Sunday, March 25, 2007

Accidental Roast Pork

This is how an accidental roast pork happens:

I pulled the roast out of the freezer several days ago. It was one of the bone-in loin roasts we brought back from our farmer friend's matanza earlier in the month. But then we ended up throwing a dinner party for 10 people. The roast wasn't big enough.

So there it sat in the refrigerator. I took it out of the fridge earlier in the day and left it on the kitchen counter to come up to room temperature, figuring we'd make a family meal out of it later. But on the way back from our friend Mike Klein's farm in the afternoon, when we stopped for a long-anticipated soft ice cream cone at the corner grocery in Brandywine, MD, the store's computer was down and the wait for a cone was interminable. We left without our cone and my 7-year-old daughter was in tears for hours. Check that: She was in full melt-down for hours, and we figured that the African drum recital she was supposed to perform in later in the day was off. But at 4 pm, just 15 minutes before she was supposed to perform, my daughter stopped crying, looked at me and announced, "Dad, we have to go! Let's hurry."

The drum performance that was supposed to happen at 4:15 didn't take place till 6. I spent most of the time napping in an armchair at the Russian Cultural Affairs Office (it's a long story). When the recital was over, my daughter felt she deserved a soft ice cream cone from McDonald's. So we stopped at Mickie D's for the cone. It was past 6:30 when we got home. And there sat this wonderful farm-raised pork roast staring me in the face. I was not about to stick it back in the fridge. This sucker was going to get roasted one way or the other.

Isn't this how most family meals happen?

My point being that we usually can't stop everything and hover over a pork roast for two hours. It has taken me years to develop a successful technique so that I can actually place a roast in the oven and predict, more or less, what will happen without sitting there and monitoring it every five seconds. There are a few essentials:

First, a quality piece of meat. My first choice would be a bone-in loin roast from the middle of the rack, and preferably from a reputable producer such as Niman Ranch or a local farmer. The average pork roast from the supermarket is raised in a pig factory and bred to have as little fat on it as possible. Roasting this factory-type loin is almost like cooking a meat roll from the deli counter. It is especially hard not to overcook the average supermarket roast to the point that it is as dry as shoe leather, particularly if you are following the recommendations of the USDA, which are to cook that pork to 160 degrees. That, friends, is a joke. But more on that later.

If you must use a supermarket pork loin, try brining it according to any number of different recipes available. This will add flavor and moisture to the roast.

The second thing you need to successfully roast a pork loin is an accurate thermometer. My first choice would be a digital thermometer with a probe that can be left in the roast while it is cooking and an alarm feature that tells you when the interior of the meat has reached the desired temperature. My second choice would an analog instant-read thermometer, the kind most chefs have in their coat pocket.

(Note: you also need to know where the sensor is on your probe thermometer. The probe looks like a thick needle. Somewhere along the length of that needle is an indent. That is where the sensor is located and this part of the probe should be inserted into the middle of the roast when you are taking its temperature. Thrust the probe into the meat on a 45-degree angle.)

Third would be a clean oven whose workings are quite familiar to you. Most ovens do not work the same. Some are much older than others. So many recipes simply will not perform the way they were intended in your particular oven. My preferred method for roasting is not in an oven at all, but over hot coals on our Weber rotisserie.

A couple of years ago I roasted numerous pork loins in preparation for a newspaper article. As a result, I came to prefer a sear-roast technique, meaning, I browned the roast in a skillet on the stove before placing it in the oven. I found this to be particularly significant for supermarket-style roasts because they are so lean and don't want to brown particularly well in the oven.

I also found that a fairly low oven temperature results in a higher success rate for roasting pork loin. The reason is physics: A large piece of meat at a higher oven temperature stores lots of heat. It continues cooking--or "coasting"--after you remove it from the oven. With the oven set high, it is very easy to coast right past your desired finished temperature, even when the meat is just resting on the cutting board waiting to be carved. (Most of the time, the internal temperature of the roast will increase five, 10, or 15 degrees after it's been removed from the oven, depending on the size of the roast and the oven temperature.)

Most cookbook authors neglect to go into all these details. And there is a lot of careless literature out there on how "doneness" translates into temperature readings. I applaud Bruce Aidells for being one of the noteworthy exceptions to this rule. If you really love pork, I recommend Aidells' book "Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork," (even with the unnecessary 's' after the apostrophe) as well as his earlier work, "The Complete Meat Cookbook."

