If you’ve ever heard of pork rinds, known in Mexican cuisine as chicharrones, you know. I mean, really. Crispy, light as air, dusted with salt and whatever other flavors you have in mind. Vaguely porky and oddly ungreasy. Properly made, they are so addictive they really ought to be illegal.
You can do the same thing with fish skin, people. And it is every bit as good. Same as pork chicharrones, but with an oh-so-slight briney thing going on. You know it’s fish, but it is in no way fishy in a bad way.
I’d vaguely heard of fish chicharrones before, but never really quite knew how to make them. Then I cooked in a big Sacramento food festival called “Have an Offal Day” — yes, we all cooked nasty bits — and at this event Sacramento’s greatest sushi chef, Billy Ngo of Kru, made sturgeon skin chicharrones; there are a lot of sturgeon farms around our area, so we use sturgeon a lot here.
Billy told me how to make the chicharrones, and I was immediately obsessed. I made them for a fundraising dinner for the California Food Literacy Center and they were a hit. But then it occurred to me: Sturgeon has a thick, largely scaleless skin, and besides, not many people have access to it.
So I began working on other fish skins to see if it would work.
It does. Oh yes, folks. It does.
I am happy to report that I’ve now made chicharrones from the skins of sturgeon, leopard sharks, walleyes, Pacific rockfish, white bass, and salmon. Having done this, I am pretty sure you can make chicharrones from any skin you can slice off a fillet, meaning that ultra-thin skin like that on a mackerel might not work.
Let me walk you through the process.
Start by scaling your fish if they have scales; sturgeon, eels and sharks don’t, so you are good to go there. Scale when the fish is whole, by the way. It’s a pain in the ass to scale fish once you’ve filleted them.
Slice the skin from the meat off the fillet. You will notice that you still have some meat and fat attached to the skin. That needs to go. You also need to tenderize the skins of thick-skinned fish, like sturgeon, sharks and fish like salmon and triggerfish. You do this by boiling in salty water; the salt helps season the skins.
Here’s what I’ve found with certain skins:
- Sturgeon and leopard shark: Boil for about 5 minutes.
- Salmon I’d boil for 1 or 2 minutes, but you can scrape the skin even without cooking.
- Most basslike fish, i.e., walleyes, rockfish, bass and perch you will only need to boil for a minute or two. They are tender already. (Here is a recipe with walleye skin chicharrons.)
Now you need to carefully remove all the meat and fat from the skins. Gently lift the skins out of the boiling water and lay them meat side up on a cutting board. Now, using a butter knife, carefully lift and remove all the meat and fat. This is fairly tricky, and if you have oven-mitt hands you will tear the skin. Take your time until you get the hang of it.
Once you have all the meat removed, you need to dry the skins. I do this in a dehydrator at 120°F until the skin dries, which isn’t too long — about 2 to 4 hours depending on the species of fish. I’ve also greased a baking sheet and laid the skins down (meat side up) and dried them in an oven set to 170°F. You will need to flip the skins at least once if you do this option.
When the skins are dried you can save them in the freezer indefinitely.
Frying is easy. Heat about 1 inch of high smoke-point oil — I prefer rice bran or grapeseed oil, but canola or other vegetable oil works, too — to between 350°F and 360°F. Get your seasonings nearby, as you will have only seconds to season before the skins’ surface dries. Salt is a must, but I’ve used herbes de Provence, smoked paprika and even lemon pepper.
Drop a couple skins into the hot oil and watch the magic: They will puff up immediately in an amazingly miraculous way. They will be ready in less than a minute. Watch for the sizzling to die down dramatically. Move them to paper towels with a slotted spoon and season immediately. Once fried, they will stay crispy for a few hours, depending on the humidity.
All I can say if you are on the fence about fish skin chicharrones is try them. You will never look at the skin on fish in the same way again. Trust me.