How to Make Pernil: Puerto Rican-Style Roast Pork Shoulder

Today's recipe, pernil, or roast pork shoulder, is one of those ideal recipes that 1) seems a lot harder to make than it really is, and 2) will seriously impress your guests.

And it's a particularly fitting recipe for this time of year, as many Latin American families serve pernil for Christmas dinner. There is nothing like the aroma of a delicious roast like this filling your home on a cold December day.

This recipe also illustrates one of the key central themes I hope to convey to my readers here at Casual Kitchen: it is both easier than you think and less expensive than you think to make surprisingly fancy dishes in your own kitchen.

Even if you don't have much experience or confidence in the kitchen, you can cook fascinating, delicious and amazing recipes at home. You already have the skills inside of you--they just need a little nurturing. All you need is a little push and a little bit of encouragement (perhaps from a food blog like this one!), and you'll amaze yourself with what you can do.

And at the risk of being a little too didactic, let me share one more lesson that I learned from making this recipe: always keep your eyes open for cooking opportunities. The initial catalyst for this dish was finding a huge sale on pork shoulder in my grocery store at the preposterous price of $0.49 a pound. Thus a 4.5 pound pork shoulder, which pretty much fed the two of us for an entire week, cost only $2.27.

I thought that was a great deal, but it was nothing compared to the rush of amazement and gratitude I had when I pulled this roast out of the oven.

If you're in the grocery store, your local farmer's market, thumbing through an old cookbook, or even surfing some new food site in cyberspace, you never know when some amazing example of good fortune (or luck, or synchronicity, or whatever term you'd like to use here) might happen. If you can try to be in a frame of mind to notice and receive gifts like this, you'll be shocked at how cooking ideas and opportunities seem to rear up right in front of you.

And they are out there, like lucky pennies lying there on the ground, just waiting for you to pick them up.
Puerto Rican Style Roast Pork Shoulder
(adapted from Daisy Cooks)

A 4lb to 4.5lb pork shoulder, with skin on
Wet Spice Rub

Wet spice rub recipe:
12 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 Tablespoons kosher salt
1 Tablespoon coarse ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons dried oregano
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons vinegar

Up to three days ahead of the date you serve the roast, do steps 1 and 2. On the day you cook the roast you'll do steps 3 through 5.

1) To make the wet spice rub, grind the garlic and salt into a paste using a mortar and pestle (you can save yourself buying the extra kitchen items; we used the back of a heavy spoon in a smallish Tupperware bowl and it worked just fine). Add pepper and oregano, grinding and mashing to incorporate the spices into the paste. Stir in the olive oil and vinegar, mix well.
2) Once you've made the rub, use a very sharp paring knife to cut several slits in the pork shoulder, about 1 1/2 inches apart. Make the cuts as deep as you can, through the skin and well into the shoulder meat. Wiggle a finger into the slits to widen them, and then fill each cut with wet rub, using a small spoon. Do this on all sides of the pork shoulder. If you have any leftover wet rub, just smear it all over the outside of the roast. Refrigerate the roast, covered, for at least one full day (but preferably two to three days) before cooking.

To cook the roast:
3) Preheat the oven to 450F.
4) Set the roast, skin side up, on a rack in a roasting pan. Roast for 1 hour, turn the heat down to 400F, and then cook the roast for another one and a half hours, or until a meat thermometer reads the meat in the center of the roast at 160F.
5) Let the roast "rest" for 15-20 minutes after you've taken it out of the oven. Then, pull off the skin (it should come off fairly easily in big pieces) and then carve the meat parallel to the bone with a large and very sharp knife. Pile the meat on a platter and enjoy!

Serves 5-6.

A few recipe notes:
1) Be sure to prepare the spice rub and do steps 1 through 3 a minimum of 24 hours ahead of time. However, if you can do these steps two to three days ahead and give the spices extra time to do their magic inside the meat, your roast will taste even more amazing.

2) The rule of thumb for cooking time for a pork roast (this applies for shoulders as well as other cuts like pork butt) is 30 minutes for every pound. Note that in this recipe the first hour is at a higher temperature.

3) There's a bit of an art to cutting the meat off of a pork shoulder, and I'll be the first to admit that I don't have a knack for doing it artfully. But it doesn't really matter--this meal is still going to taste absolutely amazing no matter the aesthetics. Just do your best, try not to waste any of the meat, and don't sweat it if it doesn't come out looking perfect.

4) You can consider using the leftover meat in sandwiches or in homemade fajitas or wraps for later in the week.

This post is part of Regional Recipes, Joanne Bruno's brilliant group blogging idea of traveling the world from our very own home kitchens! If you'd like to learn more, visit Joanne's blog Eats Well With Others.

Related Posts:
How to Make a Mole Sauce: Intense, Exotic and Surprisingly Easy to Make
Ten Tips to Save Money on Spices and Seasonings
Braised Pork in Guajillo Chile Sauce
When High-Fat Food ... Can Actually Be Healthy For You
How to Make Burritos

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LH said...

