Super Food Nerds: How to Make Chicharron (aka Pork Rinds)
Welcome to Super Food Nerds, a column written in alternating installments by Rupa (Food and Beverage Editor, Culinary Staff) and Jonathan (Research Librarian, same place). Each installment will be dedicated to a particular topic – how to DIY something you don’t normally DIY, how to perfect a dish usually taken for granted, plus best techniques, underlying chemistries and a handful of inexplicable preferences. Basically, if they can overthink it, they’re on it.
I don't know what you eat on road trips, but my snack of choice is pork rinds, more often than not bought at a gas station. Something about the crispy-crunchy-porky deliciousness makes me give up all my usual scruples about only eating pastured pork raised by a farmer I've met, and also about not buying meat from gas stations.
But if you can have your pork and eat it too — that is, if you can have delicious, crispy-crunchy-porky snacks made out of good-quality pork and seasoned the way you like it, you're pretty much winning at everything. This is a recipe that takes time (at a minimum, you're looking at a 24-hour waiting period), but it's mostly waiting, not working. And there are a few natural-feeling break points in the process that would let you put your pork on pause if you needed to.
Quick linguistic note: There are a couple of ways to refer to these. These are pork rinds, or chicharrones. Cracklings or scratchings are what's left in the pan after you render fat – also crispy and delicious, but not this.
So, I started by ordering some pork skin from my butcher. You may have to order skin-on belly to get skin, in which case, cut the skin off, use it for this recipe, and make bacon with the belly. (Or, your butcher may give you the skin for free or at minimal cost.) If your skin is super fatty, or you only had access to skin-on fatback, cut off any huge chunks of fat wherever possible and render it (follow instructions for that here) for later use as fry oil.
There's something pretty amazing about taking something that looks like this...
and turning it into this.
Based on a recipe from David Chang's Momofuku cookbook, I boiled the skin, let it cool, scraped away the subcutaneous fat and dried it in the oven overnight. I then broke the skin into pieces and dropped them one at a time into very hot oil (I used a combo of lard and peanut oil).
Side note: The pieces can hold at room temperature, wrapped in a paper towel in a sealed container, for up to three days. David Chang recommends storing them in a sealed container with a packet of silica gel to keep them dry—in the fridge for up to a week.
As I started frying them, the entire kitchen began gravitating around the pot of hot oil. Richmond, one of our food stylists, wandered over with a bowl of a spicy vinegar dipping sauce he'd made (a condiment traditionally served with pork rinds in the Philippines). We had to put a moratorium on snacking so we could even take the picture. About one in every 10 or 15 rinds wouldn't puff, and instead they got dark brown and crackly. Still edible, but not the target result.
In the second round of testing, the skin we ordered was paper-thin, and the no-puff rate was really remarkably high. Something like half the rinds didn't puff, and the ones that did ended up chewy. With a little trial and error, we determined that the skin puffs best when it's about 1/8-inch thick. If it's ultra-thin and crepey, save it to add gelatin to soups and stocks. We also learned that 385 to 390 degrees Farenheit is the sweet spot for maximum puff. Use a candy thermometer, and keep track of the temp — it may dip after you add rinds.
We tried a couple different spice dustings — ancho chile with maple sugar, Chinese five-spice powder with plain salt — but the star of the show was the combo of salty-porky-crisp pork rind and Richmond's spicy, garlicky dipping sauce. It's absurdly addictive, and the perfect accompaniment to a cold beer on a summer night
Get the printable Pork Rinds (Chicharron) recipe here, and click here for the step-by-step instructions on making the recipe.