It’s a commonly accepted truth that chicharrones are, at their core, usually some variation of fried pork. And while I’m not here to argue, I’d be remiss not to mention that they can be made from other animal skins—chicharrones de pollo (made with chicken skin) are a particular favorite in my house. There are even vegetarian versions made from wheat and corn. And there are more styles of chicharrón across the Latin American diaspora, including ones made with pork ribs, fish skin, and offal.
But I’m here to extoll the virtues of Mexican chicharrones de cerdo (pork), which are generally available in two styles. In the northern part of Mexico, chicharrones are meaty chunks of juicy fried pork belly with shatteringly crisp skin, often cooked in its own rendered fat. Southern-style chicharrones are typically crispy, puffy pieces of deep-fried pig skin with zero meat or fat attached (similar to the pork rinds you might find in the potato chip aisle at nearly any American grocery store).
In Mexico City, the puffier style of chicharrón is sold by restaurants and street vendors in big sheets that you can break apart in your hands to eat as is or use like chips to dip in salsa or guacamole. These are also popular across the American South and the U.K., though English-speakers know them as pork cracklings (cracklins if you know what’s good) or pork rinds. Like most fried foods, they make an excellent bar snack.
The meatier style of chicharrón (my favorite) can be served as an appetizer, side dish, or chopped up and used as a rich, unctuous filling for tacos. The process for making either is simple enough, though somewhat time-consuming. They’re worth the effort, though—just one bite of a freshly fried homemade chicharrón and you’ll be hooked. Ready to dive in? Here’s how to make both styles of chicharrones at home.
How to make chicharrones, Northern Mexico style
Northern-style chicharrones take about 2 hours and 15 minutes (an hour of which is pretty much hands-off)—much less time than their puffier cousins. Comparatively, these are a breeze. Virgilio Martínez, author of The Latin American Cookbook, starts with a 4-lb. slab of pork belly with the skin on. It’s not essential to buy the pork belly in a slab—if you can only find it in strips, that’s totally fine, as long as the skin is still attached. If you’re lucky enough to have a butcher nearby, you should be able to find slabs of pork belly pretty readily. You may also find pork belly at Asian and Latin American grocery stores. Whether working with strips or a full slab, coat the entirety of the pork belly with 1 cup fine sea salt and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour. This allows the salt to fully penetrate the pork while driving out moisture, which will speed the rendering process.
Rinse away the excess salt under cold water, then pat the pork dry with paper towels. Cut the pork into 2x½" chunks. No need to be exact here—you can eyeball it. Many folks keep their chicharrones simple with just salt as the seasoning (preferring to jazz them up with condiments later), but Martínez adds an extra layer of flavor by sautéeing 2 crushed cloves of garlic and 2 bay leaves in a small amount of lard before adding the pork. For best results, you’ll want to cook the pork in a single layer, so use a large skillet with high sides or cook it in batches or in two separate pans if necessary (just divide the pork and other ingredients evenly). Since this recipe serves eight people, you may also choose to cook a small batch of chicharrones (though leftovers are never a bad thing). If so, just halve the ingredients.
Now comes the time-consuming part: Once you have the aromatics going, reduce the heat to low and cook the pork belly for about 45 minutes, turning the meat every 15 minutes. As the pork cooks, water will evaporate, concentrating its flavor. The fat will render until the chunks of pork belly are almost totally submerged in their own fat, effectively confiting the pork belly, rendering the meaty parts tender and sticky.
If you notice that the garlic or bay leaves are starting to burn, take them out and discard. After 45 minutes, raise the heat to high and sear the chicharrones on all sides until deep golden brown, about 15 minutes total. The pork should be evenly colored on all sides, with crunchy skin. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and let drain on a sheet pan lined with paper towels. If you’re looking for something to do with all that lovely pork fat, why not make a batch of flour tortillas?
Cut the chicharrones into smaller chunks and serve them hot with lime wedges, or tuck them into warm corn tortillas and douse with your favorite salsa or hot sauce (I prefer tangy salsa verde or bright, citrusy pico de gallo with pork, but trust your gut here.)Virgilio Martinez
How to make chicharrones, Southern Mexico style
Making this style of chicharron is a bigger time commitment than making the northern style, but nothing quite compares to the texture of puffy, crispy, freshly fried pork skin. With a total time of about 4 hours and 15 minutes, these are definitely a project, but a worthwhile one. Lesley Téllez, author of Eat Mexico, starts with 1½ –2 lb. of fresh pork skin. Again, this will be easier to find if you’ve got a butcher nearby—even then you’ll likely have to ask for it since it’s not something butchers or meat counters usually have in the display case. Ask the butcher to remove as much fat as possible from the skin before you take it home. If you end up with a piece of pork skin with fat still attached, just use a sharp chef’s knife to shave off as much as you can. Cut the pork skin into large-ish pieces—about 6x4" wide is a good manageable size.
Before you deep-fry the pork skin, you have to roast it for a few hours at low heat to dry it out. Fat will render from the skin during this phase, so arrange the pork skin on a wire rack set inside a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet to catch the drips. Start in a 250°F oven for 1 hour, then turn your oven down to 200°F and continue roasting until the tops of the skin are golden-brown and the surface is no longer moist or sticky, 2 to 3 hours more.
Traditionally, chicharrones are fried in lard, but that can be a little pricey, so you can use canola, grapeseed oil, or another vegetable oil with a high smoke point. Fill a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven with at least 2 cups of oil and set it over high heat until the oil reaches 320°F on a candy or deep-fry thermometer. While you wait for it to heat up, set up another rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack alongside the stove to place your chicharrones after they’re finished frying.
Add a piece of your roasted pork skin and watch it closely. It should start to bubble and pop and expand within 30 seconds—if it doesn’t, your oil isn’t hot enough. Flip the pork skin in the hot oil to ensure it'’ puffing on all sides. Cook for about 30 seconds longer, until golden, puffy, and curled, then remove it from the hot oil and set it on the wire rack to cool. Continue with all your pieces of roasted pork skin, adjusting the heat to keep the oil at the same steady temperature.
As soon as the chicharrones are finished frying, sprinkle them with salt. Chicharrones are always best at their freshest, but these will keep for about 5 days if stored in an airtight container. You can also season your freshly fried pork skins with chili powder, paprika, or lime zest. Enjoy them as is, or mix up a bowl of your favorite salsa or guacamole for dipping. And hey, a cold margarita or paloma wouldn’t hurt either.Lesley Téllez
Originally Appeared on Epicurious