I’ve been cooking since I was a little kid. Decades in fact. But after all this time making the perfect pork crackling has eluded me. That is until I had a lightbulb moment earlier this year. Separate, salty and slow would be my new mantra….and I haven’t had a failure since.
1.8 kg (4 lb) pork shoulder, skin on.
1 brown onion
2 teaspoons fennel seed
1/4 cup olive oil
2+ cups water
2 tablespoons plain (all-purpose) flour
salt and pepper
root vegetables such as potato, carrot and sweet potato…whatever you like to have with roast pork.
I started with a 1.8kg (4 lb) piece of shoulder pork. It is often overlooked by most cooks who traditionally use a leg. I prefer the shoulder because it’s a lot less dry and the gelatinous meat suits a long slow cook. Being less popular it is often a much cheaper cut of meat. I buy mine from one of the Asian butchers at the Victoria Markets and usually pay about $5.99 kg.
Start by setting your oven to 180 c (350 f). The cooking will take about 3 hours, so give yourself plenty of time. With a sharp knife separate the fatty skin from the meat. Be careful to not leave too much meat on the skin as this will have a tendency to dry out and burn.
Place skin on low sided baking pan in top of oven. During the entire 3 hour cooking time you will continuously turn crackling and pour off excess melted fat. Next prepare pork for roasting. Thickly slice one brown onion and place in roasting pan. The onion will act as a trivet for pork to sit on and will slowly caramelize as pork cooks, creating the flavorsome browning agent for the gravy. Place pork onto onions then drizzle over about a 1/4 cup of olive oil. Sprinkle over about 2 teaspoons of fennel seed. This is done after the oil so the seeds don’t end up running off pork and into the bottom of the pan. Fennel is traditionally used by Italians when cooking pork and for me is the perfect accompaniment to this rich meat. Put lid on roasting pan and place below crackling in lower half of oven. Set your timer for 1 hour and 30 minutes and go off and do some of those more urgent Christmas jobs.After 1 hour and 30 minutes the skin will start to look more like crackling but will still be soft and rubbery in some places. Continue to turn skin and pour off excess fat. This will help the crisping process.At the same time, remove pork from oven, take off lid. You will see quite a bit of liquid in the bottom of the pan. Set the pan on to stove top and boil liquid till it’s reduced to a thick syrup. While waiting for liquid to reduce, prepare your root vegetables. I no longer peel carrots, sweet potato or potato as the skins add flavor and help the vegetable retain its shape.The cooking juices should now be turning golden and sticky.
Add vegetables to pan and toss them liberally in the remaining juices ensuring all surfaces are coated with fat. Put lid back on pan and return to oven. Turn crackling and pour off excess fat. Set timer for fifty minutes. After 50 minutes vegetables will be quite soft. Gently remove them and place on heat proof serving platter. Remove pork, place in shallow bowl and cover in foil. I always cover this in a folded teatowel as it helps to keep meat warm. It can sit, resting like this for at least 40 minutes. Resting will produce a much more tender meat. Return vegetables to oven where they will now crisp up and become a rich dark brown thanks to the onion and pan juices. Again turn crackling and pour off excess fat. By now it should be getting crisp and gorgeous. Return it to oven along with vegetables. Set timer for 30 minutes. While your vegetables and crackling are crisping you can make a gravy with the yummy dark brown onion residue in roasting pan.Place pan onto burner and sprinkle over 2 table spoons of flour.
The excess oil and fat will absorb the flour. Let this mixture, not unlike a roux, sizzle away until it’s reached a rich golden brown. Add about 2 cups of boiling water and mix till sauce begins to resemble gravy. You will need to keep topping up water as the gravy simmers and reduces. Add as much to achieve the consistency you desire. Taste the gravy and see what it needs. I often add my secret ingredient. This is a dense jelly-like concoction I keep in my fridge. It’s the set poaching liquid produced when boiling Chinese master stock chicken. It has sweet soy and star anise overtones. Don’t panic, it’s not essential but I find it goes perfectly with pork and I always have it in my fridge. I use about a tablespoon. Again don’t panic if you don’t have any master stock, the fennel and caramelized onion is usually enough and the secret to making a good brown gravy. I find the addition of the juice of one orange introduces a sweet acidity that helps counteract the richness of the pork. You might like to add Dijon mustard. Check also to see if more salt and pepper is needed. When you get the flavor right let the gravy boil away until all the ingredients are mixed through and the consistency is to your liking. When this is done strain gravy into small saucepan and set on low heat. Now you can prepare any other vegetables or salad you might like to have with your roast pork. By now the timer should be going off and the vegetables should be crisp and your crackling ready. The crackling should sound hollow when you tap it and have no remaining soft bits. Place crackling on board and using a heavy knife, cut (or smash) into small pieces.This method of separating the skin, salting it and slowly dry cooking in a moderate oven, works every time. By contrast, cooking the pork separately in a covered pan, you are left with meltingly tender meat.
Last night I accompanied the roast with green beans, on slightly bitter radicchio with a dill vinaigrette dressing. The crackling was the first to disappear!
Happy cooking. x
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The Lost Woman series follows the sexy adventures of Christina as she makes her way through a world of new media, design, fashion, travel, and … men.