Pork Cracklings (Škvarky or Oškvarky)
The national dish of Slovakia is bryndza potato dumplings, bryndzové halušky. But it’s not just the bryndza cheese that gives them their delicious flavor. The taste comes from pork cracklings (oškvarky in Slovak, škvarky in Czech, but I grew up calling them the latter) and the rendered lard (masť) that is mixed in before serving.
The big issue that comes up when making pork cracklings in the USA is that it is difficult to find unsliced cured bacon (slanina). In Slovakia, cracklings are typically made during the annual pig slaughter, when the whole family gets together to dress a pig, and turn it into sausages, head cheese, and bacon. I tried looking for a fatty pork belly in a Chinese grocery store but with no luck. I found the belly, but it was too lean. Hence I got really excited few weeks ago when I found, completely accidentally, that my local Giant supermarket carries slices of cured pork back rind. I could finally make the right kind of bacon bits to top my halušky!
Here is the recipe for making Slovak-style pork cracklings:
Ingredients: fatty cured pork rind or belly, milk
Prep Time: between 30 minutes and one hour
I next cut the skin off and sliced the fat into cubes about inch on each side. Alternatively, make them brick-shaped. Be careful when slicing the skin off so you don’t cut yourself. Greasy bacon and a sharp knife is a bad combination.
Place them in a pot along with a quarter cup of water. The water is put in so the bottom pieces don’t burn before enough fat is rendered. Back in September, the Czech American TV ran a program about making these cracklings. In that recipe, they suggested to add milk (mlieko). So I figured I’ll give that a shot and poured in about quarter cup of milk. Stir well and add salt if needed.
Keep stirring on medium to low heat until enough lard is rendered and the cracklings halve in size. I then turned the heat up to medium-high. On the scale of 1-10, I started off with 4 for thirty minutes, and then went to 7 for five minutes. They sizzled so nice! Couple cracklings also “crackled” and jumped up; I guess that’s where the name comes from…
Turned the heat off and immediately remove the cracklings. As mentioned in this Slovak cracklings-making video, they’ll turn into charcoals if you don’t take them out right away. Save the fat – this is the most delicious part! Since there may be little burned pieces floating in it, you may want to filter it first. I found that a coffee filter works well. Just place it in a strainer, and place that over a pot. It will take half an hour for the lard to make it’s way through.
Then place your škvarky in a container and pour the lard in. Place in a fridge to let the fat solidify. When making halušky or pierogi, just scoop out few tablespoons and heat up in a frying pan. The rendered lard (masť) without the bacon bits also makes for a delicious substitute for butter.
Why use milk?
I got curious to find out why the Czech TV recipe called for milk – I have not heard of this before (I am not alone, a similar discussion in Slovak on this forum). So I made another batch without the milk. The result were cracklings much lighter in color. It appears that addition of little bit of milk gives the cracklings their deliciously brown color. You can also see here how the fat solidifies. This photo shows one of the batches of halušky made for the Czech and Slovak Christmas Bazaar in Bethesda, MD this past weekend.