melty red braised pork belly 红烧肉.
Aromatics & Seasoning
The continued caramelization of the sugars and meat (Maillard reaction) will make everything a bright golden amber. At this point, we’re ready to add the seasonings to the pan. Start with the dry ingredients then add the liquids. We need (links to purchase):
- 1 star anise
- a small piece of cinnamon stick
- dash of salt
- dried red chilies (optional)
- a few slices of ginger
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced or smashed
- 2 Tbsp light soy sauce
- 2 tsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tsp Chinese black (Chinkiang) vinegar, or apple cider vinegar
- 1 Tbsp Shaoxing Chinese cooking wine, or vodka
Give everything a good toss, turn the heat down to medium, and cook with the lid on for 2 minutes. The contents of the pan should be bubbling nicely.
This gives the flavors a chance to develop. Food chemistry: a small amount of esterification happens when vinegar and alcohol are cooked together. These esters give the red braised pork a more complex, fruity flavor. Keep the lid on so the alcohol doesn’t cook off right away.
Instant Pot Magic for Perfect Red Braised Pork
Just like that, we’re done with the active cooking part. Dump the entire contents of the pan into an Instant Pot or electric pressure cooker (at least 6 quarts). Make sure to scrape all the caramel sauce in, and don’t add any water! The meat will cook in the caramel sauce and its own juices. Cook for 16 min on high pressure with a natural release. To serve, garnish with scallions or cilantro.
Normally we’d need to simmer red braised spareribs for at least 1.5 hours, but the pressure cooker makes this an easy weeknight meal. If you have any leftovers, they are just as delicious reheated in the microwave. You can also cook a large batch and freeze in portions to reheat another day. It’s a little sweet and a lot savory, rich and flavorful but easy to make — no wonder red braised pork 红烧肉 has been one of the most popular dishes in China for 1000 years!
Wine Pairing: Instant Pot Red Braised Pork
Baron Philippe de Rothschild Escudo Rojo Syrah Reserva 2018, serve 16-18°C / 60-64°F
Chateau Cantemerle 2012 (Haut Medoc Grand Cru), serve 16-18°C / 60-64°F
Domaine Drouhin Vaudon Chablis 2018, serve at 10-11°C / 50-52°F
Jean-Marc Brocard Vau de Vey Chablis Premier Cru 2018, serve at 10-11°C / 50-52°F
Depending on what else you’re having with the red braised pork, I like either a bold, fruity red or a crisp, mineral white. If you’re serving alongside other red meats, syrah would be a great choice. Syrah has medium tannins and good body that stand up well with the richness of the braised pork. A nice Rhone or Bordeaux blend (aged to soften the tannins) would also complement the flavors well. Alongside a seafood- or vegetable-dominated meal, I like a crisp Chardonnay without too much oak, like Chablis or Pouilly-Fuissé (both are excellent villages in Burgundy).
Did You Try This?
If you tried this Instant Pot Red Braised Pork, we’d love to hear how it went! Please let us know in the comments down below, and share on Instagram — tag us #thericelover and @thericeloverblog. And as always, if you have any questions, comments, or requests for future recipes, we always love to hear from you.
Instant Pot Red Braised Pork 电压力锅 红烧肉 (Hóng Shāo Ròu)
- Instant Pot or pressure cooker
- wok, Dutch oven, or well-seasoned saute pan (with lid)
- 2½ lb pork spare ribs 1" to 1½" length, or 1 to 1½" cubes of pork belly 小排骨，1公斤 或 五花肉，切4厘米大块
- 1½ Tbsp cooking oil 菜油，20克
- 2 Tbsp sugar 白糖或黄糖，25克
- 2 Tbsp
light soy sauce生抽酱油，30克
- 2 tsp
dark soy sauce老抽酱油，10克
- 2 tsp
Chinese black (Chinkiang) vinegaror apple cider / sherry vinegar 陈醋，10克
- 1 Tbsp
Shaoxing cooking wineor vodka
- 2 slices ginger 姜，2片
- 2 cloves garlic minced or smashed 大蒜，2颗切碎
- ½" piece
- 2 dried red chilies optional 干辣椒，2颗（可无）
- ⅓ tsp kosher salt 食用盐，适量
- 1 scallion or small bunch cilantro chopped, for garnish 小葱或香菜，切碎出锅后加
- Heat a
wok or Dutch oven to medium-high heat. Add oil and sugar.炒糖色：锅烧热，加入菜油和糖。
- Stir continuously until caramel sauce becomes a deep amber color.不停翻炒至糖色变成深琥珀色。
- Add the pork ribs to the caramel sauce. Toss continuously to coat.锅里加入小排骨，不停翻炒。
- When the pork is fully coated and caramelized to a bright amber color, add the salt, dry spices (ginger, garlic, star anise, cinnamon, red pepper), and the liquids (light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, vinegar, cooking wine) to the pan. Stir well to combine. Turn the heat down to medium-low and boil with the lid on for 2 minutes.肉炒至琥珀色，锅里加入香料，酱油，醋，酒拌匀。转中小火，盖盖煮2分钟。
- Transfer contents of the pot, including all liquid and spices, to an
Instant Potor electric pressure cooker. Cook at high pressure for 16 minutes for spareribs (15 min for pork belly). Allow the Instant Pot to natural release, or manual release after 10 minutes. Garnish with scallions/cilantro to serve.将锅里所有内容倒入电压力锅。高压16分钟。自然排气或过10分钟后手动排气。出锅后装盘，撒上葱花或香菜碎。
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Could I also dump the caramelized mixture into a Crockpot for a couple of hours?
Absolutely! Depending on how much the liquid evaporates, you might need to add a splash of water or beer to keep it from cooking down too much and burning. If I’m not making it in the Instant Pot, I would normally just simmer in a Dutch oven for 1.5 hours, and that only requires 1/2 cup of water at most. I’m not super familiar with slow cookers, but when all the liquid reduces down you don’t want it to be watery.
My favorite dish! Thanks for sharing the recipe!
Tried it with pork belly, it was absolutely delicious!
Amazing! Would you say Instapot is helpful for making Chinese food? Was wondering if I should invest in one! Thank you!
Hi SZ, thanks for stopping by! I highly recommend Instant Pots / electric pressure cookers for Chinese cooking. It cuts a lot of time off low and slow braises like this one and can be used as a rice cooker. I’m working on a lion’s head meatballs recipe in the Instant Pot, and it’s also great for cooking sticky rice like zongzi (sticky rice dumplings) and porridges!
Ahhh, I’m so glad this turned out well! Just waiting on it to cool off at the moment 😅 my husband and I lived in China for 6 years and always miss this dish, thank you for posting!!
Love love love this! Missed this dish so much from my time living in China, your recipe is super easy to follow. Thank you!!
Thanks for trying it out, Meagan! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and it means a lot to me that it reminds you of your time living in China. I hope this dish makes it into your regular rotation!