Contrary to what the USDA, common folklore and most meat thermometers would have you believe, the ideal finished temperature for pork is not 160 degrees, but more like 145-155 degrees. Unfortunately, this 160-degree mark has become the common benchmark. It dates to a time when people actually fed their pigs garbage and there was a threat of trichinosis in pork. That is not the case in today's commercial pork industry. Of course, you must let your conscience be your own guide.

All of which brings me to my method for a great pork roast:

Remove the roast from the regrigerator about two hours before cooking to come up to room temperature. Season the roast aggressively with salt and pepper. I like to pound garlic, salt and sage in a mortar and pestle and stuff this mixture into deep slits in the roast.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over moderately high heat on the stove. Cover the bottom of the skillet with extra-virgin olive oil. Brown the roast on all sides, using a large pair of tongs to hold the roast in position if necessary.

If using an oven-safe, digital probe thermometer, now would be the time to insert it into the meat at a 45-degree angle, aiming to get the sensor into the center of the roast. Place roast in oven fat-side up. The roast may be in a roasting pan, on a rack, or simply laid on a baking sheet. Alternatively, I just put the roast directly on a rack in the middle of the oven and place a baking sheet underneath it to catch the drippings. This exposes the roast to the radiant oven heat from all sides.

Aim to remove your roast from the oven when the internal temperature reaches 135 to 140 degrees. Depending on the size of the roast, the meat will "coast" to somewhere around that magic 145-155 number while it is resting on the cutting board. Your cooking time will probably be between 1 1/2 and 2 hours. Give the roast a 15-20 minute rest on the cutting board. When you cut into it, there should be just a hint of pinkness in the middle. Don't worry if your roast has gone a bit past that state. You just want to avoid a tough, dry, overcooked roast.

And don't beat yourself up if your roast doesn't come out perfectly the first time. If I accomplish anything in this post, it would be to impress on you all the different factors that need to be considered in roasting meat. Getting it right takes a lot of practice.

In our own case, I measured the temperature of the roast several times with an instant-read thermometer. (My digital probe is busted. I have terrible luck with them.) The first reading was 75 degrees. The second was 110 degrees. The third was 125 degrees. At that point I asked my wife to pull the roast in 10 minutes. When I came back downstairs 20 minutes later, the roast was resting on a cutting board and the temperature was climbing past 155 degrees. Yikes! But that's just how fast a roast can go from "not just yet" to "too much!" (Or maybe I just didn't have the thermometer is the right spot?)

It was delicious, though. Just a hint of pinkness. Streaks of fat, dark meat, light meat, like you'd never see in a supermarket loin. Not even Niman Ranch gets this good. It was heavenly.


Kevin said...

I haven't had oven roasted pork in too long. I think a trip out to my favorite farm is called for this weekend.

Ed Bruske said...

Kevin, if you can get fresh pork at a farm, you are a lucky man indeed. I'm just glad that warm weather is finally here so we can fire up the rotisserie on the back deck.

Anonymous said...

Two words: Pork shoulder.

My mother has spent years trying to reproduce the melting, flavorful Christmas Day pork roasts she (and heck, I) grew up with. Last year, we scored.

A nice big pork shoulder, deeply larded with garlic, rosemary, and the traditional crushed fennel, along with salt and pepper. A bit of white wine in the pan. A 300 degree oven--then, about six or seven hours later, pure bliss.

Best part is, I slept through most of the cooking.

I actually got the idea from reading two different foodie gurus--Nigella Lawson and a local top chef--touting their discovery that lamb shoulder produces a far superior gigot a sept heures than an actual leg. I guessed the same would be true of pork, and I was right.

Try it.

chefjeff said...

Look, I've been a Chef for 35 years and Low and slow to me means well under 300 degrees.

set any size roast of any kind at 200-225 season to your liking with what ever ticles you and watch it...

pork does not need to cook well done anymore MR is perfect without fear, beef is to your liking

beef-122-135, unless you want it falling apart then cook as needed.

Chef Jeff

Ed Bruske said...

Chef Jeff, I like your method. That's the different between how restaurant chefs cook and what's taught in cook books. I wonder how much longer the cooking takes at 200-225.

Anonymous said...

1) thanks for the tips, all sound good to me, though I do plan to go with a lower temp per chefjeff
2) as a person with a name ending in "s" who is also particular about grammar, I believe the extra "s" after the apostrophe in "Aidells's" is perfectly appropriate if not actually required