As the delicate voices of the TV-choir sings the holiday in on Christmas Eve, families all over the country gathers around the dinner table for Christmas dinner. What that dinner might be is “dictated” through generations of traditions, geographical affiliation and secret family recipes. One thing seems to be universal though: the person standing in the kitchen feels the pressure to succeed with this meal, only cooked once a year, and it needs to be “perfect”. The room for error on this night, is slim to none.
“Everyone” has pork belly for Christmas
According to a report published by matprat.no in 2010, pork belly with crackling (ribbe med sprø svor) is the preferred Christmas dinner in 53 % of all Norwegian families. In another article in ABC Nyheter, only 35 % say pork belly is their favorite dinner for the holidays, but they still have it because of traditions.
As the big Eve approaches, family cooks go in search of a fool proof way to get that all important crispy crackling for Christmas Eve. There is even a hotline number you can call to get last minute advice. We’ve asked food blogger and self declared food nerd Olav Birkeland, a.k.a. Hobbykokken, to share his tricks. He has written a long, in depth piece on how to cook pork belly for Christmas, and he’s listed no less than 6 (!) different methods to get the result you want: Crackling so crispy your neighbors can hear it next door. Olav’s solution is dead simple and something everyone has home: salt!
Salt is the “secret” weapon
We asked Olav what, in his opinion, is the classic mistake “everyone” makes when cooking pork belly?
– Uneven distribution of salt. Salt is what the skin needs to be able to crisp up. Also, not knowing why you do the things you do, might be a problem. Some people drop salting ahead all together, because they think it’s just there to make the meat taste salty. But when it comes to crispy crackling, salt has a very important chemical purpose, and without it you cannot succeed. Salt starts to dissolve the connective tissue in the skin, which in turn helps trap water in the connective tissue. When it heats up, water expands and eventually starts to evaporate, leaving all those wonderfully crispy bubbles in the skin when the high heat at the end dry out the bubbles.
What is your best tip to succeed with pork belly and crispy crackling for Christmas dinner?
– I always prefer to submerge pork belly in brine water for 1-2 days before cooking it. The brine is made with 3 % salt in the amount water I use, and then the whole pork belly is submerged. I also add a little baking soda to help the salt dissolve the skins connective tissue even more. This method secures even distribution of salt, which again makes for a more evenly crisp crackling. It is basically the same as dry rubbing with salt, cooking the pork belly skin side down in water, then turning the slippery sucker upside down when it’s burning hot, with loads of fat and juice to potentially get all over your dress or suit.
How to save Christmas dinner
How can you save the Christmas dinner from total disaster, if you (after all this) still managed to get sticky instead of crispy crackling?
If you use brine, that senario is highly unlikely! But if you are really off your mark, if by any chance you totally forgot salt, you could cut the skin off when the pork belly is cooked. Cut the skin into smaller pieces, and over the meat and set aside. Pour a generous amount of neural oil in a casserole and heat up to 180 degrees Celcius, and deep fry the seared skin. That’ll make for excellent crispy crackling to serve with Christmas dinner. I’ve actually tried this method on purpose, and I highly recommend it. Crispier crackling is hard to find!
– If you only have a few areas that are not properly crispy, fire up the torch and sear till you have a satisfactory result, is Olav’s suggestion.
– Just be aware that the heat of the blowtorch is usually around 1000 degrees Celcius, so pay close attention when you do it.
So there you have it: All you need to make this years crackling a cracking success, is salt. And perhaps a blow torch… Good luck!