One of the glorious by-products of rendering lard is what is known as cracklins – or up north, cracklings. These are the porky soft tissue bits which separates from the liquid lard during rendering – once almost all the fat is expelled, the remaining tissue begins to crisp and brown, and becomes luxuriously delicious. Maybe so, but many folks have absolutely no idea what to do with them. Let me tell you what I’d do with them.
Generically, I have simply eaten them sprinkled with salt, like popcorn – I have used them as they do in Mexico, where they are known as chicherones, as a accent for cooking vegetables, in tacos, in guacamole, in beans, and sprinkled on salads – I have filled omelets with them, and topped baked potatoes with them – but without any doubt, the absolute best use I have found for cracklins is as an addition to breads, biscuits, and muffins. And perhaps the most delicious of those is a southern cornbread with a hefty dose of cracklins. Here’s my recent iteration.
Drfugawe’s Cracklin Corn Muffins
As a non-native southerner, the doctor prefers a sweeter cornbread than is traditional in the south. He also prefers a non-southern yellow corn meal, while southerners would probably choose a white one. Still, the addition of the cracklins make this a very special muffin, sugar or no.
In one bowl, mix together:
1 ½ cups of all purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
½ cup corn meal
1 Tbs baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 cup cracklins
In another bowl, mix together:
1 ¼ cups buttermilk
2 eggs, beaten
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Once the oven is hot, add the liquids to the dry bowl, and mix just until blended – fill a greased (with lard of course) 12 cup muffin tin only 2/3rds full with the batter. (Never make the mistake of mixing any “quick” breads too early before baking, for they will lose some of their normal rise as they wait for the oven.) Bake for 20-22 minutes – and test with a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the muffins; the muffins are done when the toothpick comes out without wet batter attached.
You may notice that there is no usual butter or shortening added to this recipe – with the cracklins, it’s not needed. In fact, these muffins will be surprisingly light, but with a rich mouth-feel. And they won’t brown as much as straight flour muffins will – only the edges will be nicely browned.
My large muffin tin is really a large one, and I have a habit of making super sized muffins by overfilling the cups of the tin. You may get away with doing that with other muffins, but not with corn muffins. Compared to other muffin batters, cornbread batter is very wet – don’t add more flour to make it stiffer! And don’t fill the cups of the muffin tin to the top, or they will spill over and bake together.
Once your muffins are done, cool in the muffin tin on a wire rack for 10 minutes, and then remove each muffin from the tin to the wire rack to finish cooling. If you fail to do this, your muffins will have no way to release the condensation that builds up at the bottom edges of the muffin as it cools, and the result will be a soggy exterior to each muffin. But proper cooling will produce a crisp outer crust that is the mark of a superior corn muffin.
If muffins are not your thing, you may opt for a very southern way of baking the cornbread in an iron skillet (not one with a plastic handle) – I have a favorite 9” curved side pan that’s just perfect for this amount of batter. But if you go this route, make sure you heat the skillet in the oven, and then only mix your wet and dry ingredients at the last minute, before pulling the hot skillet out of the oven – quickly coat the sides of the hot skillet with melted lard, and pour the batter into the pan – and then back again into the oven for about 25 minutes (the extra time needed due to the larger mass of the baking batter). Testing for doneness is even more important with this method – don’t be surprised if your toothpick comes out wet – give it additional 3 minute timings until it tests done.
I think, once you have rendered some lard yourself, and you have some cracklins as a result, you’ll begin to get creative with them – they really are quite useful and flexible, and I’m sure you’ll soon be discovering all kinds of good ways to use them. Very soon, the problem won’t be in finding ways to use them, but in running out of them too soon – one of life’s good problems.
Ummm … cracklins!