The Food Lab: How to Cook a Perfect Crown Roast of Pork

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik. Video: Serious Eats Video]

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Over the years, we've covered cooking techniques for some particularly fatty and/or messy cuts of pork. Suckling pig is delicious, but carving and serving it is no walk in the park. Porchetta is, frankly, the ultimate holiday roast, but can be a bit rich for some.

Enter the crown roast. Pretty, presentable, and delicious, it's the best pork option for those who prefer their pork a little leaner and who like meat with a distinct chew and texture.

Once again, it's extraordinarily easy to do at home. Here's how.

What Is a Crown Roast?

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

A crown roast is made by forming a regular bone-in pork loin—that's the big muscle that runs along the back of the pig—into a circle, with the ribs pointed skyward.

In order to do this with a single rack (about 10 ribs), you need to cut into the spaces between the ribs so that they can splay out a bit. However, by doing this, you end up increasing the surface area of the pork, which can cause it to dry out more than it would if it was still completely intact. For this reason, I don't recommend buying single-rack crown roasts. You're better off roasting a single rack as a standing roast instead of curving it into a crown.

Better is to buy a crown roast formed by both bone-in loins, attached end to end, making them large enough to form a circle without any additional cutting.

When purchasing a crown roast, you'll usually have to ask your butcher to form it for you—only very dedicated butchers are likely to have them preformed and ready to go, though you might have luck at a high-end supermarket. Aim to have about a rib and a half per person, or two per person if you want leftovers.

For the record, the "crown" in a crown roast serves about as much purpose as the crown on a king: It's purely aesthetic, and your pork will be no more or less tasty because of the shape it's roasted in.

How to Cook It

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Now, looking at the picture of the sliced crown roast above, you may notice that the slices look curiously like pork rib chops. Guess what? That's precisely what they are.

Pork chops are obtained by cutting in between the ribs of a whole pork loin. The only difference here is that they're left completely attached. What does that mean for cooking? A couple of things.

First off, pork loin is fast-twitch muscle, and, like all fast-twitch muscle—say, chicken breast, a New York strip steak, or a tuna loin steak—it's made up of plenty of finely textured muscle and not much connective tissue or fat. This means that temperature is the most important factor when it comes to cooking it.

Let me back up a bit.

See, slow-twitch muscles—like, say, pork belly, beef short ribs, or chicken thighs—are the muscles that an animal uses for extended periods of time very frequently. Because of this, they develop plenty of connective tissue, composed mainly of the protein collagen. This protein is tough and chewy if you try to eat it when it's undercooked.

In order to get it to transform into lovely, juicy gelatin, you must cook it at a minimum temperature of around 160°F (71°C) or so for a long period of time—generally several hours. (By the way, this is the temperature that the meat itself must be, not the oven temperature.) Got that?

Fast-twitch muscle, on the other hand, has no connective tissue to break down. As soon as it reaches its final temperature, it's done. Holding it at that temperature for extended periods of time will change it very little.* Cook it to temperatures much above 125°F (52°C) in the case of beef, 145°F (63°C) for chicken, 110°F (43°C) for tuna, or 140°F (60°C) for pork, and the only thing you're doing is drying it out.

* Holding it there for a very, very long time using a sous vide–type setup will change its texture over time, but we're talking traditional cooking methods here.

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

So, with a crown roast, the key is to get the entire piece of meat to around 140°F from edge to center, while simultaneously crisping the exterior.

Luckily, we already studied this very same engineering problem when we applied it to prime rib a couple years ago. The key is to realize that the hotter your oven temperature, the more uneven your roasting will be.

So, for example, roast a crown roast in a 400°F (200°C) oven, and by the time the very center is at 140°F, the outer layers of the pork will be well past the 165 to 180°F (74 to 82°C) mark. Roast it in a 250°F (120°C) oven, on the other hand, and you can get the entire thing pretty much exactly at 140°F from edge to center.**

** Okay, so the meat between the ribs will actually get hotter, as will some of the fat cap surrounding the loin, but those are composed mainly of fat and connective tissue, so they can handle the extra heat.

That's good news for us. All it takes after roasting is a rest, then a quick bang into a 500°F (260°C) oven to crisp up the fat on the exterior.

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

If you want to be all fancy-pants about it, you can add other seasonings to the exterior besides the kosher salt and black pepper I opt for. Any herbs stuffed into the center would be nice, as would garlic, shallots, citrus fruit—whatever tickles your fancy (pants).

Want to get even fancy-pantsier? Go ahead and put cute little paper hats over the ends of your bones to cover up the charring they get (or, if you prefer, foil hats while the roast cooks, to prevent them from charring). Personally, I like the primal look of the charred ribs.

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Ain't that pretty?