The right rich, meaty cut
A holiday-worthy roast
Evenly distributed herb-and-garlic paste
Juicy, tender meat from edge to center
Crisp and crackly skin substitute
Italy’s porchetta—fall-apart tender, rich pieces of slow-cooked pork, aromatic with garlic, fennel seeds, rosemary, and thyme and served with pieces of crisp skin on a crusty roll—is one of the world’s greatest street foods. Traditionally a whole pig is boned and the meat is rubbed with an herb-spice paste. The pig is then tied around a spit and allowed to sit overnight. The next day, it’s slow-roasted over a wood fire until the meat is ultratender and the skin is burnished and crackling-crisp.
Recently, porchetta came to mind as I pondered my holiday roast options. It may sound strange, given that a sandwich doesn’t offer much in the way of presentation, but it’s such a knockout for flavor that I had to wonder: Could I make a few tweaks to transform porchetta from street-fare sandwich to holiday centerpiece?
Going whole hog wasn’t an option, so my first task was picking the right substitute. Some recipes call for wrapping a pork belly around a pork loin. I ruled out that scenario from the get-go for being too fussy; plus, pork loin takes more work to keep juicy. Pork belly alone is also a popular choice since it comes with skin attached and it’s very fatty (it’s what you make bacon from, after all). I found that it was easy to tie into a compact roll that sliced neatly, its skin cooked up crisp and crackly, and the meat was tender and moist. But I ultimately decided against it, too, since it’s often composed of more fat than meat—fine for bacon but a bit much for porchetta.
Pork butt, cut from the upper portion of the shoulder, was my best bet. It generally cooks up flavorful and moist, and it’s fatty without being over the top. Its lack of skin was a drawback, but I decided I could live with it since I suspected I could brown and crisp the fat cap as a stand-in.
That said, the recipes I tried featuring pork butt left something to be desired. Even though the meat was tender and juicy at the center, it got progressively drier and tougher toward the exterior. The herb paste was poorly distributed, and the irregular, loose shape of the roast meant it was hard to slice into neat pieces elegant enough for a holiday dinner.
The Skin I’m In
When cooking a pork butt, low-and-slow is best since it allows the ample collagen time to melt, creating an ultratender roast; it also helps mitigate the difference in cooking between the interior and exterior. I found that 6 hours produced the best results, but that was just too long. Cutting the roast in half lengthwise decreased the cooking time by almost half, and it gave me two cylindrical roasts that sliced nicely, especially when I tied them with twine.
Now the meat was cooking through more evenly and more quickly, but the exterior was still a bit dry. I had noticed when testing the pork belly version that all of the meat was juicy and tender despite having been cooked at a much higher temperature than my pork butts were. Was it the greater amount of fat? Or was it the fact that when tied into a roll, the meat in the pork belly was entirely encased within a layer of skin?
Increasing the amount of fat in my pork butt wasn’t on the table, but I had a notion for how to fake a layer of skin around it: aluminum foil. For my next test, I covered the roasting pan tightly with foil, roasted the pork until its interior registered 180 degrees, and then removed the foil. A billow of steam wafted up, and I noticed that the meat had shed about a cup of brothy liquid into the pan—good signs. While the roasts were pale and wan on the exterior, the meat was tender and juicy throughout, with little discernible difference between the exterior and the core. Here’s why: The steam kept the surface temperature of the roast from exceeding the boiling point of water (212 degrees), preventing the exterior from overcooking as the interior came up to temperature. Cooking with steam also sped up the cooking, since steam is a better conductor of heat than air is. The cooking time was down to about 2 hours.
I drained the juices from the pan, untied the roasts, and returned them to a 500-degree oven for a short stint to brown.
Technique: Roasting Under Wraps
A Cut Above
Next, I shifted my focus to the paste. Some recipes called for rubbing the paste onto the roast, with the hope that the flavor would penetrate. Others called for poking holes in the roast with a knife and stuffing the paste into them. The latter approach worked better than the former, but it was slow work and impossible to tell whether I’d done a good job until serving time. There had to be a better way.
I tried pulling each roast apart along the seams while still keeping the pieces attached to each other—basically unfolding each roast—and then rubbing the paste all over before tying each piece back together. That worked in terms of distribution, but the roasts fell apart at the seams during slicing. A similar thing happened when I butterflied the roasts along their length. The problem in both cases was that I had created seams that ran perpendicular to the direction in which the roast would be sliced. So what if the cuts ran in the same direction as the slices?
For my next test, I cut a series of parallel slits through each roast along its length, stopping 1 inch from each end. Getting the paste into the roast was easy since the slits were big enough to let me use my hands to push the paste in from both sides. I rubbed each roast with salt, applied the paste, and let the roasts sit overnight in the fridge, which gave the salt time to penetrate the meat. This worked perfectly and guaranteed that every serving was deeply flavored and that the meat would slice neatly.
Why Some Fat Melts and Some Crisps
For fat to render, or melt, the fat has to be released from the bounds of its cells—that’s why cutting shallow slits in the fat cap helps. But when exterior fat that’s still trapped within cells is exposed to the heat of the oven and reaches a high enough temperature (well beyond 300 degrees), it oxidizes, leading to a series of reactions that produces flavorful molecules and brown pigments and leads to cross-linking of those pigments, which delivers that familiar crisp texture.
All that remained was to improve the appearance and texture of the fat cap “skin.” I had avoided putting the herb paste on the fat cap to give it a better chance of crisping up, but it was still a bit pale, and the fat just below the surface wasn’t particularly well rendered. To improve things, I used a sharp knife to create 1-inch-wide crosshatches through the cap, which would let heat penetrate and the fat render out. To help it dry out and thus crisp up, I rubbed the fat cap with salt and left the roasts uncovered for their overnight rest. Finally, to boost browning, I added a bit of baking soda to the salt rub. Baking soda creates a more alkaline environment, which makes browning reactions more likely to occur. Crisp, rich, and deeply browned, the fat cap was the perfect complement to the tender, moist, boldly flavored meat beneath. This porchetta might have simple street-food roots, but it’s worthy of taking center stage on any holiday table.