The Food Lab: Finding My Mojo With Cuban-Style Roast Pork

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

20160623-cuban-roast-pork-mojo-recipe-12.jpg

An easy, pull-apart-tender, extra-porky roast. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The first time I cooked a Cuban-style pork shoulder, I winged it, knowing very little about the recipe other than its basic flavors, and knowing next to nothing about the basic principles of slow-cooked meats. I was at the Vermont home of my friend Deborah Krasner, many years before she wrote the amazing sustainable-meat manifesto Good Meat, and we had a wood-fired pizza oven that was cooling down from the previous night's cooking and a good local pork shoulder to work with. I rubbed the shoulder with a marinade of garlic, oregano, cumin, and citrus juice, then tossed it into the oven and monitored it, letting it roast until it hit an internal temperature of 165°F (a temperature which, at the time, I mistakenly thought was reasonable for pork).

I was hopeful: What came out of the oven had a glistening, charred, crisp crust. But as soon as I started carving, I knew I had made a major miscalculation. The stuff was rubbery to the point of being nearly impossible to cut, even with the sharpest knife we had. It went back into the oven to finish slow-roasting overnight, and we had eggs for dinner.

It wasn't until several years later that I tasted Cuban mojo-marinated roast pork as it should be, when I got to cook with Chef Douglas Rodriguez at a wedding. It was juicy, succulent with garlic and citrus, intensely porky, and melt-in-your-mouth tender. Chef Rodriguez had used a suckling pig cooked in a Caja China—a coal-fired plywood roasting box—but there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to get similar results with an oven and a plain old pork shoulder at home, right?

Mojo Matters

The basic marinade for a Cuban-style pork roast is mojo, a sauce made with the juice of sour oranges, cut with garlic, oregano, cumin, and olive oil. There's nothing particularly special about my version—it's largely based on the one that I saw Chef Rodriguez make, with a few tweaks to the process and ratio. It's so simple that it seems almost unfair to call it a sauce. A "loose vinaigrette," is more like it. Whisk together garlic, fresh oregano, cumin, black pepper, sour-orange juice, olive oil, and...that's it. No cooking necessary, no blending, no reducing; no emulsifying, even.

20160623-cuban-roast-pork-mojo-recipe-02.jpg

The only tricky part is finding the sour oranges, which, even during citrus season, can be hard unless you have a particularly good Latin market nearby. I generally just use the old trick of combining regular Valencia or navel orange juice with lime juice to get a close-but-not-perfect approximation of the real deal.

Like most marinades, this one doesn't have all that much of an effect on the meat other than flavoring the exterior. Because it has acidic citrus juice, a small amount of tenderization can occur, but it's not really noticeable. With plenty of salt added to it, it can help the meat retain juice as it cooks, acting as a sort of flavorful brine, so that's how I like to use it. I also typically split the batch, using half as a true marinade before roasting the pork and reserving the remaining half to use as a sauce for the cooked meat.

Once I was armed with my marinade, it was time to figure out the ideal way to roast the pork.

Project Pork

Recipes for Cuban-style pork run all over the place. Some recommend slow roasting until the meat is fall-apart tender. Others say to cook it to a specified internal temperature. I've seen recommendations ranging from 165°F to closer to 200°F. (Incidentally, you'll see similarly mixed advice for cooking barbecue, whether it's pork shoulders or brisket.) So which method is best?

As I knew from my experience in Vermont, simply throwing a pork shoulder into the oven and taking it out when it hits 165°F in the center is a great way to get rubbery, nearly unchewable results. But cooking it hotter doesn't always work, either.

Well, before we can figure that out, it's a good idea to know exactly what we're working with.

20160701-sous-vide-pulled-pork-01.jpg

Boneless pork shoulder.

Let me quickly quote from a previous piece I've written on how to achieve ultra-crispy pork shoulder:

Most meat can be categorized into two categories: slow twitch muscle, and fast twitch muscle.

  • Fast twitch muscle is the stuff that the animal rarely uses except in short bursts. The breasts on a chicken that let it flap its wings rapidly when escaping danger. The loins on a cow that, well, barely get used at all. Fast twitch muscle is characterized by tenderness (think chicken breast, pork chops, or New York strip steaks) and finely textured grain and is best cooked using fast-cooking methods like roasting, grilling, or sautéing. With fast twitch muscle, optimal eating conditions are met pretty much as soon as you reach your final serving temperature (say, 145°F for a chicken breast or 125°F for a steak). Extended holding at that temperature can increase tenderness slightly, but you won't see any major changes in texture or flavor.
  • Slow twitch muscle, on the other hand, comprises the continually working muscles in an animal. The shoulders and haunches that keep the animal upright and walking. The tail muscles that keep the flies off. The muscles around the flank that keep the animal breathing. Slow twitch muscle is characterized by robust flavor, but a very tough texture with lots of connective tissue that needs to be cooked for extended periods of time to be broken down. With slow twitch muscle, the tenderness of the finished product is dependent not only on the temperature at which it's cooked, but also the length of time it is cooked for. Beginning around 160°F tough collagen begins to break down into tender, juicy gelatin. The hotter the meat, the faster this breakdown occurs.

