When it comes to pork, the premium cut is without a doubt pork tenderloin. As the name suggests it's tender, lean, mild in flavor and boneless. It's similar to chicken in most ways, except when it comes to cooking methods. For all its benefits, pork loin does have one drawback: it becomes dry and bland tasting unless cooked quickly. This is why for slow cooking recipes, the humble, inexpensive and often overlooked pork shoulder emerges as the better choice. Cooked at temperatures of 250 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for an extended time, the shoulder becomes remarkably lush and tender.
The anatomy of the pork shoulder has much to do with the its preferred cooking technique. It's a complex roast, with bones, connective tissues, fat and a network of muscles running in different directions. When cooked quickly it develops a stringy, chewy consistency, however using a slow cook method allows pork shoulder to really shine.. Whole shoulders make a very large roast, often 12 pounds or more, so for retail purposed they're typically cut in half. The upper portion of the shoulder is usually referred to as the butt or Boston Butt, while the lower portion is usually sold as a fresh picnic or shoulder arm roast. Either of these options can be slow-cooked.
Cooking times are variable for shoulder roasts, depending which cut you've purchased and how you're cooking it. At 250 F or lower, shoulder roasts will typically require 1 1/2 to 2 hours per pound. If your roast is deboned and tied it will cook more quickly, so expect your cooking times to be at the shorter end of that scale. Bone-in roasts take longer, especially if you leave the thick rind of fat in place to protect the meat from drying. Those cooking times assume you're cooking the roast to well-done to take full advantage of the shoulder's character.
Importance of Temperature
In 2011 the USDA lowered the recommended safe temperature for pork down to 145 F, the same as for other fresh meats. That means you don't have to cook pork well done any more, which is important if you're cooking a loin. With shoulder, it's a bit more complicated. You can treat it as an ordinary pork roast and it's safe to consume when its internal temperature reaches 145 F or 160 F, but its dense muscles and connective tissues will still be chewy. If you continue cooking until its temperature rises into the 180 F to 200 F range, the connective tissues will dissolve, the muscle fibers will soften, and your shoulder will develop its famously rich and lush texture.
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You can cook your shoulder in several ways, but slow-roasting and old-school barbecue are two of the most common. In the oven, set the temperature to 250 F and let your roast cook undisturbed for six to eight hours, depending on its size, until it's fork-tender. If you want to crisp the skin -- a guilty pleasure -- remove the roast, raise the oven to 500 F, and return the roast to the oven for 15 minutes at the higher temperature. Barbecued shoulders are usually flavored with a dry spice rub, then cooked over charcoal and hardwood at 200 F to 250 F. This results in classic pulled pork, with a hard, smoky layer of "bark" on the outside and rich, moist pork inside.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- Los Angeles Times: Almost Too Good to Be True
- Serious Eats: The Food Lab -- Ultra Crisp-Skinned Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder
- Amazing Ribs: Perfect Pulled Pork
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.