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 about 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 Nasty Bits 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. Belly, neither bony nor offal-related, technically falls outside of the range of this column. Yet the cut does have a lot of skin and fat attached, both of which are parts of the pig that people tend to mistrust.
Most Americans think only to turn pork belly into bacon. Not that this is a terrible fate for belly. There are few if any negative qualities I can name about bacon (maybe, that you shouldn't eat half a dozen strips of it for breakfast and expect to be fully functional), but to autopilot belly into bacon is a shame. In countless cuisines around the world, belly is barbecued, stewed, roasted, and as it applies to this week's recipe, turned into golden and crispy crackling bits. 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.
Deep-Fry the Belly in its Own Fat
When I asked Kenji if he knew of any good recipes for chicharrones, he instantly thought of a technique he learned in Colombia. The method seemed too good to be true: place segments of pork belly in a wok with a bit of water, set it over the stove, and let the fat render out over the course of a few hours. Towards the end, turn up the heat, thereby using the fat in the wok to deep-fry the belly.
I never thought to prepare chicharrones in such a manner. Yet without having tried the recipe, years of confiting experience gave me the confidence that the technique would be a winner. Not only does the Colombian method eliminate the need for additional oil in which to deep-fry the belly, it's also extraordinarily simple. Rendering lard for confit, in fact, employs exactly this process. 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.
Bring on the Baking Soda
We settled on a warm Friday afternoon to try the recipe together. The day before, 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 powder 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. And once we'd cut the belly into squares of snack-appropriate size, there wasn't much else to be done in the kitchen either. We filled the wok with water to cover the belly and set it over a low flame. A few hours 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. Because we'd spent much of the afternoon munching on chips rather than tending to the wok, a small cake of meat had accumulated at the bottom of the wok from our wanton neglect. (Of course, this detritus from the chicharrones was even more irresistible than the nuggets of pork.)
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 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.
1 pound pork belly, skin side rubbed with 2 teaspoons baking soda and 1 teaspoon salt
3 cups water to cover
1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste
Spices of your choice such as cayenne, sugar, and paprika
To prepare the belly: Rub the baking soda and salt all over the surface of the skin, taking care to distribute the powder evenly. Set the pork belly on a rack and place it uncovered in the refrigerator for at least an hour but preferably overnight and for up to a day.
The next day, rinse the belly in cold water and pat dry. Cut into 1-inch segments, about 1/3-inch thick. Place all the segments of belly into a wok and add enough water to cover the meat.
Turn the heat to low. Over the course of 2 to 4 hours, depending on the moisture content of your pork, slowly render the fat from the belly, turning the segments of meat every half hour or so. Keep the heat on low. In the beginning, the water will look like pork stock but over time the water will cook off, leaving only the lard in the pan.
When only liquid fat remains in the wok, turn the heat to high and carefully monitor the pieces of belly as they deep-fry in the lard. This last stage of deep-frying should take about 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicharrones to a plate lined with paper towels to blot the extra fat. Toss with salt and your choice of seasonings. The chicharrones will remain crispy for many hours.