Pork shoulders are a large, tough, fatty cut that, when cooked for a long time at a low temperature, produce tender, soft, juicy meat. Traditional barbecued pork -- that which comes from the American South -- involves whole shoulders cooked over a charcoal fire or in a smoker. In both cases, the meat is cooked at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period. To replicate the slow cooking process without the smoke, cook shoulders at 200 F in the oven.
Benefits of Slow, Long Cooking
The connective tissue in the shoulder begins to dissolve as the pork is cooked. At the same time, the fat found in the shoulder melts, coating the meat, keeping it moist and adding rich flavor. Slow cooked pork shoulder is cooked well past the point of standard doneness, so that the fibers in the meat separate easily and develop a lush, rich texture. Slow cooking is useful for home cooks as a means of transforming economical cuts, and for a tasty meal that requires little other than occasional attention to prepare.
Seasoning the Shoulder
Traditional barbecue pork is seasoned with a dried rub of oregano, paprika, pepper, salt, garlic and onion. Left to sit on the pork for 5 hours to overnight, the seasonings penetrate deep into the meat, and form a crust as the shoulder smokes. You can use the same rub for an oven cooked shoulder, or experiment with an international variation. Bo ssam is Korean slow-cooked pork shoulder, similar in texture to pulled pork but seasoned with a crust of mustard, brown sugar, cayenne and garlic. The paste is applied to the shoulder wet and, as the shoulder cooks, hardens, trapping moisture in, creating an extremely juicy shoulder.
Cooking in the Oven
Preheat the oven to 200 F, and place the seasoned shoulder in a large roasting tray. Add 1 cup of liquid for every 3 pounds of shoulder to the tray. Options include water with dried spices, wine, apple cider vinegar or stock. The liquid steams as the shoulder cooks, keeping the meat extra moist. Place the roast and the tray on a center rack and cook for 45 minutes per pound. A 5-pound shoulder will be ready in a little under 4 hours, when the meat is tender enough to pull apart with a fork.
Slow Roasting Other Roasts
Slow cooking also works well with other, less tough cuts, such as pork loin. To cook these roasts, sear the meat first over high heat in an oven-proof skillet, browning all sides of the roast. Transfer the roast and pan to the oven, set at 200 F, and cook until the internal temperature reads 145 F with a food thermometer. The center will be slightly pink, while the rest of the roast will be white and firm. Conversely, you can slow cook pork until it's almost done, without searing, and then place it under the broiler to brown before serving.
David Grimes has worked professionally as a chef since 2002, in settings as wide-ranging as a corporate caterer and as a sous chef in a Michelin-starred French restaurant. He has been writing about food since 2009 and published in "Time Out New York" and "Food and Wine" magazine.