Sometimes, I cheat.
No, not on my other half, naturally! Pfft! I cheat with spice mixes. I have done so since one fateful day, many years ago, when someone with the best of intentions gifted me with a 7kg hardcover book of world cuisines – glossy, beautifully published and in full color. It proudly lives in my storage as I reckon it’s the 2nd worst cookbook I’ve ever owned. Or perhaps it ties for first place with “Spicy” by Marie Claire magazine (which is the worst cookbook I ever
spent wasted any money on, and I heartily recommend you to not waste money on, by the way – I regret the £1 I’ve shelled out on it in a charity shop to this day).
Anyway, about that first awful cookbook – I received it as a gift for a birthday sometime in my early 20s, and I tried, a couple of times, to cook something from it. Except – and this is what scarred me – there is no way I could have done that properly without actual electronic chemistry-lab sensitive scale and a spice grinder. How else would I get 17g of coarsely ground spice X and mix it with 24g of Y, and… you get the idea. And the result was that to cook Indian, I tossed the book onto a bottom shelf, visited an Indian store, bought a few varieties of their curry powders, and that was that. These days, I don’t touch cookbooks which prescribe ingredients in such a manner, and I buy good-quality spice mixes whenever I can. And use most of the spices to eye/taste anyway. So you see, this story is not so much about cookbooks I hate, but about spice mixes: I love them.
But wait, you say, didn’t you write about how you hate the spice packets and never-ever buy them if you can help it? Yep, I did. But, the two are really, really not the same thing! The pre-prepared spice packets pumped full of sugar, salt and additives and starch are the subject of much loathing. The nice carefully blended and pre-mixed and packaged spices in pretty tins or jars, sometimes with a bit of salt but usually without sugar, and without any added unwanted stuff – those are the stuff of dreams. Lazy, lazy dreams. But wait, there is more to the indulgence – on a fairly recent visit to Essencefabriken, I’ve bought a baggy of their propritary Cajun spice mix – and visiting a proper spice shop, sniffing all the spices and mixes they have, and then telling them how much of each you want, and getting it all weighed out for me on an antique balance-scale in polished brass – this is the posh life of a spoiled home cook.
But I could talk about spices and spice shops for hours, and I’d promised a recipe for pulled pork. A fair warning to you – this will be long.
You I can’t really describe the process and all the details shorter. You may be able to, but not me. I like my instructions to be on the exhaustive side, so please bear with me here, ok?
So, here we are finally getting to the pork in question – pulled pork is easy to make. The hardest bits are mixing the spices (or not, see above!), and resisting the temptation to cook it at a higher temperature than the recommended 110C, and for a shorter than the recommended 6-12 hours (and that time varies wildly). I freely admit to being lazy, but there is an ingrained, in all of us who cook, tendency to want to check on food and keep seeing if it’s ready yet, which is very, very counterproductive when trying to make pulled pork.
And yes, the slow lazy cooking process which takes many hours and during which the oven and meat appear to be barely doing anything, it is very counterintuitive to the modern in-a-hurry cook, with our tight schedules and deadlines and tendency to think that any meat which is cooked longer than an hour must end up overcooked. But fear not, as not all meat is meant to be eaten bleu (barely warmed up by searing), and while it may not look like there’s a lot going on during that time, trust me, while you wait (and you’re better off reading, working, bathing, sleeping or walking outside in meantime), magic happens in that oven.
To sum this up in short – you brine your cut of pork overnight submerged in brine entirely, and then you place it in a Dutch oven or a baking dish, stick a meat thermometer in it, place it all into that oven and forget about it for the duration. Which goes against the “oh my god it’s going to burn if I don’t check it yet again!” instinct (which is right in about 19/20 dishes
you I cook).
How-to is first here, because the how is more important than the “what spice mix” in this case:
Note: If you do not own a meat thermometer, buy one. Trying to cook this without one is near-doomed to failure. I’m serious, and I am the one who routinely cooks meat by eye – slow-cooking meat in the oven requires one and there is no way around it. If you cook tens of them every week and they are in a uniform weight from same pig farmer, or if you are good with a smoker on a barbecue, maybe, but not in the oven.
Note 2: This process must be started 2 days in advance. So plan ahead accordingly. No, you cannot make it less, and no, there are no shortcuts around that I know of which’d not make the end result worse. On the other hand, these 2 days are really not spent making efforts – it is just the time which is needed.
- Add your brine ingredients and about a liter of water (recipe follows) to a pot, and bring to a boil. Stir until dissolved, remove from heat, add the remainder of water (cold, to speed up brine-cooling process), and allow to cool completely. I stuck the pot out on the balcony for an hour or two – October night in Stockholm works fine as a refrigerator. Don’t be tempted to put the hot pot of brine in your fridge. Bad for fridge, bad for your food and thus just a Bad Idea™!
- Rinse the pork shoulder (pork neck, karre, Boston Butt – I used boneless, but bone-in works fine for this too), and pat it dry.
- If your cut is large (over 2kg), you can cut it in half before brining. I usually do this, because it is easier to work with two smaller pieces than one humongous one.
- Once brine is cooled, submerge the meat in the brine (I use a large plastic food-safe bucket that holds 5L with a snap-on lid), cover and place in the refrigerator or out in the cold if your weather allows, for a min of 12 hours, up to 24 if your cut is larger than 2kg (~4lbs).
- After brining time is done, preheat your oven to 110°C (230F).
