This is the simplest, best way to cook pork. Those in the Caribbean have got cooking pig down to an art, whether it’s lechón (a whole pig roasted on a spit) or a pernil, a cheap cut of meat that’s often enjoyed around the holidays and easily found here in the States. If you like savory, tender, one-pot dishes and want something to impress your guests, this is it.
My mom is Puerto Rican, so we grew up looking forward to a pernil around Christmas or New Years. I’ve only just started making them myself and they are my husband’s new favorite food. (This, and cheesecake.) It’s garlicky, salty, crunchy on the outside and fall-off-the-bone tender on the inside. Some recipes call for brining it (like this one) which, knowing the benefits of brining having just also made a turkey, sounds like an excellent idea if you have the foresight. I’m going to stick with the original recipe from the stalwart known as Cocina Criolla, the definitive cookbook for Puerto Rican food, available in both English and Spanish.
Pernil – Puerto Rican Pork Shoulder
Pick a pork shoulder (also called a Boston Butt or a Picnic Ham) and consider that each person will eat around 1/2-3/4 lbs. of meat. This particular cut of meat is bone-in and should have the skin left on at least one side (the most delicious part!).
The day before you want to cook wash the meat under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Using a super sharp knife make slits into the skin, going just through the fat but not into the meat, about an inch and a half apart in one direction, and then an inch and a half apart in the other. This should make squares in the skin.
In a pilón (a mortar and pestle) or using a makeshift pilón (I once used the base of an ice cream scooper in a bowl) or in your food processor (not ideal because it makes everything chop up evenly, which prevents big chunks of garlic), combine the following to make your adobo:
For a 4-5 lb. pernil:
6 medium garlic cloves
6 peppercorns or 1/4 tsp. of ground black pepper
1 tsp. of dried oregano
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. of salt for each pound of meat
For a 6-7 lb. pernil:
8 medium garlic cloves
8 peppercorns or 1/3 tsp. of ground black pepper
2 tsp. dried oregano
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. salt per pound of meat
For an 8-10 lb. pernil:
12 medium garlic cloves
10 peppercorns or 1/2 tsp. of ground black pepper
1 tablespoon of dried oregano
3 tbsp. olive oil
3 tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. salt per pound of meat
Rub this adobo all over the pernil and then put it in the fridge to marinate for a day before cooking. I would also advise to make some punctures into the skin and all over the meat with the tip of your knife and shoving the adobo and some extra smashed slices of garlic into them, to let the flavors penetrate the meat.
24 hours later…
Take your cooking vessel out of the fridge and if the meat has lost any liquid spoon it back over the top. Make sure the fat and skin side is facing up. It is also important that your baking dish is at least 2″ deep as there will be liquid at the bottom that will collect during cooking. If you’re using a meat thermometer, carefully introduce it into the meat, taking care to not let it rest against the bone or any fat. Let your oven preheat to 400º for about half an hour.
Cook uncovered at 400º for about an hour, then lower to 300 for about three or four more hours, depending on the size of your meat. It should be well done and at an internal temperature of about 180º. When the meat is done, you should be able to shred the meat with a fork. If the “cuerito” (the skin) is not crispy enough for your satisfaction, then leave it in the oven and raise the temperature again to 400º and cook another 15 minutes or so until it is crispy. The skin will crisp fast so keep your eye on it.
Remove the meat from the oven and let it rest on the counter for about 20-30 minutes before carving. To carve, remove the cuerito completely and set aside. Carve the meat and then cut the cuerito into pieces and place over the meat. (Usually the crunchy skin doesn’t even make it out of the kitchen in my house!)