Slow Cooked Pork
I started cooking for myself when I was in college in Cleveland (in a dorm – but that’s another story…) When I moved into my room in September, my mother drove me out to a big supermarket to stock up on supplies. When we got to the meat department, we stared in confusion at signs all over the walls.
“We are changing the names of the cuts of meat we sell, in order to come into line with the rest of the country. Your meat will be the same, it will just have a different name!” And then it would happily announce “(Cut of meat we had never heard of) will now be called (another name we’d never heard!)”
Well, that was helpful… Apparently New York City was not in compliance with either the rest of the country or with Northern Ohio’s traditional use. And even now, that can be a problem with writing meat recipes…
(Side note – that was the day my mom gave me a rule of thumb. “When you don’t know something, ask. Ask the person behind the counter, or another shopper – they’ll be delighted to help you, and they’ll just think I didn’t teach you right, and I don’t mind.” Well – these days they’re not blaming my mom… but I still ask, if I’m not sure of something, especially in ethnic markets, and I have found people to be very helpful. Equally, I happily answer questions in stores, and the farmer’s market and CSA. We all know different things – let’s share!)
So anyhow – this is a pork shoulder. Or it might be called a pork butt, or a Boston Butt (the word butt has nothing to do with the anatomy of the hog, though I’ve seen a couple of other explanations.) It also might be called a picnic ham (though it isn’t a ham, being neither cured nor, well, pardon the expression, the hog’s butt) or a picnic shoulder. (Well, at least we’re back in the right part of the hog – but I’m not taking this thing on a picnic!) And if you’re in my grocery store, it might be called Pernil, though that’s a recipe, not the cut of meat it is made of… Currently, my store seems to have settled on Upper Shoulder (the part most likely to be called a Boston Butt, so far as I can tell,) Lower Shoulder (ditto for Picnic Ham,) and Whole Shoulder – which this was.
The shoulder is a very tough cut of meat, with lots of fat, connective tissue, and collagen. So people either grind it (it’s the basis of many sausages) or cook it very, very slowly… Extremely slow cooking, for hours, with a very low heat melts down the fat and collagen, tenderizes everything, and leaves you with tender, succulent, melt in your mouth meat. This is the basis for pulled pork, pernil, pork barbecue, carnitas… all flavorful tender ways to serve a very tough cut.
Traditionally, they are done in a barbecue pit, a hot smoker, or a very slow oven. The slow cooker, though, could have been made for this cut… 8 hours on Low, and the meat is falling off the bones, and wonderfully rich and tasty. Any seasoning you add has plenty of time to cook into the meat, for another layer of flavor. (Or you can cook it plain – still delicious – and add seasoning later.)
This was a seven pound Whole Shoulder (that is a small size for the whole one) bone in, fat and rind covering one side. I have earlier mentioned that I most often use a 5 quart slow cooker – but this recipe is one reason I have a 7 quart – the bone is too long to fit into the five quart. Do measure your cooker – very little is more annoying (I can tell you from experience) than getting home with a wonderful 8 pound cut of meat that was on a great sale – and discovering that it won’t fit in the pot you intended to cook it in… I have been known, in that case, to cut off most of the meat, cook that in the slow cooker, and simmer the bone and everything clinging to it in a stock pot (where it was harder to control the heat, on the stove I had at the time… so that meat was not as tender as the slow cooked. And I did have to add water.)
Anyhow – all this introduction, but the recipe itself is super easy. You can, if you want, just sling the shoulder in the slow cooker, put it on Low, cook it for 8 hours, and have good, tender meat… and on crazy mornings, it is good to know that this is an option. Using a sharp knife to cut the rind is a good idea, as it will help the fat render out – but you don’t absolutely have to do that.
When you have 5 minutes for set-up, though, you can do much more. I took one onion, quartered it, and put it in the mini-chop that came with my immersion blender. Then I added 4 peeled cloves of garlic, 2 teaspoons of cumin, and 2 teaspoons of salt. And I got out a chunk of the chopped pepper I froze last Fall (which is started to get frosted, poor thing – I’m finishing it up…) I would say that was the equivalent of 2 raw hot peppers? Or use dried red crushed pepper, or hot sauce, or whatever works for you… or omit it all together. This did not add any perceptible heat, but did add to the complexity of flavor. I processed this mixture until still slightly chunky, though well blended.
I took out the meat, and lay it on my cutting board. I took a very sharp carving knife, and slashed the rind into diamonds, and then stabbed the meat, both in the slashes and around the sides, to let the seasoning penetrate. I turned it rind side down, and smeared the onion mixture all over the meat, stuffing it into the stab holes as much as I could. Then I turned it again and placed it into the slow cooker, with the layer of fat on top. I took the rest of the onion mixture and spread it over the top (Hmm… looking at the pictures, I could have spread that a little better…) and sides. Then I put on the lid, set it on Low, and let it cook 8 hours.
At the end of that time, I opened it up. I used my tongs to remove the top layer of fat (which is sort of soft and slurpy…) and discarded it. Then I pretty much pulled out chunks of meat – it was too soft to lift out cleanly. The bone pulled right out, and I set it aside. For that night’s dinner, I just served meat as it came in the chunks – and my, it was good… (we had some more… and I nibbled a bit, later.)
I shredded the rest of the meat, putting some in zip bags in the freezer, and some in the fridge to eat over the next few days. I got (without having weighed what we ate the first evening, so this is an estimate) something over 4 pounds of dense cooked meat. There was also a pint of a rich stock, which gelled hard in the fridge. I used it over the next week – some to moisten the meat when I served it, some in soups to add flavor and body. I returned the bones and some rind and scrap to the pot, covered it with water, and cooked it overnight, for more (though lighter) stock – or bone broth, as people call it these days – to use in soup. We don’t tend to think about pork broth, except for ham, but this is a great base in bean soups, especially.
So – really only about 10 minutes of preparation, the slow cooker does the rest, and you have pounds of cooked meat to use in several ways. Heat it as is. Mix a little into beans – it adds flavor and richness. Stir in a little barbecue sauce and heat for a Quick Pulled Pork. (For the real stuff, return the shredded meat and some sauce to the cooker, let it run a few more hours to infuse the meat with the seasoning.) Add a little to lentil or bean soup. Season for carnitas and make tacos.
This all makes it one of the recipes to have up your sleeve for Transition from Takeout… pull a bag of shredded slow cooked pork out of the freezer and dinner is almost ready… I’ve been distracted from that lately, but really, most of these slow cooker recipes work well, as they often give you more than one meal’s worth, and reheat beautifully.
Slow Cooked Pork
- 1 pork shoulder
- 1 onion peeled and quartered
- 4 cloves garlic peeled
- 2 t cumin
- 2 t salt
- 2 seeded hot peppers or 2 t crushed red pepper
- Take the pork shoulder and slash the rind with a sharp knife into diamond shapes. Stab the meat all over.
- Put remaining ingredients in a food processor and process until blended but still slightly chunky.
- Smear the seasoning mixture all over the meat, working it into the slashes you have cut.
- Place the meat into a slow cooker. Put any remaining seasoning mixture on top of it. Cover.
- Cook for 8 hours on Low.
- Pull off rind and fat - discard. Pull meat into chunks and shreds for serving. Moisten with the broth in the pot.