Roast a Pork Shoulder and Feast For Days

A roasted porcelet shoulder on a wooden board, with a bowl of dipping sauce and a bowl of lettuce leaves in the background

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, Sasha Marx, and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Throughout these first few months of quarantine cooking we have embraced a "component cooking" approach to meal-planning, which helps alleviate some of the workload of preparing most, if not all, meals at home. Simmering a big pot of beans or roasting a flat of mushrooms on a Sunday can pay dividends later in the week when you need to put together a quick lunch between Zoom meetings—white bean and tuna salad never fails—or when you need to figure out dinner before plunking down on the couch to watch another episode of Floor Is Lava. Keeping your fridge stocked with adaptable meal components is also especially helpful during a time when cooking inspiration is in short supply and there are more pressing issues to focus beyond what to make for dinner.

Over the past couple of months, I've been applying this component cooking approach to slow-roasted pork shoulder, one of the best, low-effort, huge-payoff cooking projects around. The process goes like this: I pick up a very affordable 10-pound pork shoulder from the butcher counter on a weekend morning, head over to my in-laws' to roast it in their oven (my oven is currently busted) for about eight hours, serve some of it right away for dinner, and wrap up the leftovers for using in meals throughout the week.

Like a pot of beans, roast pork shoulder leftovers are versatile and can easily be incorporated into countless recipes—add them to breakfast hashes and quesadillas, stews and soups, or stir-fries and sandwiches.

Butt or Picnic Shoulder? The Best Cut For Slow-Roasting

Close-up of a pork butt roast on a wire rack-lined baking sheet.

You're faced with a very important decision in the choose-your-own-adventure pork shoulder story before you even get to cooking—choosing the cut to work with. As we've covered before, "pork shoulder" is the umbrella term for the primal cut from the pig's forequarter, which includes the shoulder and foreleg. When shopping for a big hunk of pork shoulder to roast, you'll find the primal divided into two sub-primals: the butt (also known as Boston butt), from the upper part of the shoulder close to the animal's neck, and the picnic shoulder (or picnic roast), which is located below the butt and includes the foreleg up until the hock, right above the pig's front foot.

For roasting purposes, choosing between the butt and picnic shoulder is essentially a choice between super succulent meat and crispy, crackling pork skin. With better marbling than picnic shoulder, pork butt yields the most tender and juicy results, which is why it's the go-to cut for competition barbecue pulled pork. As with most tough cuts of meat, a low-and-slow cooking approach is required to break down pork shoulder's tough collagen into melty gelatin, and the Boston butt's high amount of intramuscular fat helps keep the meat moist during the cooking process.

Closeup of finished roast picnic pork shoulder.

The one big downside to pork butt is that it's not usually sold skin-on, so if you're after puffy, crunchy, crackling skin to snack on, then you'll need to turn to a picnic shoulder instead. The continuously worked slow twitch muscles and lower amounts of intramuscular fat make the meat of a picnic shoulder a little tougher and drier than pork butt, but you get the opportunity to dial in on crunchy skin, something that we value highly in our Thai-inspired, slow-roasted pork shoulder feast.

For this project, our goal was to cook a simple and delicious roast pork shoulder that, after you've eaten some fresh out of the oven, would give us plenty of leftover meat, which could then easily be repurposed in a number of different offshoot recipes. After many rounds of testing, it's clear that pork butt produces the most consistently juicy roast pork shoulder, and that makes it the most versatile cut for using in the recipes listed below. We recommend purchasing a bone-in butt (the bone helps insulate the meat during roasting), with the fat cap intact (more insulation and flavor), and proceeding with our method for slow-roasted pork shoulder. Even without the skin, you can still give the roast a high-heat finish to crisp up that fat cap.

For the Best Leftovers, Be Thoughtful and Waste Nothing

Once you've cooked the roast, it's tempting to just shred the whole thing to pieces with a couple of forks or barbecue claws and start chowing down. If you're serving a crowd, that's definitely an approved move, but most of us aren't doing a lot of hosting these days. So if you're planning on setting aside leftovers for later use, then you are best served by only portioning and shredding the meat you want to eat right away, and leaving the rest of the roast as intact as possible, making sure to hold onto every usable scrap of meat and drop of rendered fat.

