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In the last couple days of The Food Lab's porkstravaganza 2011, we've covered some particularly fatty and/or messy cuts of meat. 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?
A crown roast is formed by taking a regular bone-in pork loin (that's the big muscle that runs along the back of the pig), and forming it 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. I don't recommend buying single-rack crown roasts for this reason. 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 unecessary cutting.
When purchasing a crown roast, you usually have to ask your butcher to form it for you—only very dedicated butchers are likely to have them pre-formed 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 a two per person if you're looking for 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
Now, looking at the picture of the sliced crown roast at the top of this page, 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 has 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 muscle, like, say pork belly, beef short ribs, or chicken thighs are the muscles that the 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 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 in the case of beef, 145°F for chicken, 110°F for tuna, or 140°F for pork, and the only thing you're doing is drying it out.
*Ok, ok, so holding it there for a very very long time using some sort of sous-vide type setup will change its texture over time, but we're talking in normal home kitchen terms here
So with a crown roast, the key is to get the entire piece of meat from edge to center to around 140°F while simultaneously crisping the exterior.
Luckily, we've 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 oven and by the time the very center is at 140°F, the outer layers of the pork are well past the 165 to 180°F mark. Roast it in a 250°F oven, on the other hand, and you can get the entire thing pretty much exactly at 140° from edge to center**.
**OK, so the meat between the ribs will acrually get hotter, as will some of the fat cap surrounding the loin, but those are composed mainly of fat and connective tissue so 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 oven to crisp up the fat on the exterior.
If you want to be all fancy-pants about it, you can add other seasonings to the exterior other than the kosher salt and black pepper I opt for. Any herbs stuffed into the center would be nice, as is 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 they cook to prevent them from charring). Personally, I like the primal nature of the way charred ribs look.
Ain't that pretty?
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.