I knew that Kenji and I were going to be pals the first time I went over to his apartment. Not ten minutes after I walked through the door, he pulled an alligator's hand out from his freezer and asked me how I wanted to cook it. This probably wouldn't impress all the ladies but I was smitten.
I like a lot of things about Kenji, not least of which is his predilection to disagree with me at the drop of a hat. It's hard to find a good jousting buddy these days: The friend must be pugnacious but not prejudiced, to whom the word "argument" means a position to defend rather than pointless yelling. We've debated everything from distributive justice to whether or not you should peel the outer layer off confited pork tongues (I say, only if you want to lose the distinctive shape of the tongue, not to mention the aesthetic appeal of the papillae. Naturally, he holds the opposite view). But no matter our disagreement, we come together at the end of the day to hunker down over animal parts.
So when a long-time reader asked if we could come with up a chicharrones recipe using pork belly, we welcomed the request. It was a perfect way to exercise our shared ability to tolerate massive quantities of pork, and for me to put in my two cents about pork belly and how to turn it into chicharrones. Of course, depending on the country of origin, chicharron can mean anything from fried pork skin with a little meat attached to fried pork rinds using only the skin. This recipe presents chicharrones as they're often prepared in Colombia, in serrated chains featuring the full roster of meat, fat, and crispy skin; it's a method that Kenji had learned in Colombia, and that he taught me for this recipe.
Deep-Frying Chicharrones in Their Own Fat
The Colombian method is as follows: Place segments of pork belly in a cooking vessel with a bit of water, set it over the stove, and let the fat slowly render out. Towards the end, after the water has cooked off, turn up the heat, thereby using the remaining liquified fat in the wok to fry the belly.
"Through low and slow heat, the fat that is rendered from the belly eventually replaces the water in which the belly first stews"
Not only does the Colombian method eliminate the need for additional oil in which to deep-fry the belly, it's also extraordinarily simple. It is remarkably similar to rendering lard for confit—through low and slow heat, the fat that is rendered from the belly eventually replaces the water in which the belly first stews. Towards the end, only the liquid fat remains, providing the requisite amount of cooking fuel for deep-frying the nuggets of belly.
That said, it's not without its drawbacks, namely: mess and the risk of hot oil popping and splashing on you. Throughout testing, we found this problem to be almost impossible to eliminate, and let me tell you, we tried. Seeking a cleaner, safer method to make chicharrones in this style, we tested a couple other approaches before settling on the classic method as the best. Here's what we tried, and our results:
- The Traditional Approach: All done in one pan, the method starts with simmering the pork belly to render its fat, and then transitions to a frying stage once the water has cooked off. It produced the best chicharrones of all our tests the most easily. That said, the fat pops and spits violently, so you must be careful and absolutely should use a splatter guard. Be prepared for plenty of cleanup after. We recommend using a nonstick skillet or well-seasoned wok for this, as the pork can fuse to more adhesion-prone pans like enameled Dutch ovens and stainless-steel skillets.
- The Poach-Then-Fry Approach: We had hoped that simmering the pork belly first, then draining it and patting it dry before frying in oil or lard would reduce the oil splatter and mess. Unfortunately, it didn't—the hot oil flew all over the place just as much. Given that this method is less efficient (you have to wash and dry the pan between the boiling and frying stages, or use two vessels, and you have to buy oil or lard for frying since you won't have the rendered lard free of water to fr in), we ruled it out.
- The Cornstarch Trick: Several recipes online for chicharrones use the poach-then-fry approach, but dust the simmered pork belly with cornstarch before frying to help dry it further and reduce splatter. It does indeed reduce splatter, though not fully, and in our tests, the chicharrones that came out at the end were the least crispy and flavorful.
The takeaway here is that the traditional method is best, but be careful and prepared—it's not mess or risk-free.
Using Baking Soda for Perfect Chicharrones
As part of our tests, Kenji instructed me to rub the skins of the belly with baking soda, as he'd seen done in Colombia prior to cooking the chicharrones.
"Why use baking soda?" I asked.
Kenji explained that the process of browning and crisping occurs because of three factors:
The breakdown of the skin's protein matrix from a long, leathery sheet to short, crisp bits
The browning known as the Maillard reaction"
"Baking soda helps intensify all three of these effects. First, Maillard browning reactions occur more efficiently in alkaline environments. Rubbed down with baking powder, the skin crisps and browns faster than it would otherwise. Alkaline environments also encourage the dehydration of the protein network in the skin. Drier skin crisps more quickly and bubbles less vigorously while frying. Finally, the baking soda reacts with the skin's proteins themselves, allowing them to be broken down more easily when you cook the meat the next day.
