LION’S HEAD RECIPE FOR THE BEST ROAST PORK KNUCKLE (SCHWEINSHAXE)
Schweinshaxe, eisbein, ham hock, pork knuckle, roast pork hock…there are a man names out there but two things are certain, its quintessentially German and the ultimate beer companion food. In the article we going to show you how to make the best roast pork knuckle exactly how we make it at our restaurant in Amsterdam.
There is a significant difference though between eisbein and schweinshaxe, with the latter found in Berlin and is prepared by smoking or curing and then is often boiled or sometimes roasted. Most often it is boiled and hence the name ‘eis-bein’ (ice-leg) which quite aptly describes the resulting ‘light’ appearance.
Schweinshaxe on the other hand is exclusively roasted and typified by a glorious armour plate of crispy skin (crackling). Schweinshaxe comes from Southern Germany, made famous by the great brewhouses of Bavaria such a Augustiner and Hofbrauhaus who attract millions of tourists to Munich each year.
Traditionally Eisbein is accompanied with sauerkraut, while Schweinshaxe is eaten with potato dumplings.
As a brewery when we started Lion’s Head, we knew pork knuckle would have to be on the menu! Why German pork knuckles in a South African restaurant you might ask? Well for one It’s the ultimate beer food and South Africans are no stranger to German beer halls which are found everywhere. Luckily for us we had our very own South African – Austrian who dogmatically guided us through the development of our perfect pork knuckle recipe!
Now, cooking pork knuckles can actually be a very simple process, with tons of blogs and videos out there simply roasting them in the oven, maybe a little and they come out looking beautiful and roasty. But break into them and the meat looks grey, dull and dry and unfortunately many recipes including German restaurants are guilty of skipping a vital step which is a curing brine!
The technique discussed in this article will ensure your pork knuckle is juicy, succulent and when you crack it open will have a beautiful soft pinkish colour and not grey and dry.
Before we opened the doors at Lion’s Head, we went through extensive testing, like everything on our menu it would have to be the best pork knuckle out there!
The secret to the best pork knuckle is a two-step process. Brine for 48 hours in curing salt and then roast at 180 degrees for 90 minutes. That’s it.
For the best crackling, the curing brine is the key. When we were testing the recipe, we tried every method out there searching for the perfect, crispy skin while keeping the moisture inside. From Chinese and Korean methods for roast pork belly, to pressure cooking it into soft jelly and then crisping it back up under high temperature, nothing came close to the elegance and simplicity of using a curing brine.
The brine achieves three objectives. First, it adds that amazing pink colour to the meat; second, the salt in the cure draws moisture out of the skin, ensuring the best crisp, while drawing in moisture into the meat; and third, any additional flavour you add into the brine will be imparted to the meat, such as herbs, spices, and, of course, alcohol.
So, what’s actually going on in the cure?
There are 2 types of Prague salt: one is for dry curing like salami, hams, and dry sausage (Prague Salt 2); the other for wet curing with the intention to be cooked like bacon and fresh sausage. We use Prague salt type 1, which is made up of 94% regular table salt and 6% sodium nitrite. If you want to learn everything there is to know about curing, check out The Canning, Freezing, Curing & Smoking of Meat, Fish & Game by Wilbur Eastman, a great book!
St not necessary to go into the whole history of nitrite curing, but in essence, it killed a type of bacteria that caused Botulism, a common illness associated with contaminated meat, and therefore is a strong preservative. The nitrite in this salt inhibits the growth of this particular bacteria.
Nitrite in the wrong amount is poisonous, so Prague salt itself has been coloured pink so that you don’t confuse it for regular salt. So don’t put it in a jar next to your Himalayan pink salt and forget which one is which. But also don’t confuse the salts pink appearance to the pink colour that gets imparted in the meat; that’s the nitrite.
Nitrite converts into nitric oxide during the curing process, which then makes it safe for consumption and the oxidization process leaves the meat with that lovely pink colour. The other great benefit of leaving meat in a salt brine is that it forces moisture into the cells and gives brined meat that beautiful succulence.
At Lion’s Head, we do a 48-hour brine with 80g of Prague salt type 1 dissolved into 10 litres of water, and then we add an additional 400g salt. Of course, we’re brining 10 knuckles at a time, so the calculation of a smaller batch can be broken down to this: 2.5 grams Prague salt to 1kg meat and enough water to emerge the knuckles .
See link at bottom of page to order pink salt online.
We then flavour the brine with bay leaves, star anise, whole black pepper, coriander seeds, onion, garlic, and ginger, followed by a generous splash of bourbon. In the oven we roast garlic, onion, fresh ginger, star anise, and cloves and chuck them in the brine as well. This adds a lovely umami boost, and the caramelisation from the roast veg adds a lovely sweetness to the flavour mix.
Pork knuckles are big, so 48 hours is a good amount of time for the nitrite to penetrate all the way to the bone and leave that nice, uniform, pink appearance all round. If you take them out too early, the brine won’t make it all the way to the bone, and you will see grey patches where the brine didn’t reach. Also, 48 hours is a great stretch of time to allow those additional flavours from all the spices and herbs we used to infuse the brine. The salt will work its magic in drying out the fat cap that envelops the knuckles, ensuring we will get a stunning crisp when it’s roasted.
After 48 hours, remove the knuckles from the brine and rinse it well. Pat it dry. We strongly advise against reusing brine, as you want to avoid contamination.
Once knuckles are nice and dry, take some sunflower and smother them. Dust with a good flaky salt like Maldon, crank the oven up to 180 degrees and roast for 90 minutes.
For an average-sized home oven, we would suggest only 2 knuckles at a time. We have found that even in our industrial oven, overloading will result in a subpar crisp. This probably relates to the moisture being released from an overcrowded oven.
2 whole pork knuckles with skin on
For the Wet Cure
2 liters of water
50g kosher salt
5g Prague Salt 1
4 Bay leafs
100g Whole peppercorns
100g Coriander seeds
200ml Jack Daniels
4 onions halved
3 whole garlic pods, halved and roasted
200g Peeled ginger
4 Star anise
Add water and salts into a container, using a whisk make sure everything is completely dissolved. (you can heat a small amount of water in a pot for quicker results.)
Next, add all the other brine ingredients with the knuckles and leave for 48 hours in the fridge.
Once cured, remove the knuckles from the brine, rinse well, and pat dry. Smother with olive and generously rub flaked Maldon salt onto the skin.
Place the knuckles nicely apart and roast for 90 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius.
So, what we learnt is that you can take this classic dish to new heights by adding a simple curing step into the cooking process. The brine will give your knuckles a beautiful colour and keep the meat nice and juicy while infusing amazing flavours, depending on what you add to the brine. Brine for 48 hours, roast for 90 minutes, and remember to not overcrowd the oven!
PAIRING: The pairing we like is good old sauerkraut, roast potatoes, beer gravy and a nice tangy chutney, but if you want to go orthodox the classic Bavarian way is with potato dumplings and beer gravy.
Our secret recipe from Lion’s Head is now yours, and we hope you will surprise your dinner guests with these mad brine skills!
If you have any questions or need some clarifying, just pop a comment below.