Picture this: Your Easter roast emerges from the oven fragrant and still sputtering, shining like a meat-eater’s well-browned dream. The skin, scored in diamonds, is a crisp mahogany, the meat underneath is firm but moist and richly flavored.
What is the secret? Some luxurious cut? Some miraculous new technique?
Not hardly. And it isn’t ham or lamb, either. It’s pork shoulder -- one of the humblest parts of the pig, commonly available for less than $1 a pound. And the preparation amounts to little more than sticking it in the oven.
For a cook with an Easter feast to prepare (or any other kind), it seems almost too good to be true: a great cut of meat that is easy to fix and will feed a crowd for less than 50 cents a person.
If you’re one of the many who complains that pork no longer tastes like it used to, the problem might be that you’ve been eating too high on the hog. The most celebrated cuts of the pig come from the loin, the lean muscle that runs along the back.
That may have been fine once upon a time, but with today’s pigs being bred to be leaner, it’s a sure recipe for a dried-out roast. In the push to make pork the next white meat, producers have rendered the most prized cuts as fat free and temperamental as a skinless chicken breast.
That’s not a problem with the shoulder, which comes wrapped in a nice coating of skin to protect it from the direct heat and still has plenty of fat to keep the meat moist.
In fact, there are two equally simple techniques you can use that result in two very different types of roast.
There has been much debate recently about the proper final temperature for pork. Some cooks, chasing moist meat, call for endpoint temperatures as low as 140 degrees.
Pork cooked to that temperature may well be juicy, but it still has a slightly “raw” taste. Food scientists call it “metallic.” Particularly with a big roast, you’re better off cooking it a little more.
A paper in the Journal of Food Science several years ago compared pork roasts cooked in 325-degree ovens to final temperatures of 150, 160, 170 and 180 degrees. They found that, in general, while lower internal temperatures did result in more tender and juicy meat, higher temperatures resulted in better flavor.
They compromised, concluding that “the optimum end-point temperature for fresh pork roasts should be” at least 160 degrees and should not exceed 170.
So the first technique uses a 325-degree oven to cook the roast to a temperature of 150 degrees. At that point, the skin will still need some crisping, so turn the oven up to 450 degrees and give your roast a good 15-minute blast. This will raise the internal temperature to between 155 and 160.
Remove the roast from the oven and set it aside until ready to serve --at least 15 minutes for a cut this big. The internal temperature will increase another 5 to 10 degrees and the moisture within the roast will redistribute itself evenly throughout.
This, I thought, was one of the best pork roasts I’d ever made. But then in an e-mail conversation with Paula Wolfert -- the noted cookbook author whose next work, “The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen,” is due out in October -- she started bragging about her pork shoulder. She cooks it in a very slow oven to a fairly high internal temperature.
She even included the lyrics to a song, “Slow Food,” by Greg Brown: “Give me a ham baked all day long/and help me to the couch.... Put the quiet music on/I will lie and think about that ham/all day long.”
So I tried roasting a pork shoulder at 250 degrees to a temperature of 170. After a full six hours of roasting, the meat lived up to Wolfert’s claims -- in fact, she may have been being modest. The roast was so moist it almost had the texture of a braise. My knife made squishing noises as I was slicing it.
There is scientific evidence to back up this technique, as well. I found another Journal of Food Science article where the authors roasted pork legs in ovens that were set at 180, 200, 250 and 325 degrees. They found that roasting at 250 degrees was even better than 325.
The only problem with Wolfert’s roast was the cracklings never crisped. I tried two more times -- once cooking at 325 degrees to an interior temperature of 170, the other cooking at 250 degrees until the meat was at 150, then giving it that high-heat blast. Neither worked as well as the originals.
In the first trial, the meat was dry. Apparently, moist meat at a high internal temperature depends on a very slow oven. At the same time, the roast cooked in a 250 oven still refused to develop cracklings, even after the final browning. My guess is you need higher heat early to fully render the fat underneath.
So you have to choose: Do you want your shoulder pretty moist with cracklings? Or do you want it incredibly moist without?
Tender or crisp?
Even being a freak for crunch, particularly when it has a porky flavor, I’ll probably wind up alternating. With a roast this big, it’s important to make sure the thermometer is inserted as deeply as it can go without touching bone. The best place to poke is the cut side of the shoulder, so the thermometer can go in parallel to the leg bone. When it tests done the first time, check someplace else just to be sure.
Whichever method you choose, the preparation is easy. The only slightly sticky part is scoring the skin, which is tough and tender at the same time. Use a really sharp knife and take care to cut through the top layer of the skin, but not to puncture the meat -- though cutting through the underlying fat layer is fine.
Indeed perhaps the trickiest thing about a pork shoulder is knowing what to call it. Checking four different groceries yielded three different names: One store’s “pork shoulder picnic roast” is identical to another’s “picnic shoulder arm roast.”
You can also find it labeled the pork arm picnic, pork picnic roast, fresh pork picnic, pork picnic shoulder roast or fresh pork picnic ham. And at one store, the label from the packing house was different from what the store called it.
Whatever it’s called, this cut is easy enough to spot once you know what you’re looking for. You want a 7- to 8-pound roast that has a good covering of skin and includes the upper bone of the leg. It looks like a small ham.
Technically, it’s the lower part of the front shoulder and the upper part of the leg. It is the cut that comes between the shank and the Boston butt (yes, on a pig, the butt is from the front end).
While the shoulder may be hard to find in some high-end groceries, which tend to focus more on those lean luxury cuts, it is plentiful at markets that cater to people who love pork.
In fact, at a Mexican market near me, I found them packaged in pairs. That’s 16 pounds of pork at a time. Just perfect for a cook like me who can’t choose between crisp and moist -- I’ll roast one shoulder each way.
I’ll just have to be sure to invite the whole neighborhood.