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In Praise of Pork Shoulder

Look like a hero in the kitchen without even trying
Maiale Al Latte Pork Recipe
Celebrate the pork shoulder with maiale al latte. | Photo: Lizzie Munro for Tasting Table

There is no more lavishly giving and adaptable cut of meat in the pantheon of pig parts than the do-everything, go-everywhere, always-make-you-happy pork shoulder.

Sometimes labeled, incongruously, as Boston butt or picnic shoulder, pork shoulder is a big, marbled, complex thicket of muscle and self-basting fat.

Leaner than belly, infinitely more substantial than loin, the shoulder has the added benefits of being relatively cheap (even if you buy good quality, humanely raised meat, which you should) and very hard to mess up.

"Pork shoulder is a real cornucopia," writes the butcher Tom Mylan in his instructive and funny cookbook, The Meat Hook Meat Book ($37.50).

Recipe for a good-smelling house: Score the fat of a shoulder, rub with salt and whatever spice you've got on hand. Put it in a big pot and roast at moderately low heat. Walk away. Six hours later, the meat is perfect and your kitchen smells so good you want to lick the walls. Or turn the oven way down low and leave it for 24 hours until it is wobbly and soft as custard.

What to do with it now? Cut slices of the roast the first night. Attack it with a fork the next day to make pulled pork sandwiches. Take the scraps and reduce the jellied cooking liquid with some wine and puréed tomatoes for an impromptu ragù. The directions are as endless as the variations between shoulders (no two hunks cook exactly the same, the grain, texture and softness of the meat is always something of a surprise).

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"The lesson to be learned here," Mylan writes, "is that pork shoulder is as much or as little as you choose to make it."

One rich, indulgent yet minimalist approach: maiale al latte (see the recipe), in which the shoulder is seared and then braised in milk. The milk curdles and reduces to a kind of nutty, golden sauce. The meat is rendered tender, but cuttable. And the cook, who is smart enough to buy a nice pork shoulder and not do very much to it, looks like a hero.

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