Cracklings are basically rendered animal skin and fat to produce this rich, crunchy, and yummy bites. Known to the public as made from pork rinds or pork skin, chicken and other poultry, beef, lamb, and mutton can also be used as such. It has been around since time immemorial, way back 1800s or even earlier, as the food of the working class who needed to maximize each part of the pig. But from that humble beginnings, it has grown to be a snack or a welcome ingredient to be incorporated in other cooked items and even a premium dish or appetizer in upscale restaurants.
- The rendered fat after making cracklings is also known as lard. It has been largely used for cooking and baking but people turned away from using this because of its saturated fat content. Though now, there are debates again on using lard vs trans fats.
- Each country has its own version and name for cracklings. Here are some of them: Brazil and Portugal calls it torresmo, scrunchions in Canada, pork scratchings in England, chicharron in Mexico (or a different spelling of chicharon in the Philippines), chicharrones in Colombia, khaep mu in Thailand, grattons in France, skwarki in Poland, and many more! Pork rind is also interchangeably used with cracklings in the U.S.
- Paleo and Keto diet followers have found their holy grail in pork cracklings, due to its low or zero carb content. These dieters were actually attributed to be the cause for the recent rise in popularity of pork rinds. But while others contest that cracklings are not good for the body due to it being high in fat and sodium, Men’s Health Magazine reports that pork rind or cracklings contain less fat than compared to a bag of potato chips.
- British celebrity chef, restaurateur and cooking show host, Tom Kerridge, chose cracklings or pork rinds to be his go-to snack when he had to go on a low-carb diet. After three years of exercise, healthy eating and snacking on pork rinds, he lost over 150 pounds!
- There is actually a “pork rinds guy” that went viral back in May 2019! This was John Slate who was interviewed by Oklahoma City News 9 Channel, after being stranded at the I-40 due to flooding. When asked about his plans while being stuck on the road, he said “got a bag of pork rinds in the truck. I reckon I’ll just stay out here, eat my pork rinds… might take a nap for a little while.”
Cracklings are easily accessible to the market as they can be bought in any local groceries and supermarkets. But different terms refer to how this pig-skin based snack is prepared:
- Pork rind – This is the most basic and can be created by removing all of the fat from the skin before frying it.
- Crackling – this is pig skin or pork rind with some of the fat left on the skin, before frying it in some more fat or oil.
- Fat back – This is pig skin with most of the fat still there.
Production & Farming in Texas
There are local and artisan crackling producers in Texas who started selling in local farmers markets and have eventually expanded to selling in a larger market, even through Amazon!
There was even a boucherie event some years back in, that is a traditional Southern Louisiana custom, where a hog is broken down to its different parts and transformed into what seems to be endless porky goodness, including vats of cracklings and fatback!
Preservatives, additives and chemicals
Cracklings per se don’t need any preservatives or additives, just the pigskin, some salt, and oil. But looking at some pre-packed brands that can be bought in stores, especially the flavored cracklings, one can see some other ingredients on their lists that might raise some questions.
- Monosodium Glutamate – also known as MSG, this food additive can be derived from a non-essential amino acid, the glutamic acid. This is usually used to enhance the flavor. But there is still a controversy and a debate if MSG poses health risks. Some report to have experienced adverse effects such as headache, numbness, weakness, flushing and muscle tightness. It was also linked to weight gain. However, there are still no official studies and conclusions if MSG is safe or dangerous for consumption.
- Maltodextrin – a polysaccharide that is commonly added to packaged foods to improve its flavor, thickness, and shelf life. This white powdery substance can be derived from corn, however, it is highly processed, using acids or enzymes. Maltodextrin is considered by the US FDA to be a safe food additive and is counted in the total carbohydrate count in the food’s nutritional value. There are warnings that the maltodextrin may have a high glycemic index and might pose an issue for those with diabetes. But this substance is usually present in small amounts in food and therefore won’t have that much significant effect if taken moderately.
- Silicon Dioxide – Also called silica, this can be found naturally in some plants like leafy green vegetables, bell peppers, oats, alfalfa, beets, and brown rice. But this can also be used as a food additive to prevent powdered ingredients from clumping. This is recognized by the US FDA as a safe food additive, along with the regulation that it should not exceed two percent of the food’s total weight.
- Disodium Phosphate – this is a food additive that can be derived from the element phosphorus. Often used in packaged foods and as an emulsifier in some cheeses. It can also be found in meat products, Jell-O, canned sauces, evaporated milk, and even in some chocolates. Despite being Generally Recognized as Safe by the FDA, some are continuously doing studies about the not-so-good effects of this additive. But as a rule of the thumb, this additive is present in packaged and processed foods and consumption of too much of these is not good for the body.
Cracklings are stored in PET or PP plastic pouches just like any chips at the market. These are sealed from air and moisture to keep the cracklings crunchy. For larger quantities, other brands pack the cracklings in big barrel-like plastic containers.
Cracklings can be eaten on its own, either in its original flavor or in seasoned variations. Others prefer to dip it in sauces and dips. But aside from having it as a snack it is also used as a substitute to bacon crumble or added to doughs to make crackling bread or biscuits. Cracklings are also incorporated into salads, scrambled eggs, gravies, sauces, and other dishes to add flavor.
The usual way to store cracklings and maintain its crunchy texture is by putting it in an airtight container, making sure that any moisture or air is expelled from the pack. There is a blog that suggests a certain hack that the airtight container must be lined by kitchen paper below and on top of the cracklings before sealing the lid. This way is said to keep the cracklings fresh and crunchy for about a week in moderate room temperature.
Making Pork Belly Cracklings
There are just so many ways to make cracklings, through deep frying, air frying, or even using an oven. Dehydrators can also be used to remove any moisture on the skin, or let it sun-dry. Here is one recipe of pork belly cracklings, published by the NY Times that you can easily follow.
- 2 pounds fatty, boneless pork belly with skin
- 3 quarts peanut oil
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
- ¼ tsp. paprika
- ⅛ tsp. white pepper
- ⅛ tsp. black pepper
- ¾ tsp. chili powder
- ⅛ tsp. garlic powder
- Score the skin of the pork belly into 1 ½ inch squares, using a sharp knife. Use these score marks as a guide to cut through underneath to come up with pork belly cubes.
- Heat the oil in a deep pot, over medium-high heat until it reaches 225 degrees.
- Add the pork cubes to the oil and immediately stir to prevent clumping.
- Cook the pork for about 20 minutes, or until it turns lightly golden brown.
- Remove the fried pork cubes and place on a dish lined with paper towels to drain the oil. Allow to cool for about 20 minutes
- Mix all the spices in a bowl.
- Reheat the oil, until it reaches 400 to 425 degrees. Put the pork back to the oil.
- Let this cook for another 3 to 5 minutes or until the skin bubbles up or cracks.
- Remove the pork from the pan and drain again in a dish with paper towels.
- Put the cracklings in a bowl, toss in the spice mix and kosher salt before serving.