Wrap Your Leftovers Tight

Shredding pork shoulder with the bear claws

Like most meat, leftover pork can fall victim to "warmed-over flavor" when reheated. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee notes that reheating meat can produce stale flavors caused primarily by "unsaturated fatty acids, which are damaged by oxygen and iron from myoglobin," and due to its high proportion of unsaturated fat, pork is more susceptible to warmed-over flavor than beef or lamb. Keeping leftover roasted Boston butt in large pieces, rather than shredding all the meat when it comes out of the oven, minimizes the surface area coming into contact with warmed-over-flavor-producing oxygen.

If you do shred the roast into pieces right off the bat, all is not lost. You can minimize oxidation by tightly wrapping leftovers with plastic wrap and refrigerating them in a sealed container, or using the water displacement method to store roast pork in a zipper lock with as much air pushed out as possible.

Save Drippings, Fat, and Bones

Slow-roasted pork shoulder ready to be finished under high heat.

Between hoarding vegetable scraps for stock and pesto, and the upside of buying whole chickens, we are making sure to squeeze as much use and value out of ingredients as possible, and the same goes for roasted pork butt. After hours of slow-roasting, you should end up with plenty of golden rendered fat and jelly-like drippings on your roasting tray. Do not toss any of that; that's valuable, delicious stuff that can be used in all of your leftover pork cooking adventures.

The fat can be used for cooking vegetables for a stew, crisping up meat carnitas-style, or as an aroma oil for a bowl of ramen. Pork drippings add meaty, savory depth to anything and everything, from ragù to beans to fried rice. And leftover bones can be simmered with water and those vegetable scraps you've been saving for a quick stock, or can even be used to fortify a quart of store-bought broth. To store the fat and drippings, I just use a rubber spatula to scrape everything off of the roasting tray into a deli container while the fat is still warm. Pop it in the fridge and the drippings and fat will separate as they cool, and you can deploy them as you choose later on.

What to Make With Leftover Roast Pork Shoulder

With the purchasing, cooking, and storing of leftovers squared away, we can get to the good part: what to actually make with your leftover roast pork! The repurposing possibilities are almost endless, but here are a few ideas to get you started. Think of these suggestions as a rough guide for using up what you have.

Not Barbecue Sandwiches

A pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw

We know that tossing some cooked pork butt with tangy barbecue sauce and slapping it on a bun doesn't come close to real-deal pulled pork, but it does make a pretty great working-from-home desk lunch. You won't be upset about it. Reheat the pork slowly, wrapped in foil in a low oven, or in a covered saucepan with the fat and drippings on the stovetop before tossing with barbecue sauce.

Hash

Crispy Pork Shoulder Hash With Asparagus and Serrano

This crispy pork hash, inspired by chorizo and potato tacos, is another great way to use up leftovers for a dish that has a weekend brunch vibe. Charred asparagus brings vegetal sweetness to the dish, while serrano chili provides background heat. Serve it with warm tortillas, and a few fried eggs if you're feeling fancy.

Ragù

Overhead of a bowl of pappardelle with pork shoulder ragu

If you're in the pasta mood, give this pork ragù in bianco a try. A nod to the famous suckling pig ragù from the New York City restaurant Maialino, this tomato-less meat sauce pairs roast pork leftovers with fennel, white wine, and lemon, perfect for tossing with fresh egg dough pasta.

Ramen

Close-up overhead shot of a bowl of shoyu ramen with garnishes

For another noodle application, you crisp up leftover pork butt for a bowl of miso ramen with burnt sesame oil or even a cup of your favorite instant noodles.

Beans

Closeup overhead of a bowl of white bean and kale stew with 'nduja.

You can't go wrong with pork and beans, whether you're adding morsels of roast pork to a pot of New Orleans-style red beans and rice, barbecue beans, or a quarantine bean stew. Along with the leftover meat itself, almost any bean dish can be improved with the addition of drippings, pork fat, and sure, toss those leftover bones in the pot as well. It'll be great.

Cuban Sandwiches

cubano roast pork sandwich

With roast pork leftovers, you've got the makings of a Cuban sandwich. Melty cheese, cured meats, roast pork, pickles, and tangy mustard pressed between light and crisp Cuban bread. It would be a disservice not to make a couple of these.

Fried Rice

Close-up of a bowl of pork fried rice with corn and shishito peppers.

Kenji has called fried rice the hash of dinnertime, and combining extra roast pork with leftover cooked rice is a no-waste-cooking double whammy. This pork fried rice with corn and shishito peppers combines summer produce and roast pork for a thoughtful clear-out-the-fridge dinner. And if your fridge isn't overflowing with peppers and corn, you can always improvise, and use Tim Chin's "torch hei" fried rice technique as a guiding light.