One of the main breakfast standards in the Philipines is something called Tocino. It’s a popular Filipino dish made with cured meat, often chicken, pork, or beef with sweet hints.
In some parts of the Philipines, it also has a wonderful tanginess.
Tocino is a key component of “Tapsilog” – a three-part breakfast preparation. Tapsilog is an Austronesian word (Austronesian is the basis of the national language of the Philipines) which consists of three elements:
- Tap – a type of beef tapa
- si – sinangag, which is a garlic fried rice
- log – short for “itlog,” the Austoinesian word for egg
The natural version
I am going to tell you how to make a wholly natural version of Tocino. It uses Annatto, the seeds and pulp of the achiote tree’s heart-shaped fruit.
This fruit contains red seeds that are crushed and mixed with oil to produce a paste that can be used as a dye, a medicine, and an ingredient in Filipino and Asian cuisine.
Annatto is a potent natural, edible red dye, and you can use it to replace the artificial food coloring that some people use when making Tocino.
I am also going to make it with chicken meat rather than pork.
I find that chicken is more tender, and the finished dish isn’t swimming in a pool of fat.
What is Tocino?
The word “Tocino” is Spanish. Originally it referred to cured pork bacon fat cut into small squares.
With the expansion of the Spanish empire and the colonization of different lands, the word became applied to cured beef and pork.
These dishes are typically served with garlic rice and fried eggs.
Tocino is probably the most well-known of these breakfast dishes. It is a superb balance of sweet and savory derived from a skillful mixture of spices.
That includes anise, orange or pineapple juice, rice wine vinegar, salt, soy sauce, and sugar.
Slices of cured pork (but I used the chicken for this recipe) marinated in the spice mix before being fried.
Then, the Filipino answer to Spanish tapas is plated with fried eggs and garlic rice at breakfast and during the day as a pulutan.
What kind of meat is best to make Tocino?
The meat used to make Tocino is very much down to the individual.
The recipe I am laying out for you is made using chicken thighs, but I also like pork shoulder.
It is nice and meaty and has just enough fat to prevent it from drying out.
If you prefer your Tocino more on the fatty side, you can use belly pork.
If you are more health-conscious, you can use pork tenderloin but avoid overcooking it because it will become dry.
The range of meats and cuts you can incorporate include:
I know beef brisket is recommended for slow cooking, but that is when cooking a joint.
When you cut it into quarter-inch slices, cure and marinate it – trust me, it is totally delicious and not tough.
How to prepare Tocino from scratch
Tocino is not the sort of dish that you can simply cook in the way you can, something like bacon and eggs.
There is a specific preparation process starting with curing the meat.
Step 1 The curing
For the curing process, you need Pink Salt (not to be confused with Himalayan (Pink) salt). Pink salt, also known as Prague Salt, was first produced in the early 1500s during the Habsburg Monarchy.
Pink salt combines ordinary table salt and sodium nitrate, a natural inhibitor of microbial growth.
It was developed to cure meats and give its distinctive pink color to distinguish it from ordinary salt.
Himalayan salt is a wholly natural product that contains many different elements (as many as 84) and is mined in Pakistan.
Prague salt, also known as Instacure, should not be used as table salt as it can prove toxic in sufficiently large amounts. It gives the meat to cure a reddish-pink hue.
You may find it difficult to get your hands on, so I found an alternative that will do the same job. It is celery juice.
You can buy celery juice in powder form. However, it is easy enough to make yourself grating the celery, extracting the juice, and forcing it through a filter or a strainer.
The curing process takes between three and five days.
- Create a curing mixture with paprika, salt, and sugar and put it to one side.
- Thinly slice the chicken or pork.
- Pierce the meat, place it in a non-reactive bowl.
- Pour over pineapple juice and wine.
- Sprinkle the marinated meat with the dry cure mixture and massage well with your hands to ensure you work in all the ingredients.
- Transfer to a Ziploc bag and leave for three to five days or freeze to use at a later time.
You should leave the meat to marinate and cure for a minimum of 12 hours, although it is preferable to leave it for three to five days.
If you are freezing it, it can stay frozen for up to three months. Make sure you evacuate as much air before sealing the Ziploc bag to minimize the possibility of freezer burn.
Step 2 Tenderizing the meat
The meat for Tocino shouldn’t be so soft that it falls apart, but neither does it want to be too chewy. It is for that reason that some recipes specify using a meat tenderizer.
Some recommend braising the meat before frying.
To make things easier, you can use kiwi juice. It contains Actinidain, an enzyme able to break down the collagen in the meat.
These connective tissues make the meat tough, so adding it to the marinade ensures the meat will be tender.
Papaya and pineapple also have these enzymes, but they are so strong that they can turn the meat mushy.
Kiwi juice is perfect. It tenderizes meat but allows it to keep its texture.
The only thing to watch out for is to make sure the brine is at room temperature before adding the kiwi juice.
If the temperature is even only a little higher, it can destroy those all-important enzymes.
Step 3 getting the right color
Tocino has to be red. It wouldn’t be the same without its signature color.
