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Puerto Rican pernil is a standout holiday roast. Just guard that crispy skin.

by The Washington Post | November 23, 2021 at 10:00 p.m.
Pernil. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post.

By Monti Carlo

The Washington Post

In fall 1985, with Thanksgiving looming, my mother prepared for her 20 guests as if Jesus and his disciples were coming over.

She bought dishware, glassware, linens, gold-plated cutlery and even a fresh living room set to show off her brand-new home. After thumbing through every cookbook and food magazine in her extensive library, she decided to serve a dozen traditional dishes mixed in with holiday favorites from Puerto Rico, the island where I was born. Instead of turkey, the star of the show would be pernil, a Puerto Rican slow-roasted pork shoulder crowned with cuerito, its coveted blistered skin.

There was no bigger fan of that crispy rind than my mother. Her face transformed as soon as her fingers wrapped around the heavenly crust. The thunderous crunch of it shattering couldn't drown out her moans over the perfect marriage of salt, pork fat and crackling.

She went to three Mexican markets until she found a monstrous pork shoulder the size of a toddler. Its skin was pasty white, with a layer of lard at least two inches thick. She placed it in the front seat, wrapped the seat belt around it, and crooned along to "Pedro Navaja" as she drove us back to the suburbs.

My brother and I removed the middle shelf from the chilly interior of our fridge while my mother prepped the pork. Her movements were graceful and self-assured, a dance she had done many times before. She scrubbed the shoulder with water, then with lemon halves. She gingerly sliced under the layer of fat, separating skin from meat. She stopped just short of the small end of the roast and flipped the skin over.

She stabbed the pink flesh dozens of times with a steak knife, so swiftly and deeply, and I made a note never to argue with her while she worked in her kitchen. She broke open two heads of garlic, smashed the cloves in a mortar and pestle then dumped in spoonfuls of salt mixed with dried oregano and a Puerto Rican spice mix called adobo. She worked in a few spoonfuls of vinegar to transform the spices into an aromatic paste. Then she filled the gashes one by one with her garlic concoction, Celia Cruz blaring, a cigarette dangling from her mouth as she sang "AzĂșcar!"

She heaved the pork into a 13-gallon trash bag and poured in a marinade of lemon, lime and orange juices. Then she hoisted it into the fridge, where it sat, crowding the rest of the food like a fat man in a kiddie pool. For the next two days, whenever my brother or I opened the refrigerator door, she hissed at us to be careful, squinting her eyes, so we knew there would be repercussions if we weren't.

The beast emerged from its resting place the night before Thanksgiving. My mother put it in a roasting pan big enough for my 1-year-old sister to play in and turned the oven to 200 degrees. She was going to slow-roast it overnight and baste it every hour. The cursing began almost immediately as she fought to pull the rack out far enough to brush the pernil gently with its fragrant juices. Her screams, unprintable in a family newspaper, were the starting shot of what would end up being a 16-hour marathon.

We woke up the next day to an intoxicating smell. My mother was still at it. Her eyes were bleary, and her cigarette held on to her lip like a magic trick. The next few hours were a flurry of vacuuming and dusting as my mother chain-smoked her way through the house rearranging knickknacks.

As guests arrived, each one closed their eyes, inhaled deeply and purred, "Oooh, it smells so good in here!" When the head count reached 20, my mother began handing me dishes to place on the table. I held my breath as I traveled the 15 feet from kitchen to dining room, balancing bowls stacked high with rosemary roasted potatoes, freshly baked buns and fluffy wedges of cornbread. She and my brother followed with cranberry sauce, buttered asparagus and corn on the cob, then green beans topped with almonds. I placed the island-style sweet potatoes close to my seat for easy access. My mother trailed behind me with serenata, a cold codfish salad, and a crock of steaming hot arroz con gandules. I positioned an apple pie next to a pumpkin pie and a flan de queso. Finally, all the dishes rested on the laden table except for one. The center of our bicultural banquet remained empty, awaiting its diva, which still sat uncovered in the oven so that its skin would remain as crispy as possible.

As everyone gathered around the lavish feast, the women murmured at how beautiful the meal looked. The men licked their lips. The big moment had finally arrived. My mother, her wiry black hair pointing every which way, her face sweaty from the exertion, put on her new red oven mitts and opened the oven door. As she pulled the rack out in jerky inch-by-inch increments, she gasped so loud the room fell silent. She glared over at her two sisters, who stood at the dining room table, and spat out, "How could you?!" in a tone of disgust usually reserved for dog kickers.

