Cooking Chitlins

. . . Or “chitterlings,” as the gut snobs might insist.  This past Saturday I undertook an experiment which I’d long contemplated but hadn’t the equipment for.  Having acquired that equipment I have now done so and am pleased to report absolute and unqualified success.  I will now share the fruits of my labors with my reader.  Thus, without further ado, I offer my chitlin recipe and lessons learned.

1.    I purchased two ten-pound buckets of the frozen product.  They were Tyson’s.  I have heard of chitlins sold in a plastic bag, but have never seen them.  Around here, if you’re not killing your own hogs or don’t have an in with a slaughterhouse, you’re going to be buying them in that red plastic bucket.

2.    You will buy them frozen.  In the event you don’t thaw and cook them immediately, but rather put them in your own freezer, thawing them out can take a while.  I’d had mine in a stand-alone freezer at 4º Fahrenheit for about ten or so days.  I put them in my refrigerator late on Wednesday evening.  When I took them out at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, they’d thawed just enough to slide out of the bucket in a solid, otherwise-completely-frozen mass.  All I’d done is turn my refrigerator into an old-fashioned icebox for just over two full days.  Lesson:  If they’re that deeply frozen, put them out overnight to thaw.  They won’t go bad; in fact, depending on how you set your thermostat (mine is set at 50º in the winter) they still might not be fully thawed.  But that’s OK.

3.    It’s OK if they’re not completely thawed because you will finish thawing no later than the cleaning process.

4.    They come out of that plastic bucket pretty clean in any event.  Out of twenty pounds of chitlins I didn’t find anything that was not identifiably part of the pig rather than part of its last meal.

5.    YOU STILL HAVE TO CLEAN YOUR CHITLINS.  This means you have physically to inspect every last square centimeter of both sides of every last piece, however small.  The big worry of course is e-coli; on the other hand, e-coli is a strictly surface contaminant which is killed when you heat whatever it is to 165º F.  And you’re going to be keeping your chitlins at over 200º for hours on end.  But e-coli is not the only thing that could have got into that pig’s guts, and that’s just the strictly health concern.  There’s always the question of what might make your chitlins taste funny. No.  Seriously.  Chitlins either taste right or they don’t.

6.    In cleaning your chitlins, it helps somewhat to steep them in very hot to boiling water for a few minutes before cleaning.  (H/T stayingalivemoma.com).  This will make things like visceral fat deposits and residual undesirable membranes separate a bit more easily from the chitlin.

7.    Many people recommend wearing gloves of some sort while cleaning, mostly to keep your hands from smelling like chitlins for the rest of the day.  I’ll leave that up to the individual; on the other hand, I don’t know how I could have got a good enough grip on the smallest stuff I was stripping with gloves, even surgical gloves.  And honestly I didn’t notice that my hands stunk much at all afterwards.

8.    The chitlins come out of the bucket cut into pieces, and flat.  No tubes, in other words.  Cleaning chitlins involves stretching them out (they’re very wrinkled, and the size of the chitlin in your hand when you first pick it up is a very imperfect guide to how much surface area you’re dealing with) so you can view every last square centimeter of both sides of the chitlin.  I found that using the partition between the two basins of my kitchen sink worked admirably for the purpose.  I suppose you could use a cutting board, but why ruin a perfectly good cutting board with chitlin essence?  Your kitchen sink will be ceramic or steel and it won’t take 45 seconds to clean it when you’re done.

9.    I’d bought (and sterilized in boiling water) a standard kitchen brush, with the thought that I’d use it to dig out any stubborn residuum of undesirable material.  I used it almost not at all.  A couple of times when I simply couldn’t get a sufficient grip on what appeared to be traces of discolored (sort of a green-black color) membrane I used the brush to scrape it off.  But most of that particular sort of membrane I was able to scratch with fingernails and pull off manually.

10.    Larger pieces are harder to clean.  The chitlins are sufficiently tender that you can pull them into smaller pieces, which you’ll want to do prior to cooking anyway.

11.    As mentioned, I used my ordinary double-basin kitchen sink for cleaning.  In one basin I had the chitlins as they came out of the bucket, with a small but steady stream of hot water running.  As you pick up each piece you’ll run it under the water to make sure you’ve got any loose material off, then you’ll strip off any further undesirable material, membranes, visceral fat, etc. and then run it back under the water to rinse the remnants of that off.  I used the second basin to hold the strippings, and just dumped the clean chitlins into the 22-quart pot I had on the counter beside the sink.

12.    So what are you cleaning off?  As mentioned, there were traces — and I do mean tiny traces — of what appeared to be an internal membrane from the intestine.  Since I didn’t have a veterinarian there to explain to me what it was and whether it presented a concern, I removed it.  I also removed identifiable deposits of visceral fat.  The chitlins are going to turn out greasy enough as it is.  Then there’s the question of the dingle-berry looking things.  I assume there is a recognized anatomical expression for those.  They didn’t appear to be attached to the intestine wall, but rather to be associated with material that I could not identify as being either fat or a distinct membrane of the chitlin.  Since they add nothing that I’ve ever been able to identify to the chitlin-eating experience, I removed those as well.  Out of twenty pounds I probably removed somewhere between 1.5 and 2 pounds of . . . well, stuff.

