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.
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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.