Growing up in Austria I had my fair share of deliciously cooked pork on the dinner table. Later in cooking school that did not change and I ate pork nearly as much, since it was the chicken breast of those days. I had cooked an endless amount of roasted pork any way you slice it, from loin, pork filet, belly or Schweinsbauch—this is what its called in Germanic speaking countries. In restaurants I often cooked mild-flavored suckling pigs and also huge whole hogs, which were carried in front of the guest to be carved. I still remember the pork roast flavor—it reminds me of a barnyard with its gamey quality—truly delicious. For some reason as the years went by pork fell off the consumers’ palate—perhaps it had to do with a highly competitive pork market that was focused on volume vs. quality.
Pork these days
Fast forward to today. The goal was to get a delicious, fall-apart-in-your-mouth textured picnic roast, aka butt roast, which is a part from the shoulder and commonly used for pulled-pork types of recipes. My standard for this type of roast is a deep, satisfying, sweet-roasted flavor.
Pork roast cooking
First of all, in my experience pork these days benefits from salt brining, which gives it its basic flavor from within and helps with locking in moisture.
Brining: I tested various brining techniques from 2 weeks to 10 hours. I’ll keep it simple for the sake of length for this blog post. It depends on whether you want a more boiled ham type of texture and flavor or a roasted type is desired. The best results for my fall-apart pork roast was a 16-hour brine of salt, water, bay leaves and vanilla. In my opinion, vanilla underlines the roasted pork flavor notes in a delicate but seductive way. Now let's go to the cooking part. I performed several contemporary, low temperature methods such as sous vide, which instructs us to cook the pork for +/- 11 hours at 150 degrees Fahrenheit in a tightly sealed bag. I cooked it in an oversized Ziploc-type bag. I seasoned it with a few aromatics such as garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. This led me to a similar, moist-cooking method called CVap cooking. In short it's all about cooking meat in a specialized equipment chamber overnight under a combination of adjustable roast/steam settings—definitely a restaurant cooking style. It was delicious but was missing that addictive roasted pork flavor. Yep! I was dwelling and longing for those taste memories from Austria.
The next step was roasting at various oven temperature settings and internal meat temperature doneness. Eventually I hit the note and ended up with pork that was roasted at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 5–6 hours (depends on the weight/size of the pork) in an heat-proof type of vessel such as a pot.
The vessel was large enough that the meat did not touch the walls or lid that kept the pork roast moist. Also, my pork had a thick layer of fat on one of its sides, which I put facing down in the cooking vessel on top of chopped onions, celery and carrots. I cooked the meat to an internal temperature of 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, the meat was rested in that roasting pot for one hour after cooking. I kept it in a warm place close to the stove, which gave it a meltingly soft texture.
(recipe for a 5–6 pound pork butt)
3 bay leaves + 1 cup water
8 cups cold water
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1) Combine bay leaves and the 1 cup of water in a small pot and bring to a boil, then steep the mixture for 5 minutes on the side of the stove.
2) Combine bay leaf water, the 8 cups of water, vanilla and salt and mix with a whisk.
3) Put meat into a large enough container and cover with brine liquid. The meat should be immersed in the brine—if not, make more brine.
4) Brine meat for 16 hours.
Pork roasting steps
(recipe for a raw 6—7 pound pork shoulder/picnic roast)
- brine pork for 16 hours
- season roast with 1 teaspoon per pound of meat of Kosher salt
- chop 1 carrot and 1 onion and distribute in the bottom of the cooking vessel
- put roast fat-side facing down into the cooking vessel, cover with a lid
- roast pork at 300F oven temperature
- the internal meat temperature should reach 200 degrees Fahrenheit, after 5–6 hour cook time (it depends on the size of the roast)
- let the roast rest for 1 hour on the side of the stove covered with a lid or with aluminum foil
Chef’s note: I prefer to pick a pork shoulder from a farm that applies humane practices and does not administer antibiotics. A diversified natural pig diet makes a great flavored pork roast—especially if it incorporates squash since that imparts a sought-after flavor profile.