13.    Including the time I spent getting my two blocks of frozen chitlins thawed enough to clean them, I spent three hours cleaning twenty pounds of chitlins.  Had they been thawed properly at the outset I’m guessing I might have cut that by thirty minutes.  If you have a stool of appropriate height, you might consider using it to sit on while you work.  I hadn’t any such, and after three hours of working partially bent over at the waist (I’m 6’4″), I felt like I was fixing to come apart at the midsection.

14.    As mentioned, I used a 22-quart pot to cook my chitlins.  It had ample room for the chitlins and plenty of water to cover them.  And you can’t let them boil down to the point they’re exposed.  The pot also had a glass cover, which was very helpful for checking the water level and boiling status without having to let heat escape.  I could easily have added at least one and maybe as much as two more buckets’ worth to the pot without running out of room.  I added maybe two quarts of water during the cooking process.

15.    COOK THEM OUTSIDE.  I used the stand and burner of a turkey-frying rig an uncle gave me this fall.  Worked perfectly.  I started with a completely full 20-pound LP gas tank and had more than enough fuel for the entire process inclusive of the thawing.  If you cook them inside you must reckon that their smell — irrespective of whether it bothers you or not (and it doesn’t bother me; in fact I really couldn’t tell that they smelled all that strongly coming straight out of the bucket) — will get into fabric, carpets, clothing, and everything else in your house.  Where it will reside for the indefinite future.

16.    I cooked mine for five hours at a low boil.  About every 20-25 minutes I gave them a good stir with a large steel spoon.  They came out with a nearly perfect texture.  Tender but still firm.  Whether they might have come out equally well with less time on the boil I don’t know.  All I know is that five hours produced a magnificent chitlin.

17.    So . . . how do you season them?  At the link above there are several suggestions which all look very intriguing, and which I might well try some day.  I started with a “recipe” (yes, I know using that word in connection with boiled intestine is questionable, but suggest to me a better word and I’ll use it) I’d got from a place which used to have a monthly chitlin supper around here.  For my chitlins I used (i) two heaping tablespoons of salt; (ii) one large white onion, quartered; (iii) maybe the equivalent of two or three tablespoons of crushed red pepper; and (iv) about seven or eight small granny smith apples, quartered (and with the cores cut out).  The chitlins came out . . . well, about as close to perfect as I imagine they could be.  Seriously.  I’m something of a touring pro on the chitlin circuit around here (the regular suppers see me walk in and they don’t even both with trimmings; they just bring me a massive plate of stewed chitlins) and I can honestly say, even if this is blowing my own horn, that I have never, ever, anywhere had chitlins better than what I made, and seldom their equal.  One day I’m going to substitute Cajun seasoning for the crushed red pepper; I’ve re-heated chitlins that way and they come out pretty good.

18.    Twenty pounds of chitlins, cleaned and stripped, makes right at five quarts of fully-cooked guts.  What do you do if you’re the only person among your circle of close acquaintance who eats them?  Well, Ziploc makes a one-quart storage container with a screw-on lid which works just about perfectly.  Last spring, at the final supper of the season, I bought about four pounds (you know, that’s assuming that the correct unit of measurement is one of weight and not length . . .), which broke out into almost exactly four quarts.  I then rationed them out over the course of the summer and they kept marvelously in that 4º F freezer.

And there you have my Lessons Learned from my first chitlin experience.  I can now say that I make my own miso soup, my own kim-chi, my own sushi, and my own chitlins.  Not too shabby for an ol’ redneck boy.

[In which latter-most connection, I’ll observe, not that it matters a hill of beans one way or the other nowadays, that I don’t fully agree with stayingalivemoma at the above link that chitlins were necessarily “soul food” or peculiarly associated with slavery or slaves.  Chitlins were food that desperately poor people ate, people who simply could not afford to forego any last source of protein or calories they had available to them.  This behavior is not peculiar to any ethnic group, time, or place (cf. Solzhenitsyn:  The very first paragraphs of The Gulag Archipelago describe a group of zeks devouring, raw, a prehistoric salamander they’d just hacked out of an ancient ice lens . . . it would have been thousands of years dead, and the zeks ate it “with relish”).  It’s quite true, of course, that slaves were given the chitlins — as well as other offal — as “scraps” by their owners.  It’s equally true that pretty much the entire rural population, most of which was (outside the large landowners) pretty poor by any standards, and which kept and slaughtered their own hogs, likewise ate chitlins.  Because they could.  This is just one tiny aspect of the curious respect in which the habits of the slaves and their closest white analogues — the rural “white trash” (an expression, by the way, which originated in the slave quarters and was used to describe those rural whites whose physical circumstances of existence frequently were even more disgusting than the slaves’ own) — converged.  Eugene D. Genovese covers such dynamics very well in his classic Roll Jordan Roll:  The World the Slaves Made.  So I wouldn’t suggest that one eat chitlins, or any other food, out of feelings of sentimentality or solidarity with one’s own or anyone else’s ancestors, but rather because they’re great food and, given how few people nowadays will even contemplate eating them, something of a cultural in-group phenomenon in their own right.  I mean, I run into the same people at suppers all over the area, and we trade tips about who’s found the sweet spot and where you need to avoid.]

Leave a Reply