Braise Pork In Milk For An Unbeatably Tender Dish

Braised pork doesn't hold back. When the right cut, say a shoulder, Boston butt, or slab of belly, is gently simmered in liquid and aromatics, the outcome is almost alchemical. Fat and connective tissue renders into unctuous, silky perfection that enrobes the tender meat that holds onto all the flavor of the braising medium. Rich, savory, and without pretense, braised pork isn't a delicate dish, which is why delicate elements rarely make their way into the pot. Stock, wine, cider, and beer are often deployed in this culinary cauldron of delights. But have you ever thought of using whole milk to braise pork? Wild though it may sound, the idea is nothing new.

For the skeptical — and there are likely many — let us allay your fears. Hot milk certainly brings to mind thoughts of curdling and the revolting, gelatinous chunks of milk solids that are sure to be swimming with your pork. And when braising pork with milk, it will curdle, but that isn't a bad thing; you're not going to be drinking a glass of this braising liquid, which is well spent at the end of the recipe. Rather, here the properties of milk are harnessed to yield pork that is, almost unbelievably, more tender than when braised in other liquids thanks to the lactic acid in milk. While we don't often think of whole milk as acidic, it contains a powerful acid that helps break down meat fibers, essentially turbo-charging the braising process.

Trust the process

Italians have been braising pork in milk for ages. Maiale al latte is a staple of Italy's livestock-heavy regions, where both pork and milk are in abundance. Like any traditional Italian dish, there are scads of variations, but at its heart Maiale al latte sees pork shoulder submerged in milk along with flavoring like rosemary, garlic, and lemon and slowly heat until falling apart. The result is a blessing of porcine goodness infused with powerful aromatics and herbs with a hint of dairy creaminess that combines with the rendered fat and connective tissue to create an unforgettable mouthfeel.

Of course, Maiale al latte is just the jumping-off point for this method. Pork shoulder can be swapped for belly or even leaner cuts, like the loin. If garlic and rosemary aren't to your liking, try milder shallots and earthy sage. The constant is the whole milk, the key to the whole dish. Not only does it provide tenderizing lactic acid, but it transforms during cooking. Milk sugars gradually caramelize in the soft heat of the braise, lending a bit of sweetness to the pork as well as a bit of nuttiness. And as to the curdling, think twice before tossing the squiggly bits. Not unlike a ricotta, these warm flavorful bits make a perfect accompaniment to the achingly tender pork.