Ah, pernil. Daisy's cookbook is excellent -- my WASP stepmom gets serious applause from our Puerto Rican clan whenever using a Daisy recipe, although Daisy is a trifle enthusiastic about pepper.

The prep time is not that much, and the roasting time requires little attention, although the fridge time is long. Mom swears two days is required. I suppose some would object to the pernil flavoring other stuff in the fridge -- check with your officemates before bringing in leftovers for lunch.

The skin (cracklings) is usually removed from the roast before carving, but eaten. It's an acquired taste, but our family members fight to eat the skin in the kitchen while the roast is resting. Heart attack appetizer.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi LH, thanks for reading. We were so psyched and proud when we made this dish. It probably sounds a bit silly to talk about feeling "a rush of amazement and gratitude" when we pulled this pernil out of the oven, but that's exactly what happened.

Oh, and we tried the cracklings too and enjoyed them--in moderation of course. I felt a need for an angioplasty after just a few bites!


JJ (Lady Di) said...

I've been looking at this recipe in Bittman's HTCE book for awhile. Do you think it would work on a butt? I've got one in the freezer -it was short dated (and also cheap) and I've already got NC-style pork bbq in the freezer and don't want to make more.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Lady Di,
I'm no expert in pork cuts, but Daisy says in her cookbook to use the pork shoulder, not the pork butt. She doesn't specify why, but my guess is there are two reasons:

First, pork butt needs to be cooked to a higher internal temperature than shoulder because it has more internal connective tissue. That's why pork butt is so popular in "long and slow" cooking methods like barbecuing.

Second, the butt doesn't usually come skin-on, which means you won't have a protective layer of skin (uh, and fat) over most of the meat when it's roasting.

At the same time, these cuts are similar enough that you could try it, but you'll have to read up on what is the optimal cooking time and temperature for pork butt and adjust accordingly. I'd be really curious what your experiences are with this.

Readers, any additional thoughts on this?


melissa said...

No thoughts about butt vs. shoulder. I've only cooked butt, to make roast pork for carnitas.

The shoulder looks awesome. And I hear you on the price. The weeks I was trying to save money were the weeks I would get the pork butt and we would eat it for 3 or 4 days for dirt cheap.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Melissa, thanks for stopping by.

I think even if I won the lottery I'd still get a kick out of finding food deals like this.

And I'll have to write about carnitas at some point... thanks for the push.


Anonymous said...

Hey, guys... pork shoulder (pernil) is often referred to as "pork butt." Most butchers say they're one and the same. It's called "butt," even thought it's from the front shoulder.


Daniel Koontz said...

Obviously, there's some confusion on how to define pork shoulder cuts.

My understanding is that the "butt" is the upper part of the shoulder. It doesn't include skin and usually doesn't include the bone. The "shoulder" is the lower part of the shoulder and includes the bone, as well as skin, which is of key importance for a pernil recipe. Also, some websites call this cut the "pork picnic."

And then to add to the confusion, I've seen references to "whole shoulder butt" which is the entire kit and caboodle of the pig's front shoulder.

And if that's not confusing enough, there are different terms for these various pork cuts in other parts of the world.

Suffice it to say that you want to find a shoulder cut that has the "skin on" for this recipe (again, that's the critical part for pernil), and the entire cut should weigh about 4-5 pounds. I think if you use that definition to find your pork, you can ignore the various semantics of what to call the various cuts of meat. :)

Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

I just found out about Pernil recently from a show on Food TV, from a show called "The Best Thing I Ever Ate - Holiday Edition". Aaron Sanchez-chef, was describing it and it made my mouth water so I researched it for a month and finally made it and it was like wow, going to set one up for marinating tonight, my first one I just popped into the oven right after spicing and it still was delish and made the chicharrones!

Daniel said...

Anonymous, I'm so glad to hear it! This is a really, really good dish. Thanks for your comment.


Ty'sMommy said...

Oh this looks so yummy. I just love a good roast, especially bas the temps are starting to cool off a bit like they are right now.
I'm with you, when I see deals like that on meat, I buy as much as I can stand and then freeze it until I have a plan for it. I can't pass up a good bargain!

Sara said...

Glad I found you through the round up. Pork shoulder is such a satisfying meal and this one looks divine. Is it dinner time yet?

Daniel said...

Ty'sMommy, thank you! Agreed, when the weather starts to cool down this is a perfect dish to warm the house. Perfect for Christmas and Thanksgiving!

Sara: I'm glad you found me too! :) Thanks for the kind words.


Marisa said...

Ooooh that looks good! Would give my left eye for some of that tonight. Sadly, it'll be good 'ole mac 'n cheese for me.

Kristin said...

Yum, this looks delicious!

Anonymous said...

I made this Pernil last Christmas. It smelled so good and it cooked just right. However, I was disappointed in the flavor. It was just okay. I guess that I expected too much. I would not consider it "delicious" at all. It has to be a Puerto Rican thing.

Daniel said...

Anonymous: What was it about the flavor you didn't like? If the flavor was too mild, then I recommend doing the spice rub more than 1 day in advance--better to do it 2-3 days ahead. If it was too strong, then this recipe probably isn't for you. That's okay too.