Many recipes cheat by telling you to add food colorants. That’s not for me. I use Annatto seeds. If you can’t get them, you can use beets.
Juice or powder will do the job. You can use red paprika too.
Step 3 seasoning
It is the brine that helps to make Tocino such a wonderful dish.
As the meat fries, the brine turns into a sticky, shiny glaze that contributes to the dish’s sweet, savory character.
Some recipes tell you to add lots of sugar to give the brine its sweetness. I prefer to add some coconut sugar blended with brown rice syrup.
This combination doesn’t just add sweetness – it amplifies the flavor too.
It has a slightly nutty taste of caramel, and many people say it reminds them of butterscotch.
It is not as rabidly sweet as refined sugar and is used to make granola health bars.
Me and my family are great fans of garlic, so I include liberal amounts of the stuff in my Tocino brine.
If it’s not one of your favorites, just add a little. It is an essential part of the flavor.
The other thing I like to put in my Tocino brine is black pepper to give it a nice little kick.
The best way to cook Tocino
The brown sugar syrup and coconut sugar mixture can burn quite easily.
So, if you are using fatty pork and want to render down the fat, it’s best to start the cooking in a cold, non-stick frying pan on medium heat.
You don’t have to worry quite much if you’re using skinless chicken as it contains little fat.
As the heat slowly increases, it encourages the meat to shed some liquid, enabling the meat to cook while allowing the fat to render down without scorching.
As the liquid boils out, the meat begins to caramelize and takes on a glorious glossy glaze.
Here are the steps to follow.
- Transfer the marinated meat into a wide, deep, non-stick frying pan and add one cup of water. The amount of water depends on how much meat you are cooking.
- Bring to the boil on your stovetop over medium heat.
- Cover and simmer until the meat is cooked through and the liquid is almost completely absorbed.
- Pour in a tablespoon of oil and carry on cooking. Keep stirring once in a while until the meat becomes brown and caramelized.
Top tips for making chicken Tocino
- Use chicken leg or thigh meat. It’s not as dry as chicken breast and will give you a lovely succulent finish.
- Debone the legs/thighs. Spread the meat and gently flatten with a meat hammer to a thickness of around one-quarter of an inch. It makes it easier for the marinade or brine to penetrate the chicken flesh.
- Marinate overnight – no longer. Leave it too long, and the pineapple’s acidity will turn the chicken mushy.
- If you are prepping the chicken for cooking, you can transfer it into a freezer-safe Ziploc bag, evacuate as much air as possible, seal the bag, and freeze for up to three months.
- When you’re ready to cook your Tocino, take the frozen marinated chicken out of the freezer and transfer it to your fridge to defrost overnight.
Cooking chicken Tocino using an air fryer
Ait fryers are great cooking appliances. They use hot air as the cooking medium rather than oil, so many people use them for their health benefits.
Anything that you would normally deep or shallow fry in oil or cook in a conventional can be cooked in them if the size is right.
It includes everyday foods like burger patties to the more exotic like Filipino Lechon Kawali or Tocino.
You do need to use a little oil, but rather than sitting the food in it, you just give foodstuffs a light brushing, and that is all it needs to produce a lovely, golden, crispy dish.
Also, because the food you are air frying is suspended in a wire basket – the oil drips away.
The wire basket construction also allows the hot air to circulate and reach all surfaces of the food you’re frying, so it can cook nice and evenly.
Useful tips for cooking Tocino in an air fryer
Is it even possible to cook something sticky and wet like Tocino and an air fryer is a legitimate question. The answer you will be pleased to hear is, yes, you can.
The secret of success is being aware of the possibility of the food burning, knowing how to prevent it, and knowing how to protect your fryer splatter and keep it clean.
The trick is to use aluminum foil, hence it will help to both minimize any splatter and make cleaning your appliance that much easier.
Don’t forget that you want your Tocino to caramelize a little anyway, which is a controlled burn. That slightly burnt caramelized taste is essential to any good Tocino.
The sugar in the dish makes that happen, but it is the key to control that. It would be best if you cooked at a temperature of 180C, no higher.
Here’s what to do.
Method for air frying Tocino – it works for other saucy dishes too.
- Take some aluminum foil and line the inside of your basket with it.
- Ensure the marinated meat is cut into small pieces as it will cook quicker.
- Set your air fryer to 180˚C.
- Close the fryer door, set the timer to 10 minutes, and start to cook.
- If the pieces of meat overlap slightly, you might need to flip them over to ensure they are evenly cooked through and display spots of caramelization all over.
- Serve and enjoy
Can I cook frozen Tocino?
If you have frozen your Tocino, when it comes time to cook it, it’s best to simmer it in a pan of lightly boiling water to thaw it out. No frying is required.
If you buy it frozen from a store, the directions of the packaging often suggest this.
As it has been frozen, it will take several minutes of simmering to thaw through completely.
The slow simmer not only thaws the Tocino, but it also encourages the chicken or pork to absorb all the delicious marinade, and in the case of pork, it renders down any fat.
