Why do so many of us food enthusiasts find it so difficult?
For the dedicated gastronaut*, there’s nothing more satisfying than successfully pulling off a burnished, lacquered, tooth-shatteringly crunchy slab of crackling. Despite several attempts by the kale juice, low-fat brigade to convince me otherwise, for me there are still few things more pleasurable in life than biting into that gratifyingly oily, salty crunch of roasted pork – which is why it’s so infuriating that crunchy crackling is something that I’ve never quite managed to master myself. If, like mine, your crackling always seems to come out chewy, flaccid or still wobbly with uncooked fat, this is the answer to all of your prayers, because we've done the leg work for you and researched how to take your crackling to new levels of blistered crunchiness.
*For those of you born after 1990 a.) I hate you and b.) that’s a Keith Floyd reference. Think of him as like a boozy Jamie Oliver mixed with a boozy Rick Stein. With more booze.
First things first, the meat
While a lot of traditionalists still favour a pork loin, for pure, unadulterated meat-to-crackling ratio the experts say it’s hard to beat the (cheaper) cut of pork belly. A long-time favourite in Chinese cookery, this fattier cut means that you’ll need to cook your pork longer and slower, but it all-but eliminates the risk of drying out during the cooking. There is still some debate as to whether or not the skin should be scored because it might make the meat fall apart while you carve, but with crackling I think it’s best to err on the side of caution and go with the majority view that scoring is a essential stage for cracking crackling. Unless you’ve got a Stanley knife and a superhuman dexterity way beyond my own, get your butcher to do this bit for you.
The drying-out stage
I think this is where I’ve been going wrong for a long time, because without a dry skin you’re never going to achieve a properly crunchy crackling. While some recipes call for simply patting the skin dry with a paper towel – which certainly doesn’t hurt – the best advice I found was to leave the pork out, uncovered, to air-dry in the fridge. Do this overnight, at least, but longer if you have the time.
Most recipes call for liberal amounts of rock salt rubbed into the scored skin, I tested this recipe from Kirbie Carvings for salt-crusted pork crackling over the weekend and was totally blown away by the results (crunchy without being rock hard; light and worryingly moreish). Before placing the pork in the oven, spread a thick layer (at least a centimetre or two) or salt evenly over the skin, place in the oven and roast until the meat looks nearly cooked (we’ll come on to that next). Then, whack the oven up to its highest temperature and removed the salt – which will have formed a crust in the cooking and should come off in one piece) and cook for another 30 minutes or so or until the pork is bubbly and crisp. Just a game-changer.
This is where the whole thing is a bit of a minefield. I tried high temperature to low (which produced flabby crackling), a constant slow cooking (improved, but not quite crackling nirvana) and cooking the skin separately (which made a crackling so hard I nearly broke a tooth). Nothing compared with the salt-crust method, which I’ve slightly adapted from Kirbie Cravings after advice from the amazing butchers in London at Meat N16. You need to pre-heat the oven to around 160C and pour around an inch of water on to the bottom of the roasting dish, placing a wire wrack on top where the pork belly will sit. After applying your salt crust, bake for around two hours until the salt has formed a crust and the meat’s juices run clear. Then remove the salt crust, turn the oven up to a minimum 200C and cook for around 30 more minutes until the skin is golden brown, souffléd and bubblingly crisp.
You’ll never have flabby crackling again. You’re welcome.