So the crux is this: With fast-twitch muscle, like pork tenderloin or pork chops, final internal temperature should dictate when it's done cooking. Once that chop hits 135°F, it's medium-rare and ready to go. With slow-twitch muscle, like pork shoulder or a fresh ham, both temperature and time are factors, because it takes time for the reaction that converts collagen into gelatin to take place. How much time exactly? To figure this out, I cooked several pork shoulders in my sous vide cooker, a device capable of holding food at very precise temperatures. I let each piece of pork cook until it achieved tenderness through connective-tissue breakdown. Here's what I found:

20160629-cuban-pork-shoulder-graph.jpg

At an extremely low 145°F, it took about 36 hours for the pork to reach a stage of reasonable tenderness, and even then, it didn't get the pull-apart shreddability of pork cooked at higher temperatures. As I increased the cooking temperature, the rate at which the pork broke down increased, and the texture became more and more shreddable. There is, however, a trade-off in using temperatures that are too high: The meat can dry out internally, which means that it shreds but has a sort of chalky, pulpy texture between your teeth. The lower the temperature at which you soften your pork, the moister it will be on the inside. For sous vide cooking, I ended up preferring something in the middle—cooking at 160°F for around 24 hours.*

* For those of you itching to try this sous vide, bear in mind that you'll still need to finish the pork in the oven to add a nice bark to the surface. A couple of hours at 325°F does the job.

But how does that translate to the oven? I whipped up a big batch of my marinade and started roasting shoulders.

20160623-cuban-roast-pork-mojo-recipe-03.jpg

With sous vide cooking, we don't worry much about browning or about moisture escaping from the surface of the meat. When we cook in an oven, on the other hand, both of those factors come into play.** Browning, or the Maillard reaction, gives the surface of a roast flavor and texture. The higher the temperature, the more pronounced that browning will be. You following here? Because there's one more thing to consider: In an oven, at very low temperatures, the surface of the meat can also dry out like jerky, simply due to diffusion and evaporation.

** Because sous vide cooking uses water as a heat-transfer medium, while oven-roasting uses air, translating sous vide cooking temperatures to the oven is not quite as simple as matching numbers. But suffice it to say that adjusting oven temperature will have the same basic results as adjusting sous vide cooking temperatures: In the low range (say, 200–300°F), it will take a long time to tenderize the meat, but it will stay nice and moist. In higher ranges (say, 300–400°F), the cooking time is shortened, but you lose more moisture.

So slow roasting really winds up being a balancing act between using a temperature that's high enough to keep your cook time reasonable (nobody wants to sit around and watch a pork roast in the oven for multiple days, I presume), but low enough to keep the meat moist, all while ensuring that you achieve proper browning without letting the surface or interior dry out in the process.

Phew. If it seems like I've just made things way more complicated than they need to be, that's because I have. Here's the truth: Pork shoulder is an extremely forgiving cut. Even when not cooked perfectly, so long as that connective tissue has broken down, it'll be tender and delicious. But for my money, the technique that best balances all of those competing forces in the oven is to start the pork at a relatively low 275°F, keeping it wrapped up in a foil shield,*** which helps prevent the exterior from drying out while also making heat penetration more efficient. After a few hours, I remove the foil and increase the temperature to 325°F—hot enough to encourage good Maillard browning, yet still cool enough to allow the pork to finish cooking through gently.

*** If you're cooking a skin-on cut of pork, that skin will do all the protecting the pork needs. And, of course, knowing everything we do about pork shoulders now, you can vary the results of your roast by adjusting this initial oven temperature up or down. Lower it for juicier pork that doesn't quite fall apart as much (but takes longer to cook), and raise it for pork that cooks in record time but may end up a little drier.

20160623-cuban-roast-pork-mojo-recipe-05.jpg

Basting the pork occasionally with drippings helps improve Maillard browning, mainly due to the sugar present in the orange juice. How do you know when the pork is done? When cooking tough, slow-twitch muscle like this, it's best to leave the thermometer in the drawer and use that incredibly sensitive tool your mother gave you: your fingers. As soon as the meat pulls apart easily or a skewer pushed into it offers little to no resistance, there's your indication that connective tissue has broken down.

Slice Advice

If you want your roast pork cut into neat slices, there are two steps you should take: First, chill that pork overnight in its own juices to make it firmer and more easily sliceable. Second, question all of the life decisions that led you up to this point, and reconsider your choices in the future.

20160623-cuban-roast-pork-mojo-recipe-06.jpg

Pork like this, whether destined for the dinner plate or a sandwich, is just better when shredded, with perhaps a couple of cursory knife strokes to break down the very largest muscle fibers. Going wolf pack–style—throwing it all in the center of the table and letting diners go at it with their fingers—is the best way to serve it.

Get Your Mojo Back

20160623-cuban-roast-pork-mojo-recipe-10.jpg

The pork on its own is great, but what great suit doesn't deserve a fantastic tie? Luckily, this pork suit is the kind that makes its own tie. You may have noticed that there were drippings when the pork was done. Like, a lot of drippings. Don't throw them away! Instead, do what I do: Combine those drippings with some reserved mojo, along with massive amounts of chopped fresh mint and oregano, for a sauce that blends the rich, sweet, roasted flavor of the pork with the garlicky-citrusy bite in the mojo and the freshness of the herbs.

20160623-cuban-roast-pork-mojo-recipe-14.jpg

I serve the pulled pork with a big platter of steamed white rice, a pot of these super-simple and tasty no-soak black beans, and some maduros—fried ripe plantains.

20160623-cuban-roast-pork-mojo-recipe-16.jpg

There it is: all of the flavors I remember from that first great Cuban pork experience I had, now firmly within my own reach. These are dangerous times we're living in.