A Crackling Good Quest, the Air Fryer Edition
Our quest for the perfect pork crackling continues, or maybe we’ve come to the end of the road. Because we could also call this air fryer version the I Think We’ve Nailed it Edition. We are republishing this piece from November 2022 for the benefit of the thousands of people who have joined us since we introduced our weekly AirFryday feature... and because it is a fine meal to cook during the long weekend.
The countertop convection oven that is called an air fryer makes perfect pork crackling, and it takes barely 15 minutes. That is, once you’ve cooked the meat attached to it until it’s succulent, of course.
The quest to find the perfect pork crackling has been going almost as long as TGIFood has existed, which will be four years in December. I’ve even tried it once before in an Instant Pot (combination air fryer and pressure cooker) I had on loan. That produced mixed results; the crackling was great but I battled to get the flesh cooked just right. You may like to read our previous A Crackling Good Quest pieces: Make it snappy here, Just add lemon here, Soy, orange and rosemary here, Air fryer pork belly and crackling (in an Instant Pot) here, Pork belly in nagmaalwyn here, Neal Derman’s crackling here and Slow crackling here.
My air fryer is a double-drawer Kenwood, which I bought through Takealot, sight unseen. It was a bit of a gamble but that comes with living far from the city. I was concerned that the drawers might be too small to roast anything at all in one of them, but this week I have already roasted a whole (quite small) chicken in one drawer, and now I have cooked pork belly with utterly perfect crackling.
I’ve made a pudding in it too, so there is mounting evidence that the claim we often hear, that virtually anything can be cooked in an air fryer, is true. Then again, you can cook almost anything in any oven, and an air fryer is only an oven with good PR.
Like bacon, pork crackling is one of those things that almost every food lover enthuses about, and many of us grew up regarding it as a treat. Back in the day, a roast leg of pork was de rigueur, but these days it’s pork belly that has risen to massive popularity, with pork leg joints often ignored in the supermarkets.
But because the expectations are so high, anything less than a delightful crunch through that golden-brown skin can be a disappointment. And there’s that one tricky factor that always comes into play: how to get the crackling perfect with the meat that is attached to it also being cooked through yet soft and succulent? There’s the rub.
The problem is steam: any liquid in which the meat is cooking will evaporate, which inhibits the ability of the hard skin turning to crackling. In a regular oven, whether electric or gas, I have taken to placing the belly in an oven dish just a little bigger than the slab of pork, with seasonings and aromatics in it such as onion, carrot, dried fruit etc, and cooking it slowly for a long time, and only when the meat is succulent and tender do I turn the temperature right up to 240℃ or so and blast it for half an hour. Generally, this works a treat, with some of the liquid below the meat already having evaporated and the high temperature doing the rest.
It turns out that an air fryer, certainly one of the drawers in mine, is possibly the best implement for dealing with this problem.
Key to this is to use a foil container. These, because they’re made of foil, are malleable. I used one of the commercially available rectangular ones; 15 cm x 22 cm. It was a surprisingly large slab of pork belly given those dimensions but it fit in snugly and low down enough for the top edge of the belly not to touch the element above. That is a factor of an air fryer you have to consider: the same rule applies as with a conventional oven with a grill element above; nothing must touch it directly.
I chose to use smoked paprika, salt, pepper and olive oil for my first attempt at pork belly and crackling in an air fryer. But note that it is really a convection oven, and there’s no actual “frying” involved at all. It’s a roast.
(Serves 2 to 4)
Pork belly of a size to fit your air fryer basket (the weight doesn’t matter)
Coarse sea salt
You can use a tin or silicone container you already have. My choice of a foil tray worked very well.
Oil the bottom and sides of the tray.
Score the fat of the belly in a diamond pattern, without penetrating the flesh.
Season the belly on both sides with salt and black pepper and a good dusting of smoked paprika. Drizzle olive oil over. Place it skin side down in the container.
Preheat the air fryer at 180℃ for 10 to 15 minutes.
Slip the pork in its container into the basket and set it at 180℃ for 50 minutes. Give the basket a shake now and then or when the machine prompts you to. (You’re not beholden to its preset times, you can pause, shake the pan and restart as you like.)
Turn the belly over (I used braai tongs), being very careful not to damage the meat or fat.
Cook at 200℃ for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the crackling is as crispy as you like it.
I served it with red cabbage braised with slices of red onion, in olive oil and seasoned with salt, black pepper and a splash of vino cotto. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is regional Vodacom Journalist of the Year (Lifestyle) Eastern Cape for 2022 and Galliova Food Champion 2021.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.