"So while even a cursory rub with baking soda a half hour before cooking will help break down the skin, an overnight uncovered rest in the fridge is the best way to go about it—it'll give the soda plenty of time to react with the skin, as well as allowing the belly to dehydrate significantly even before you begin cooking it."
Isn't it handy to have a resident food scientist?
Per the instructions, I rubbed some salt and baking soda in my pieces of pork belly and set them in the fridge to dry out.
On the appointed day of chicharrones Kenji was also responsible for roasting a pig over a spit, so we double-tasked. For an entire afternoon, we managed not to argue with one other as we skewered a beauty of a pig, barely forty pounds, over a smoldering fire. As the pig rotated over the flames, we took turns watching the wok of chicharrones on the stove.
What better activity to while away an afternoon, than to watch a whole pig cook over fire? The process is a leisurely one that requires more patience than skill. We filled the wok with water to cover the belly and set it over a low flame. A long while later, when all the water had evaporated and only lard remained in the wok, we cranked up the heat and watched as the nuggets of pork belly deep-fried in their own fat.
Fresh from the oil, the skin of the chicharrones had blistered and bubbled. The layer of meat was crispy on the surface yet tender on the inside. Best of all, the fat cushioning the skin and the flesh was sweet and solid, with just a small burst of porky juice flowing from each bite.
Our reader's complaint was that his nuggets of pork belly were "tough and chewy," a common problem if the oil is too hot. In a hot and short cooking period, the belly doesn't have enough time to break down the tough skin before the whole cross-section starts to burn. Though a more straightforward method can also make use of an initial frying at a lower temperature with a final frying in very hot oil, the process not only requires quarts of additional oil, but also tends to produce harder-textured meat. Even a flawless execution may not yield the tender meat of the Colombian technique—essentially a combination of stewing, confiting, and deep-frying, all of which is done in lard. I hate to make a blanket statement such as "everything is better when it's cooked in lard," but well, you know where my loyalties lie.
June 29, 2010
This recipe was cross-tested in 2022 and updated to guarantee best results. To prevent chicharrones from sticking to the bottom of the pot, we now call for a nonstick skillet in addition to a well-seasoned wok. Frying the chicharrones in their own lard results in an intensely savory flavor, while a squeeze of lime juice adds brightness and cuts through the richness of the pork.
2 pounds (907g) skin-on pork belly, skin on
1 tablespoon (15g) baking soda
Optional spices or seasonings of your choice, such as cayenne, sugar, and paprika, or lime juice
Making chicharrones is an unavoidably messy task. Hot lard pops and spits as you fry the belly, making a mess of the surrounding kitchen area and risking burns. In our testing (see headnote above for more details), we found this issue unavoidable without seriously compromising the result, though it can be reduced with the use of a splatter guard (we really don't consider the splatter guard optional here, please use one). Make sure to wear long sleeves and other protective, kitchen-safe clothing, and take care while frying.
Place pork belly on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. In a small bowl, stir together baking soda with 2 teaspoons (6g) salt. Rub baking soda mixture all over pork belly, taking care to distribute mixture evenly. Chill uncovered, skin side up, in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 1 day (for best results, let pork chill at least 8 hours).
The next day, rinse belly in cold water and pat dry. Cut into strips, about 1 inch wide and 4 to 5 inches long. Place strips skin-side down on a cutting board and carefully slice down at 1/2-inch intervals, stopping when you reach the fat layer right below skin (do not cut through the skin). Place all segments of belly in a single layer into a 12-inch nonstick skillet or well-seasoned wok. Pour in water until pork is mostly submerged, about 2 to 3 cups (473-710ml), though amount needed will depend on vessel dimensions.
Set over medium-low heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, turning segments of meat occasionally, until pork is tender and much of the fat has rendered, about 1 hour. In the beginning, water will look like pork stock, but over time the water will evaporate, leaving only lard in the pan; if necessary, increase heat to medium to drive off last bit of water.
Once water has evaporated and only liquid lard remains in skillet, cover skillet with a splatter guard. Warning: The lard will pop and splatter; stand back and be careful to not burn yourself. Continue to cook, turning pieces occasionally as they fry, until the chicharrones are golden and crispy, 20 to 25 minutes.
Transfer the chicharrones to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Toss with salt to taste and your choice of seasonings. Chicharrones will remain crispy for many hours.
12-inch nonstick skillet or well-seasoned wok; splatter guard
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 24g||31%|
|Saturated Fat 9g||44%|
|Total Carbohydrate 0g||0%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|