- Take the meat out of brine, and discard the brine (do not reuse, ew!). Pat the meat dry, and rub it all over with a sufficient amount of spice mix (see recipe and suggestions below) to coat all sides. Or, you can skip the rubbing with the spices and just plonk it directly into an ungreased baking dish as it is (I’ve done both, and both work great, honestly).
- Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the pig. If I cook a 2kg or larger cut of pork, I will often have it cut in half – insert the thermometer into the thickest part of either piece.
- Place the dish in the oven, and set thermometer to 93-94C. I usually do this late at night, so in the morning I am awakened either by my alarm, or the meat having roasted and beeping its readiness. If cooking overnight, you can actually set the oven temperature to 100C rather than 110C.
- Roast meat until it reaches internal temperature of 93°C (200-201F), or even as high as 95C. Short of charring this, it’s very difficult to overcook. Yes, it’s way beyond what is considered “done” for pork, but that is the temperature you want to roast to (and yes, I am the one saying it, the woman who likes her beef barely-warmed and her lamb red-to-pink). Note that the temperature advance will plateau at 75-85°C (170-185F) and will crawl up very slowly from there. It’s normal, due to fat rendering and collagen turning into gelatin – see details below.
- Remove from oven, cover in foil, and allow to rest for a few minutes before arming yourself with 2 forks and shredding the quivering (and it’ll quiver by that point!) piece of meat into pulled pork strands, and mixing those into the accumulated puddle of sauce around the meat.
- Serve with your choice of bread (I baked a part-wholemeal long-ferment sourdough which I should possibly blog about at some point, but any good crusty bread will do – or just, any fresh bread really!).
Now, the recipe, such as it is, and some answers:
You need a fatty, tough cut of pork, which may be counterintuitive when you are going for a final result of such melting tenderness. But yes, do not touch that pork loin and put down the tenderloin. Get the cheap, fatty shoulder – you need that fat and collagen which the loins do not have to create this. The cut usually recommended for this is shoulder – bone in or out – top “butt” or arm; karre in Swedish. I don’t honestly know if the ham (back leg) would be as good in this, but different cuts of meat are used for this in the USA, and I imagine any similar cut of pig would do. My boneless shoulder (neck) cut was small but it worked just fine – a very large cut of this sort can be cooked very well (even better imho) but it will take a long, long time.
1.2kg cut of pork fed 3 very hungry people to stuffing. Would have worked for 4 too, really. However, lately I tend to just grab the largest fatty neck of pig from the pile and buy it whole. Leftovers from this are amazing.
The amount of brine depends on the size of your cut. I often use 3L or so. Make enough brine. You can measure the meat by putting it in the pot before making brine, to see how much brine you’d need to cover it. Remember that meat will initially displace it, at least in the 1kg:1L ratio.
Brine recipe: Per 1 gallon (4L) of water, use:
- 1 cup (2.4dl) coarse salt
- 1/2 cup (1.2dl) molasses sugar (farinsocker)
- 4 heaping tablespoons of whatever spices you want to use. I used Essencefabriken’s Cajun mix. Just make sure your spice mix is a mix of spices, and does not containg significant % of salt.
- 2 teaspoons of red chili flakes (optional, for those of us who love the heat)
Scale the recipe as needed, put in the pot, boil, cool, ready to submerge meat. (Roasting fowl really benefits from this treatment too – just remember that if you use a whole bird rather than a cut of meat, it needs to be taken out of the brine 2-4 hours before cooking to allow the meat to absorb the brine from skin’s inside.)
I used about 3 heaping tablespoons of Cajun spice mix on my 1.2kg piece of pork after brining. This will depend on how large the cut is and how thickly you coat.
The meat will stabilize at certain temperatures, most notably the 75-85°C range mentioned above. It is because once a certain internal temperature is reached, first fat, and then collagen, will begin to liquefy. You want this to happen in order to make the meat tender and shreddably soft – collagen is what makes the meat tough so you want that gone, and the melting fat is what keeps the meat from drying. Both good things.
If you attempt to speed the process up by cooking at higher temperature, the meat will probably be pretty good, but it won’t be as moist or as soft. Minor changes to temperature advised are no risk – it’s a very flexible cooking process, but if you up the oven temperature to 150°C or above, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. Or a different dish of pork, as it happens.
Different cuts from different pigs will take different amount of time to cook. It is because they have different ages, different amount of collagen content, different fat marbling, etc. This is not a dish you should expect to be done by hour X unless you have a pretty good idea and have done this many times. A small cut like mine could take 5 hours to cook – or it could take 8 or 9. It is not unheard of for the cooking process to take 14 hours for the larger cuts (over 3kg). So, if you want to serve this to your guests, cook it overnight and let it rest, then shred and if needs be, cover in foil and reheat gently before they arrive.
Long cooking will make the meat shrink. Depends on what else you feed your guests or how much of a meat-eater they are, you may want to allow +1 or 2 people in your calculations. Besides, leftovers from this are fantastic in soup, pasta, sandwiches, tacos, Tex-Mex in general, and a thousand other things.
So, with all of this in mind, the time and wait and the reading of this post which got hugely long, the results are amazing and they are worth it.
We devoured ours with about half a loaf of bread between the three of us, and no other sauce than the drippings from the pork itself, and a fruity light white wine to wash it all down. And it was amazing. And I will make it again and again, and you should too. Unless you are Jewish or Muslim. But then, I heard that this method works really well on fatty lamb shoulders and legs too. Just so you know!
And I know that you know you want it.