Pork rinds celebrated a national resurgence a few years back thanks to the popularity of Atkins and other low carb diets, but crunchy fried pig skin has always been a staple of Southern cooking.
A tasty by-product of the "hog killing time" that traditionally took place on southern farms between Thanksgiving and Christmas, pork rinds—and their cousin cracklin—were the result of rendering all the excess fat and scraps, and cooking them down in large black wash pots. Bits of fried skin would float to the surface of the lard and be skimmed off, salted and served as a snack. (By the way, you can spell it cracklin, cracklin' or crackling depending on your preference, it tastes the same.)
Sadly, most of the national brands found today have the consistency of foam packing peanuts, with a taste to match. If you want real pork rinds, you need to go local. In the Triangle, that means stopping by the carnicería or tienda in your neighborhood and scooping up a loose bag of chicharróns, or looking for one of the dozen varieties available from Carolina Country Snacks.
Based up the road in Henderson, the snack producer is a "popping plant," taking the rendered and boiled skins they buy from a pork producer in eastern Carolina to create the four basic kinds of rinds. "All pork rinds are cooked the same," says Angie Jacobs of Carolina Country Snacks. "Fried in lard, 400 degrees. The difference is how they're rendered and cut beforehand."
The basic pork rind has no fat on the skin. Submerged in a deep fryer for one minute, they pop into that familiar puffy curl. Cracklin has some fat on the skin, giving it a richer, meatier crunch. The fat also keeps the rind from poofing into a larger shape. If that isn't enough for you, there is a variation of cracklin cut into thin strips and fried a second time to tooth-endangering hardness.
The third version is fat back, and it is as advertised. Akin to the French lardon, fat back has the most fat on the skin and comes out of the fryer a dense, savory cube; so rich, a few bites will do you.
For my money though, wash pot style is the way to go, as exemplified by T.R. Brady's "Original B&B Recipe." Using large irregular slabs of fresh pork skin, with just a bit of fat, Brady's skins are cooked in canola oil. The resulting elephant ear-sized snack falls somewhere between cracklin and the pork rind for crunch. While Brady recently sold his recipe to Carolina Country Snacks, they are still packaged the same way, with the label hand-stapled to the bag.
Because this is America, rinds now have to come in all sorts of flavors, from barbeque and red pepper, to chile and lime, but all those additives just get in the way. It's best to stick to the basics: pork skin, fat and salt.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Chewing the fat"