In Cajun Cookery, the hog is revered. Over hundreds of years, Acadians have figured out how to extract the maximum amount of flavor and tenderness from just about every part of a pig. Throughout their history, Cajuns have gathered around the pig and celebrated, yes, celebrated, often with live music and dancing, the delights of the animal.
In modern times, with diet fads that wax and wane, lard is on the uptick. Chefs and home cooks alike have been returning to the flavor-packed ingredient. To give a primer on how to render your own lard (and one of the best ways to use it), we tapped 2014 Chef to Watch Isaac Toups to talk about his crispy, crunchy, meaty, and amazing cracklin’s. They are potentially habit-forming. You have been warned.
Q Why should everyone be cooking with lard?
It tastes so good. That’s it. It’s the simple flavor. Like Emeril says, pork fat rules.
Q What are some tips you’d give home cooks for making their own lard?
If you are specifically set up to make lard, I would suggest you have a dual project. Don’t buy pork belly just for lard. Either braise [it] down for yourself, render some, make some rillons (candied pork belly), or make some cracklin’s with some skin-on pork belly. Definitely have a use for that pork belly.
Q Let’s talk about your cracklin’ technique.
I would start with the pork belly cold (in the pot). Ignore everyone who says to start with water. That’s the technique we started using when we first opened and figured out quickly that it’s not necessary. In fact, it’s a time-waster because you have to wait for the water to boil out to start actually cooking. Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, where oil temperature continues to climb. It’s one of those things that you get told to do, you get told to do, you get told to do, and then you figure it out by yourself that that’s not the actual way it works. Start from the cold, give it a slow render, keep stirring, and don’t let it get too hot. You could actually scorch your lard, and then it’s useless.
Q What does the perfect cracklin’ taste like?
My perfect cracklin’ is a big chunk of fat, a little bit of meat, and crispy skin.
Q Is there cracklin’ etiquette?
Whatever you do, don’t be the picky cracklin’ grabber. When you get a bag of cracklin’s, you just reach in. You don’t look into it, shake it around, and get the best one. No. You reach in, you get your cracklin’, and you get what you get. It’s randomly goodness. You can’t have all the slightly burnt potato chips at the bottom, they’re the best ones. And the bottom part’s what’s called the grimies, I don’t even know how to spell that. It’s a Cajun term. It refers to the little bits and straight seasoning and just skins or just crumbs at the bottom. Those are sometimes the best parts. The bottom of the bowl little bits. It is the best.
Q Other than eating them hot and fresh, do you do anything else with cracklin’s?
Since we fry them to order, rarely do we have any leftover cracklin’s. There’s never been a point in time where we’re like ‘ah, we gotta throw these cracklin’s away, they went bad.’ So what could you do with leftover cracklin’s? Every once in a while we’ll do a special with them where we buzz ‘em up and top scallops with them or, you know, when I’m feeling especially devilish, I’ll garnish a salad with them.
Q Growing up, do you have any formative cracklin’ memories? Any preferences when you’re driving around out in Cajun Country?
Oh yeah. When I drive around out in Cajun Country, I stop at The Best Stop Supermarket (in Scott). Every single time. I sell more cracklin’s in New Orleans than anybody, but I always make a stop at the Best Stop and get myself a bag of cracklin’s. That’s the one I’ve been going to since I can remember. Little red brick building. It’s the only one where you can get a quart of oil, a six pack of beer, boudin, cracklin’s, some chaurice. You know it’s a convenience store with a butcher stop attached to it. Billy’s is good, there are a bunch of other places, the list goes on, but The Best Stop is the essential place that I’ve always considered it my number one cracklin’ stop.
Q In terms of the seasoning, do you ever change up the seasoning or is it always the same?
Our cracklin’ spice has never changed. Now every once in a while I’ll do something maybe eccentric for a party, but this cracklin’ spice has stayed the same: black pepper, white pepper, red pepper, salt—popcorn salt specifically—and the secret ingredient is sugar. Well, not so secret now. I add a little bit of sugar to the mix to balance the capsaicin from all the peppers. So you’ll say, ‘ah it’s spicy, but it’s not burning me.’ It has a nice red pepper flavor, but it doesn’t have that bite.
Q Tell us more about popcorn salt.
The reason we use popcorn salt is we figured out really early that kosher salt won’t stick to the cracklin’s once they come out of the fryer, and even iodized salt has trouble sticking to them. For some reason, you have to go out and brown them, that’s why the salt has trouble sticking to fresh fried pork belly. That’s why we use the popcorn salt, which has the consistency of powdered sugar and that will stick to anything.
- 5 pounds skin-on pork belly
- 4 cups lard
- Peanut oil, for frying
- Cracklin’ Spice (recipe follows)
- Place pork belly skin side up on a cutting board, and cut into 1-inch pieces.
- In a large Dutch oven, place lard and pork belly. Do not layer pork belly in more than 3 layers. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently; reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, until skin blisters and turns golden brown. Transfer pork belly to rimmed baking sheets, and refrigerate until cold.*
- In a large Dutch oven, pour oil to a depth of 4 inches, and heat over medium-high heat until a deep-fry thermometer registers 380°. Add pork belly in batches, and fry until puffed and golden brown, about 2 minutes. Let drain on paper towels, and liberally sprinkle or toss with Cracklin’ Spice.
- *Set aside lard; once slightly cooled, strain and reserve for another use.
- ½ cup ground chile de árbol
- ½ cup popcorn salt*
- ¼ cup ground white pepper
- ¼ cup minced garlic
- ¼ cup celery salt
- ¼ cup sugar
- In a small bowl, combine all ingredients.
- *Popcorn salt is an ultra-fine salt that can be found at well-stocked grocers or online at jqdsalt.com.