Soul Food: How to Cook Chitlins (Chitterlings) & Some Chitlin’ History
Soul Food Is Good for the Soul
Growing up, my mother never made chitlins. I'm not sure if it was because she didn't know how or if she was just tired of eating them. Coming from a family of nine children (my mother being the oldest) meant chitlins and other soul food were the easiest ways to feed a large family.
I tasted them for the first time when I was 17 and loved them! They were prepared by my uncle's wife and I just couldn't get enough. Some years later, I would start cooking them on my own.
If you want to know how to cook chitlins for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years, then read on! (Of course, chitterlings or chitlins are great any time of the year as well!)
Whew! What Is That Smell?!
Yes, what you have heard is true. Uncooked chitlins stink. Bad. They will stink literally the whole house. But if you can make it past the smell, you've won the battle. The final dish is worth it. Think of it as a reward for putting up with the smell! Once you've prepared them a few times, you actually get used to the smell and it doesn't bother you as much anymore.
What Kind of Chitlins to Buy
The first thing you must do is decide how much chitlins you want to make. They absorb water and shrink as they cook so whether you buy from the butcher, get the big red bucket of them, or buy the ones in the plastic package, doesn't really matter because you'll end up with a little over half of the amount you started with.
Lots of people buy the infamous red bucket of chitterlings. They are the cheapest and smelliest. They have NOT been pre-cleaned so you will need to clean them. The pre-cleaned chitlins in the bag still have to be cleaned, too, but you don't have as much to do and they don't smell as bad. Also, the ones in the bag are more expensive, about twice the price of what you would pay for the bucket. But this can be well worth it if you are making lots of dishes for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner and are pressed for time.
Note: If you have sensitive hands, I do not recommend getting the ones in the bucket as they will irritate your hands, especially if you have eczema. I recommend wearing gloves no matter which you purchase, although the gloves do make it more difficult to get the job done.
How to Clean Chitterlings
Chitterlings are, in fact, pig intestines. As you can imagine, the intestines carry feces. So, obviously, you want to make sure to clean them thoroughly, but you also want to make sure you are not spreading any viruses or bacteria such as E coli or Salmonella. Like any other raw food, these things can be present in chitlins.
- First, you should boil them for five minutes prior to cleaning them to kill any bacteria. This will not change the taste of your chitlins and actually makes it easier to clean them.
- If you don't have time to boil-cool-clean-cook, then you can clean them using hot water instead of cold. This is the method that I use and no one has ever gotten sick eating my chitlins!
- Cleaning chitlins is one of those things you learn by doing. My first chitlin-cleaning lesson was given to me over the phone. Really! I bought the ones in the red bucket my first time. You will want to pick out the obvious-looking things... straw, hair, feces, anything that doesn't look like you would eat it. Don't be surprised by what you see: Pigs eat everything. Clean them inside and out, removing any fat as well.
For those of you that are more visual learners, I've included a pretty good video below, showing what you need to do. It's about ten minutes long. You only need the first three minutes or so to get the idea, but watching the entire video will give you some more background on southern cooking and southern family traditions (even if you're not in the South).
What You'll Need to Cook Them
After cleaning them and making sure they are rinsed very well, at least 3 or 4 times, you are ready to cook them. Now the great thing about soul food is that there are no set rules or recipes. Everyone makes their chitlins a little different but there are a few things that are pretty much the norm for everyone:
- A big pot. Your pot can be stainless steel or cast iron. Cast iron pots or dutch ovens are great for cooking chitterlings and are what were used by slaves hundreds of years ago. Most southern families have a "big pot" or "grandma's pot" that has been passed down through the family. They last forever and even transfer nutritional iron into the food that is being cooked.
- Onions, lots of onions. Onions not only flavor the chitlins nicely, but also help cut down on that pungent smell. You'll hear a lot of southern folk say "put half an onion in the pot." Personally, I use a whole medium to large-sized onion, chopped. You can add more or less to your taste, but I don't know anyone who doesn't put onion in their chitlins.
- Vinegar: Regular or apple cider. Some soak them in vinegar during the cleaning process. You can do that if you'd like. I add vinegar during the cooking process.
How to cook chitterlings without the smell:
The vinegar and onions and the cooking process itself help to reduce the bad smell.
Okay so here's my own recipe...remember real soul food is not about measuring spoons and such: You have to feel what's right and cook by sight. This is for about 10 pounds of chitlins.
- 1 medium to large onion, chopped or sliced
- 1 to 1.5 cups white vinegar, or more to taste
- Lots of lemon pepper
- 1/4 cup lemon juice— fresh or concentrated
- 2 cloves fresh garlic or garlic powder
- Seasoning salt
- A few dashes of soy sauce
- Boil, covered, for about three hours.
- Check it at every hour. Add more water to the pot as necessary; the chitlins should always remain covered with liquid or they will dry out.
- My family uses hot sauce on them once cooked. I like to eat them plain. Try it both ways!
Have you ever had chitlins or chitterlings?
More Chitlin Seasoning Variations
Here are some variations in seasonings. You can add some or all of these according to your taste:
- Red pepper flakes
- Jalepeno peppers
- Bell pepper
- Bay leaf
- Creole seasoning
- One potato, whole or sliced (some people put this in to kill the smell and help remove the fat during cooking; they discard the whole potato after cooking)
Make your own chitlin recipe to pass down through your family. Chitlins taste better after they have been cooked and absorbed the seasonings overnight. Enjoy!!
Chitterlings (or chitlins, as most people call them) were a main source of food for slaves. This is because the slave owners would take the best parts for themselves and leave the undesired parts for the slaves to eat. This included the pig snout, ears, intestines (chitterlings), feet, neck bones, and skin. Black women would cook the meals over a fire in a kettle.
Chitlins are now eaten not only by Blacks, but whites and other races as well. They are considered a Southern specialty. Some Blacks refuse to eat this type of food because they feel it is an insult to their heritage because of the struggles that slaves went through. My father is one of these people. He always used to tell me that they were the scraps that the slave owners would give to the slaves and he didn't understand why Blacks would freely eat them now. It is interesting, when you think about it, how something that was considered not worthy of eating is now enjoyed by people the world over.
But chitlins, like other soul food, is a traditional food made with love and strength by Black slave women so many years ago. They really put their heart and soul into their meals for their family and so it is fitting to continue that tradition. Be sure to put your soul into your chitlins when you cook them for your own family. Afterwards, give your taste buds a nice change, like a generous portion of dump cake to swap out savory for sweet! Enjoy!