If you stop a random Puerto Rican on the street and ask them what is the one food that defines their cultural identity, the one food that evokes nostalgic memories of family and community and holidays, you will get the same answer every time: Pernil Asado. In case you take me up on that challenge I should warn the English speakers out there that the correct pronunciation is not “PER-nil a-SAD-o” – so save yourself the smirks and pronounce it more like “pen-NY a-SOU”. Pernil Asado is a roast pork shoulder slow cooked and dredged with a garlic-vinegar marinade – literally “Pernil” means pork shoulder and “Asado” means roasted – that is served at just about every Christmas and at any other celebration that can be used as an excuse to cook and consume large amounts of pork. If you go to a restaurant or bodega you can usually find pernil asado on the menu – and if you’re lucky it might even be not half bad – but you will never experience the sublime excellence of this dish until you have had a proper homemade version. And if you are not fortunate enough to get invited to any fiestas puertoriqueñas in the near future….you will just have to learn to make it yourself.
I am not Puerto Rican, so if you insist on getting an authentic family recipe from a true blooded boricua then you will have to move along. My wife is Puerto Rican and we have been putting on a party for friends and family around Christmastime every year for the last five years or so as an excuse to make pernil, coquito, pastelitos and all the other traditional holiday delicacies. And since i am the cook in the family that meant that I had to learn how make these things – and make them well enough to please a crowd of Puerto Ricans at Christmas. No easy task. But the consensus is that my pernil is somewhere between amazing and the best they’ve ever had, for what its worth.
Whenever I try to teach myself how to cook any traditional dish I follow the same general approach. First, eat some. Second, get on the internet and read a bunch of recipes. Third, I try to figure out what is the soul or essence of the dish – what it is that makes it what it is – and then I throw together a recipe. From there adjustments are just trial and error each time I repeat it till I have it down. I don’t look for one great recipe or follow any specific recipe or defer to some great expert – and in my experience, with any great traditional recipe, every family will have their own anyway. Best to unravel the secrets behind it and make it your own.
So what is the essence of pernil asado? First of all, the most important thing, is the cut of meat itself. You must use a piece of meat cut from the shoulder – a picnic shoulder or shoulder blade roast or boston butt all work fine. You can use fresh ham as well – which comes from the leg – but then technically you are making lechon asado. Whatever cut you use must have a bone in the center and a nice slab of fat on one side. The thicker the better. The thicker the cut, the longer you can cook it, and the crispier the outside will get. Just get the biggest, fattest cut you can find and invite enough people over to help you eat it all.
After the cut of pork, the next most important thing about pernil asado is the seasoning. The seasoning – which will serve as a marinade as well – must be loaded with garlic and contain an acidic ingredient like vinegar, lime, or sour orange. After that it is up to you – adobo and oregano, the cornerstones of pretty much Puerto Rican dish are of course expected, and sazon is always welcome. As far as I am concerned, sofrito is the key. Sofrito will add a savory touch that just perfectly complements the flavor of the roast pork, and it helps coat the whole thing in a crispy crust that you don’t necessarily get otherwise. At any rate, the key is to use a MASSIVE amount of these seasonings and dredge the pork in it, and let it marinate for at least 24 hours.
Finally, low and slow cooking is essential. Pork shoulder is loaded with fat and connective tissue that needs to break down to become tender. This is going to be an all-day (or overnight) project. The plus side is that it will make your house smell unbelievable. You won’t have to worry about anyone lacking for appetite when it is ready.
The ingredients are approximate – I never measure – I just make as much as I think I need and try to get the consistency right. Use enough garlic to kill a man.
Pernil Asado: Recipe
1 Pork Shoulder (pernil)
Approx 1 1/2- 2 cups Goya Sofrito
Approx 1/2-1 cup red wine vinegar
Approx 1 cup+ minced garlic
Approx 1/4-1/2 cup Adobo
Approx 1/4 cup oregano (optional – you probably won’t taste it either way)
Combine the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Consistency should be thick enough to rub on the pork so it sticks – too liquidy and it will all drain out during the cooking process.
Next, rinse and dry your pork shoulder. Lay it fat-side-up on a counter or cutting board. This is a shoulder blade roast.
Take a sharp knife and prepare the pork to accept the marinade. That means cutting the fat in a crosshatch pattern, and then stabbing or cutting the pork all over to create deep channels for the marinade to seep into. Cutting up the fat will help it to crisp up into chicharrones that everyone can fight over while you attempt to carve the meat.
Now slather the pork with the marinade. Push it into the cuts and holes you created and make sure you get it in there as deep as possible. Use all of the marinade. If it seems like too much, it is not. I have yet to overseason a pernil – and I tend to go heavy on the seasoning – and thus I am beginning to suspect it is impossible.
Now that your pork is covered in the seasoning, cram it into a large freezer bag or put it in a container of some sort and place in the fridge. Leave it alone for 24-48 hours. If you like you can flip it over every 12 hours or so to ensure even distribution of the seasoning.
After 24-48 hours the pork will have changed in color dramatically. The vinegar cures the meat, turning it a pale, grayish color. The deep red color of the marinade (from the sofrito) disappears as well – but I do not have an explanation for that. Don’t be put off by the change.
Let the pork rest on the counter for an hour or so to warm up to room temperature. If you go straight from the fridge to the oven the outside will heat up faster than the inside and it will not cook evenly. Place in a roasting pan in an oven preheated to 400’F or place on a grill preheated to 275′-325’F (indirect heat obviously).
If you are cooking in the oven, cook at 400’F for about 45 minutes to help crisp up the outside, then turn the temp down to 325’F. Cook at 325’F for about 8 hours. You can cook it lower and slower if you like, and if you have time to spare.
The last couple of times I made pernil I smoked it. Technically that makes it pernil ahumado rather than pernil asado – but if you don’t tell anyone you smoked it they will probably not be able to put their finger on what the difference is….only that it is unlike any pernil they’ve ever had. As long as you use a mild flavored wood and don’t overdo the smoke, the smoke will complement rather than dominate the flavors of the seasoning and it will taste like pernil rather than barbecue. But the results are just mouth watering. My favorite response, from a coworker with whom I shared some leftovers, was along the lines of “My mouth…is still just tingling…from the flavor…”
Traditionally you do not monitor the temperature of pernil to determine when it is finished cooking. You pull it when the fat has crisped to just shy of burning. It is very hard to overcook a pork shoulder, but if you cook it to around 190’F it will turn to pulled pork, and it tastes much better cut into chunks that shredded to try to stop it before that point. As a rule it will rise to 160’F and hold there for several hours. Once it begins to rise past 160’F the meat will have tenderized and you can pull it at any point after that. In the oven or in the smoker you are looking at around 8 hours regardless, so plan your day accordingly.
Is your mouth watering yet? This pernil was smoked – if you cook it in the oven it will look a bit different – darker and more uniform on the outside and without red tint in the meat. Once finished let it rest a few minutes before carving. If you are going to let it rest longer, wrap it in foil and a towel and stuff it in a cooler. It will stay warm for an hour or more but the chicharrones will soften a bit (solution? Eat the chicharrones first). Carve the meat into chunks and serve with arroz con gandules. Seriously, if you serve it with any other type of rice you will have committed an egregious faux pas. And I just so happen to have the perfect recipe for arroz con gandules.