Ah, the south…. a land filled with amazing food and great cultural history. I could never have imagined that moving here from Puerto Rico would be such an easy transition. It only took minutes to go to a local BBQ hole-in-the-wall to discover that we share a great love: pork! Pork is considered (or at least I consider it) the backbone of Puerto Rican cuisine. Much like sofrito, we add pork or ham in various ways to various dishes.
Making beans? Throw some ham in it!
Making rice to accompany a stew? Probably better with tocino!
Making a sandwich for breakfast? You know what that ham would go very well with? Pork!
Hungry for a snack? Why not a chicharrón sandwich?
You must be wondering… is that really a thing? Well it is. My hometown of Bayamón is known all around the island for having the greatest devotion to chicharrón imaginable. There are carts on street corners serving sandwiches that consist of mallorca bread and chicharrón, not much else. This, however, will be the topic of a future post. Hey, I have to keep the intrigue on high here!
Anyway, my devotion to pork is as strong as it is here in North Carolina, where BBQ wars are fought over what parts of the pig to actually cook (west: shoulder, east: the whole thing), and the base for the sauce to accompany it (west: tomato, east: vinegar, some southern parts: mustard). Needless to say there are very good arguments on all sides of the debate, and all arguments are invariably delicious. That’s my kind of debate!
In Puerto Rico, the decisions are much simpler:
What parts of the pig do we use? Depends on how many people are coming over. We can use the whole thing and cook it over a spit while somebody’s abuelo (hey, it wasn’t always my abuelo doing it, but it was always an abuelo) cranked the lever to spin it around for 8 hours straight. I guess that’s why it was tied to how many people were coming over, that way you knew how many people were available to spin the thing! In any case, this was my favorite way to eat it: cut with a machete, the skin crisped by exposure to fire… ah… the memories…
Have a smaller event? Cook the shoulder and call it pernil. It’s all we can fit in the oven, mijo! But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing!
Oh, and the sauce…Wait, what sauce? We invest in the flavor of the meat itself! We are not a sauce-heavy culture… but we can make a mean pique for you to add to the food as you please!
So, if you’re feeling the need to cook some Puerto Rican-style pork awesomeness, I am going to take you on a journey through the process. Now, I’m going to go ahead and assume you don’t have a dozen abuelos around to help you spin a whole pig (and if you do, please let me know where the party is at), so we’re going to go with a traditional pork shoulder.
In my house, we always used a Boston Butt (which is also part of the shoulder), due to it’s smaller bone and tendency to remain soft and juicy. However, in NC, Boston Butts don’t seem to come with skin attached… which is a huge bummer. So, I will let you in on some secrets of amazing results with this dish:
- For best results, marinade 1-2 days in advance. Marinades break down the fibers to result in an awesomely flavorful and tender cut of meat. I use acidic citrus and vinegar to help the breakdown process. Sometimes I use pineapple if I find the lemons made the marinade too sour.
- Taste your marinade! It may be a bit salty, but you want to make sure it doesn’t taste bad. The saltiness isn’t a bad thing either, as the pork will absorb some of it but most of it will be lost in leftover marinade. A bit salty is ok, too salty should be counteracted by adding water. Everything in moderation! These spices are not only for flavor, but they also contribute to color, so use your senses!
- Make sure to flip the meat every 8-12 hours as it marinades, so that all parts of it get a good dosage of marinade. Why dosage? The marinade is a medicine that makes the pork better… see what I did there? Okay, I’ll stop now.
- Want to get more flavor into the meat itself? Take a cue from your last horror film and start stabbing that meat! Getting marinade into crevices inside the meat can greatly increase the flavor you obtain. Also, use a bone-in cut, boneless cuts tend to dry up faster and not get as much delicious flavor. Also look for good marbling! Some cuts have thick slabs of fat that are fine, but the more fat specks you see in the meat, the juicier it can end up being. If you seek a skin-on option, look for an even color and again, look at the thickness of fat under that skin.
- Using a pork shoulder picnic, or walked to the edge of a rainbow and had a leprechaun hand you a Boston Butt with the skin on, but notice that when you roast it, only the edges are crispy? Score the skin with a sharp knife! The more edges you create with less surface area, the more crispy parts you’ll get!
- Another good tip in doing this is to sear it first, skin or fat side down, to jumpstart the fat rendering process. Trust me, it makes a huge difference! If you scored the skin, this searing means the fat beneath the skin will render faster in the oven, resulting in even more flavor.
- Always roast with skin or fat side up. This ensures the fat is falling onto the meat and enhances moisture-retention.
- Want to preserve moisture and save a bit of time? Use an oven bag!
I know, I know, somewhere there is probably an abuela yelling at me for blasphemies towards some saint I’ve never heard of, but it works very well to speed up the cooking process and ensure the pork cooks in its juices and marinade. I find myself dumping the marinade into the bag with the pork to further infuse that flavor into the meat. Just cut open the bag during the last two hours of cooking to make sure the skin gets crispy (if it has skin…). The crispier the skin, the funner it is to eat (at least that’s my dogma).
So, let’s begin!
- 1 tsp garlic powder (you can use 8 garlic cloves here, but I've met too many people that don't keep fresh garlic in their house. It's like they want vampires...)
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 tbsp sazón (I used a homemade blend, but you can choose Sazón Goya, if you'd like)
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp dried parsley
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1-2 tbsp coarse salt, to taste (I prefer natural coarse sea salt)
- 1/4 cup white vinegar (or the non-sweet vinegar of your choice)
- 1/8 cup annato oil
- 3 lemons (juiced)
- (Optional) 1/8 cup pineapple juice
- ~5lb Pork Boston Butt or Shoulder Picnic (bone-in preferred, skin optional)
- Mix the marinade ingredients in a blender... then blend...see? I try to keep it simple 🙂
- (Optional) If your pork has skin on it, score it! Cut a diamond pattern into the skin, deep enough to cut through the fat, but not deep enough to see the meat.
- Cut into the meat repeatedly using a knife about 1" in thickness. The more cuts and closer you get the the bone, the more area the marinade can reach. Be careful not to cut too much and have it meat fall off the bone before cooking.
- In a food-safe container, or very large zipper bag, place the meat and pour the marinade over it. Make sure to get marinade into the crevices you just created.
- Cover the meat and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. I prefer 2-3 days, but 24 hours is the minimum I'd suggest. Flip the meat over every 8-12 hours to make sure gravity isn't emptying the marinade from inside the meat.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F
- (Optional) Place meat in oven bag, along with marinades and juices.
- Place meat onto roasting pan (skin or fat side up), and place into oven for 5 hours for most tender results
- (If using an oven bag) Cut open oven bag to expose skin or fat side when 2 hours are left to cook. Increase to 450°F if the desire is to get crispy skin.
- Remove from oven, admire the awesome meat, and take in the aromas