Try pernil, a delicious, slow-roasted Puerto Rican pork

May 25, 2022
This pernil, a slow-roasted pork shoulder, is tender and juicy. A great recipe for your next meal. Photo: Getty Images.
This pernil, a slow-roasted pork shoulder, is tender and juicy. A great recipe for your next meal. Photo: Getty Images.

A few years ago, while living among the Denver diaspora in Chicago, I learned the basics of this recipe from a man in the largely Latin American Pilsen neighborhood there. It is a slow-roasted pork called “pernil.” Puerto Ricans commonly prepare it at Christmastime; Cubans sometimes cook it for cubano sandwiches. It’s meltingly tender, chin-dripping, juicy pork, headily scented and flavored.

I think pernil is perfect for summertime gatherings. Because it makes memories.

Here are five procedures necessary to produce a perfect pernil:

  • Find a good-sized pork shoulder (5-6 pounds to serve 8-10 adults; even larger for gatherings of 15 or more people). At the butcher counter, you may see pork shoulder also labeled “butt” or “picnic.” Be sure it is skin-on. Before working with it, rinse it off and dry it with paper toweling. Lay it skin-side up.
  • It will take 5-6 hours to cook a 5-6 pound pernil. (I have cooked a larger one for 8 hours.). But also allow for previous overnight time.
  • After its overnight seasoning, take it out of the refrigerator for at least 1/2 hour before putting it to the heat, so that it will approach room temperature and thereby cook more evenly.
  • Serve the ripped-up pieces of pork with small buns and any kind of vinegary hot sauce that you like. If you’re doing this in the Puerto Rican way, serve it with the accompaniments of cilantro leaves, lime wedges, avocado slices or wedges, flour or corn tortillas, salsa piquante and, if you wish, chopped scallions or white onion.
  • To grill a pernil outdoors, mimic the heating action of the kitchen oven. Fire a mound (or chimney) of briquets and, when all the charcoal is covered in grey ash, mound the coals to one side of the grill (or heat to High only one side of a gas grill). Put a large disposable aluminum tray half-filled with water on the empty or cool side of the grill, under the grate.

Cover the grill and, when it reaches 450 degrees, place the pernil on the grate over the aluminum pan. Cover and maintain the temperature between 300-350 degrees, replenishing coals as necessary. Cook until a meat thermometer registers 180 degrees at the thickest part of the pernil, about 5-6 hours, perhaps more. Remove and let rest and continue with the main recipe.

Pernil (Slow-cooked Pork Shoulder)

Serves 8-10.

Ingredients

5-6 pounds bone-in, skin-on pork shoulder

1 tablespoon red chili powder (heat level your choice)

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 tablespoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican oregano)

3 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

7-10 peeled garlic cloves

Finely grated rind of 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon good quality olive oil

Directions

Assemble the chili powder, brown sugar, oregano, and salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor or bottom of a large mortar. Add the garlic, lemon rind and juice, the vinegar and olive oil, and process or grind everything into a fine paste. Set aside.

Slicing away with your knife just under the skin, peel back the skin atop the pork, making a large flap, assuring that the skin is neither pierced by your knife nor completely pulled away from the meat. If there is too much fat to your liking, remove some of it, nonetheless retaining a good amount of fat. (It will remove itself and drip away during cooking but is necessary for self-basting the meat as it cooks). Place the flap of skin back onto the meat.

Take a small paring knife and make fairly deep, 1-inch slits all over the pork, twisting the knife so that the incisions can be plugged with the paste. Rub the paste all over the pork, on all sides, top and bottom, and stick as much of the paste as you can into the many slits.

Place the pork shoulder in a roasting pan and cover it with a lid or plastic wrap; place it in the refrigerator and let it marinate overnight or for at least 8 hours, refrigerated.

Get more great tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place the pork, covered, in the oven for 1/2 hour. Then lower the heat to 250 degrees and cook it, basting occasionally with the accumulating juices, for up to 5-6 more hours, lowering the heat even more if it appears to be browning too quickly.

During the last hour or two, uncover it so that it will begin to crisp up on top (if you’re lucky enough to find a shoulder with skin on, this skin will caramelize into a sort of “pork candy” that English speakers call “cracklins” and that later may be pulled off the butt and then cut or sliced into small pieces and fought over).

Take the pernil from the oven and let it sit, either in the juices or aside on a cutting board, for at least 30 minutes. You may very loosely tent it with foil if the air temperature in the room is cool. Then tear it apart (taking care with the internal meat: that will remain very hot for a long time).

You may make a sauce of the dripped juices after removing most of the fat and even deglazing the pot with some apple juice, chicken broth, white wine or, in a pinch, water.

Reach Bill St John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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