Sunday, 3 October 2010

At Home: Cracking Crackling

Crackling. One of the many joys of being a vociferous carnivore.

Pork was a meat I discovered later in life, as bland pork chops were all I'd been accustomed to as a child. Fortunately, a taste of rilette in Provence, and barbecue ribs in the Midwest, got me hooked, and I'm now a sucker for anything porcine.

There's an art to creating perfect crackling, and everyone claims their way is the best way. And methods are multitudinous: to baste or not to baste. Fry? Remove the rind from meat and cook separately? Dry skin with a hair dryer? Blast of heat at beginning or end of cooking, or both?

For me, the best crackling still has a bit of soft unctuous fat underneath, the crunchy skin finely blistered and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. This method never fails to create gorgeous crispy crackling (for me, that is! Please tell me if you've discovered another failsafe method).
  • Ask your butcher to score the belly, or do it yourself with a Stanley knife, cutting right through the skin and fat to the meat, but not through the meat.
  • The belly must be left at room temperature, uncovered (to help the skin dry out), for a few hours before cooking.
  • Rub fine sea salt into the skin, dabbing off any beads of moisture that appear on the surface with kitchen towel.
  • Preheat your oven to its highest temperature (about 220C).
  • Grind a tbsp of sea salt to a fine powder in a pestle and mortar with a tbsp of fennel seeds. Rub thoroughly into the dry skin with a tbsp of light olive oil, right into the scored crevices, then sprinkle over another tbsp of coarse sea salt (not ground).
  • Place the belly in a roasting dish on top of a trivet of onions and apples, peeled, and quartered, seasoned and doused in olive oil, and tossed with a handful of thyme sprigs.
  • Roast on the highest oven shelf at 220C for 20 minutes, to give the skin a good blast of heat, then turn the heat down to 160C and cook for a further hour and 15 mins.
  • Turn the heat up to 200C (this would be a good time to put the roast pots in the oven if you're being indulgent), and cook for a further 40 mins.
  • Your belly is ready.
For a perfect gravy/sauce: remove the pork from the roasting tray to a serving dish, save any onion/apple that has miraculously not turned to mush in the cooking process (serve with the pork), and pour off the oodles of fat. Place the roasting dish on the hob, pour in a generous glass of dry cider, and let it bubble away for a few minutes, scraping the bottom of the dish to release all the gooey bits. Thicken with arrowroot/flour if you like - we prefer it thinner, so it gets easily soaked up by the belly meat.

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