When we think of eating organs, we imagine the red, glossy innards of various beasts and fowl. The skin, however, the largest organ of them all, is a boon for the cook and meat lover. When stewed, skin adds body and gelatin to the stock; when baked or fried, its crisp qualities are incomparable.
I'd never worked before with such a large section of pig skin; usually my forays into skin involve some kind of poultry. The swath of pig skin I purchased was at least three feet in length and a foot across. With just a thin layer of fat attached, the skin was supple and white with a pale-pink suggestion of meat on its underside. I was struck with the strangest inclination to wrap it around myself like a shawl.
Instead, I salted the skin and left it to cure in the refrigerator for five days, following directions for "Pork Scratchings" in Fergus Henderson's Beyond Nose to Tail. With his typical flair, Henderson pronounces the crisped pieces of skin to be "a most steadying nibble." Salted, soaked, and stewed in fat, the skin puffed up in the oven to a golden-brown hue. Crisper and chewier than typical pork cracklings or chicharrones, the skin was a delectable snack as well as a meaty topping for potatoes and soup--a steadying nibble, indeed.
A pithy sequel to The Whole Beast, Beyond Nose to Tail is filled with the kind of fanciful recipes that make Henderson's style so distinct. Sometimes a recipe is just a recipe; for the most memorable cooks and chefs, the recipe is a glimpse into the psyche of its author. Impenetrable at times yet assuring when you most need it, Henderson's diction often veers toward the poetic.
For anyone who has observed the workings of the kitchen with a literary eye, there's a good deal of method to Henderson's madness. Meats stewed until they are fork-tender or falling off the bone are often deemed "thoroughly giving," amounts are specified in terms of "good doses," and measurements for butter are given in "knobs." Oftentimes, cookbook authors write about their subjects with anthropomorphic intimacy: Julia Child described zucchini, eggplants, and tomatoes simmering together for ratatouille as a "brief commingling" in the pot; Henderson's direction for soup is to "cook down until they have really got to know each other."
Henderson's recipe for pork scratchings follows a method roughly akin to confiting: an initial salting, followed by a lengthy cooking in fat, ending with a crisping in the oven. The original recipe calls for the use of duck fat as the stewing medium; lacking poultry fat, I used home-rendered lard instead. If you find yourself with insufficient funds for duck fat or simply enjoy lard more, you can render your own by roughly chopping up chunks of back fat and slowly heating them up in a heavy pot. Over the course of an hour or so, you'll end up with many cups of light golden fat. Like confit, once the skin has been cooked in the fat, it may also be stored in the fat indefinitely if kept in the refrigerator. Pull out a few sections of the skin for a rainy day.
Unlike confit, there are no tender slivers of meat--just the skin, puffed up until the texture is chewy and hard, with a crisp yet sticky consistency. The gluey toughness of the skin results from its inherently gelatinous qualities. Even after the skin has been simmered and crisped in the oven, it retains some of its original gumminess, yielding a more interesting texture, not to mention a more vigorous exercise for your molars. Like potato chips or any other captivating salty snack, little cut-up pieces of the skin went quickly in the kitchen, accompanied by cool beers and good conversation.
Adapted from Beyond Nose to Tail by Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gellatly.
Pig's Skin Recipe
- 1 sheet of pork's skin, with a ¼ inch layer of fat still attached
- 3 cups rendered duck fat or lard, or enough to cover the layers of skin
- A few cups of kosher salt
Rinse and dry your piece of skin. Using a non-reactive pan, spread a thin layer of salt on the bottom. Place the skin on top, and fold accordion-style if needed, so that all of the skin will fit in the pan. Each time you fold the skin over, sprinkle another thin layer of salt in between so that the entire surface area will be touching salt by the time you're finished. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit in the refrigerator for 5 to 6 days.
After the salting period, soak the skin in a large bowl of water for at least 6 hours to one day. By the time the skin is done soaking, it will have grown slightly more engorged.
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Place the skin into a cast iron skillet or heavy pot. Cover the skin with the rendered fat. If you're using a skillet or pan without a lid, cover the top with a sheet of foil. Place the covered vessel into the oven and cook for two hours, until the skin is very soft and shrunken. Be sure that the skin is gently simmering rather than deep-frying in the fat. If needed, turn the oven down to 250°F.
Kept in the refrigerator, the skin can be stored in the fat indefinitely. When you are ready to eat the skin, place a sheet of it on a pan and crisp it in a 350°F oven for a few minutes, until the skin is puffed and golden brown. Cut into pieces and serve.