When finished cooking (after the water has completely evaporated, allowing the oil to fry the meat), you will be left with beautifully charred, sticky Tocino.
Here are the step-by-step instructions.
- Remove the packaging from the frozen Tocino (homemade or store-bought).
- Transfer the Tocnin to a frying pan – no oil needed.
- Pour water into the frying pan so that it comes halfway up the slices of meat. Don’t fill any deeper, or you’ll end up boiling instead of boil/frying.
- Bring to the boil, and once it gets there, cover with a lid and allow to simmer.
- Let the water evaporate, then allow the meat to fry and caramelize.
How do you know when Tocino is cooked?
After the water has evaporated, the meat will begin to fry in the fat from the pork. If using chicken, which has very little fat, you may need to add a tablespoon of oil.
When the meat caramelizes, and the caramelization starts to turn darker, it’s ready to serve.
If you like your Tocino well cooked, allow it to caramelize a little longer but be careful.
Once caramelization start, it can go from light brown to dark brown and blacken very quickly.
Cook it to your personal choice of “doneness,” turning from time to time and taking care not to let it burn.
The best way of cooking Tocino
Some people fry their Tocino without boiling it.
But if you are using pork, I think it’s better to add some water to the pan and simmer to evaporate, after which you can add a little oil into the pan to fry and caramelize.
Don’t forget to flip from time to time to ensure even cooking and avoid burning. The perfect Tocino should be lightly browned and caramelized, not incinerated.
How long does Tocino last in the freezer?
You can keep Tocino in your freezer for as long as six months, although the flavor may start to deteriorate a little after 3 months.
Transfer the whole thing (juice and all) into a freezer-safe Ziploc bag (I recommend the heavy-duty variety), evacuate as much air as possible to avoid freezer burn.
To make life easier, get yourself a vacuum sealer. You can buy them for as little as $40, and if you do a lot of freezing, they are essential.
Is it necessary to defrost frozen Tocino?
No, it is not essential. You can cook it directly from the freezer, allowing it to thaw as it cooks. It’s not something I recommend, however. The sugars in the brine tend to burn.
Also, by defrosting, you thaw the fat (in case you’re using pork), letting it render down.
To my mind, defrosting is the best way to go for all Tocino meats – beef, chicken, or pork.
- Why bring to a boil then simmer?
The point of simmering is to speed up the defrosting process and make it easier and quicker to cook in one operation.
- Does simmer mean lid on or off?
It’s best to simmer things with the pan’s lid in place. Having the lid in place keeps the heat in the pan, thereby saving energy and time.
If you are evaporating water, you may want to remove the lid for the last couple of minutes.
How do you cook Tocino without burning it?
Once you’ve bought the Tocino to the boil in a pan of water, let the water evaporate. It will then begin to fry and caramelize after a few minutes, which is what you want.
But keep a close eye on it as caramelization progresses from light to dark very quickly.
- My preferred method is adding a quarter cup of water to the pan.
- Bring it to a boil, cover, and simmer.
- Let the water evaporate, add a small drop of oil, say a tablespoon, and fry until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 165˚F.
Why is Tocino pink?
If you are using Prague Salt or pink curing salt, it gives the dish red-pinkish coloring.
How to serve chicken Tocino?
Traditionally, in the Philipines, Tocino is a breakfast treat served with sunny-side-up fried eggs (scrambled eggs work well too) and garlic fried rice.
Other serving suggestions include:
- Serve in a bread roll – the Filipino’s serve it with pandesal.
- Cut the meat into bite-size pieces, skewer, and barbecue.
- Serve with stir-fry noodles.
The above are great ways of serving Tocino, depending on the time of day and the occasion. Heck, I think it’s good whenever.
- 1½ lbs chicken thighs
- ¼ cup coconut sugar (or brown sugar)
- ⅓ cup brown rice syrup
- 3 cloves garlic (grated)
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp celery juice (from 1/2 celery rib)
- 1½ tsp salt
- 2 tbsp Annatto seeds (or achuete powder)
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp kiwi juice (or ¼ pineapple juice)
Prep the chicken:
- Arrange chicken thighs in a bowl (or if you’re using pork, slice the pork shoulder against the grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices and then cut the slices into bite-size pieces).
Prepare the marinade:
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the coconut sugar, rice syrup, garlic, soy sauce, celery juice, salt, ground annatto, and black pepper.
- Heat the mixture up in the microwave a bit if you're having trouble getting the sugar to melt. Let the brine cool to room temperature.
- Add the kiwi juice (or pineapple juice) and then add the chicken thighs or sliced pork. Put some gloves on and mix the pork into the marinade.
- Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least three days or up to a week.
How to Cook the Chicken Tocino:
- To cook the Tocino, I recommend using a non-stick pan. If your pork is fatty, you won't need to add any oil, but if it's lean, you can add a bit of vegetable oil. Line the pan with an even layer of meat and turn the heat onto medium.
- Some liquid will come out of the pork and start to boil.
- Start flipping the meat over to evenly glaze the pork with the sauce. Repeat until there is no liquid left and the Tocino is cooked through and starting to brown.