And then I saw it. Someone had plucked a massive chunk of prized cuerito off the leviathan my mother had spent three days preparing. Instinctively, I walked back toward the living room, my eyes never once leaving my mother, whose face now matched her oven mitts as the insults snowballed between sisters. When my mother called one of my aunts the most offensive word you could hurl at a woman, all the men marched out to the backyard to smoke. I sat on our new tropical print couch, wide-eyed, waiting for someone to throw a punch.

And then the miracle happened. The punches never came, the shouting died down, and the men returned to the table. As my stepfather quickly said grace, my mother looked forlornly at the pernil, pale where its prized, crispy skin had once been. She transformed her scowl into a tight smile and began serving dinner to her guests. My Tio Alvaro kept muttering "Ay Dios mio," between bites, his eyes lifting to the ceiling as if we were hiding Jesus in the rafters.

I understood his cries of pure joy as soon as I took my first taste of that tender pernil, which held a piece of cuerito barely the size of a quarter. The meat melted on my tongue. The crackling was so unctuous it made me salivate and left my lips stained with a spiced, fatty gloss. I looked up at my mother, finally realizing the depth of our loss, and swallowed the urge to yell at my aunts too.


Active time: 45 minutes Total time: 6 hours 45 minutes

6 to 8 servings

Pernil is the star on many Puerto Rican holiday tables. This bone-in, skin-on, picnic-cut pork shoulder is rubbed down and marinated with fragrant herbs and spices, and then slow-roasted until the meat almost falls apart. Though the pork is an unforgettable medley of garlic, oregano and citrus, the true prize is the "cuerito," the perfumed, unctuous skin so crispy, it shatters when you bite it.

It's one of food writer Monti Carlo's favorite recipes to showcase during a special occasion, because most of the heavy lifting happens in the beginning, as you prepare the pork shoulder and its marinade. After that, the oven does most of the work, letting you focus on side dishes. Traditionally, pernil is served with yellow rice and pigeon peas, but feel free to accompany it with roasted vegetables or mashed potatoes.

Depending on how the animal was raised and its fat content, your pernil may be very tender with a pull-apart tex

ture, or very lean and easily sliced.

When reheated, leftover pernil can be dry, so serve it with a fruit compote on top, such as fig, or repurpose it in dishes such as tacos, stuffed peppers or enchiladas.

If your pork shoulder is bigger than 4 pounds, double (or triple) the recipe for the oil and seasoning. Stick close to the recipe, but don't worry about being super precise.

Make Ahead: The marinade can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Storage Notes: Leftover pernil can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen for up to 2 months.

Where to Buy: The picnic-cut bone-in pork shoulder with the skin on can be found in well-stocked grocery stores, butcher shops and Latin markets.

3/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons annatto seeds, also known as achiote seeds

1 orange

1 lemon

1 lime

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns

1/4 cup minced cilantro stems

6 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons fine sea or table salt, divided

4 teaspoons dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

One (4-pound) picnic-cut bone-in, skin-on pork shoulder

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil and place a wire rack over it.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the olive oil with the annatto (achiote) seeds and warm until the seeds begin to sizzle. Remove from the heat and let cool for about 15 minutes. Strain the oil into a glass jar (it will stain plastic) and let cool completely; discard the seeds.

Using a vegetable peeler, cut two strips of orange zest (each about 4 inches long), two of lemon and two of lime (each about 2 inches long). Juice the citrus and combine the juices.

In a small skillet over medium heat, toast the coriander, cumin and peppercorns until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to the pitcher of a blender. Add 3 tablespoons of achiote oil, 2 tablespoons of citrus juice, the cilantro stems, garlic and strips of zest and puree until smooth but spreadable. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt, the dried oregano and onion powder to the blender and mix in. If the marinade paste is too thick, add a touch more juice.

Thoroughly dry the pork shoulder and remove any stray hairs from the skin. Place your hand on one edge of the skin, and using your thumb and forefinger, pinch the edge of the skin and lift it off the meat. Use a sharp, thin-blade knife to slice between the skin and the meat, gently lifting the skin. Continue to lift the skin off the meat as the other hand slices. Slice almost to the very end of the skin, but not all the way through. You don't want to remove it; you want to create a flap of skin that is still attached.

Using a sharp knife, puncture the pork (not the skin) at least a dozen times, piercing the meat on all sides. Rub in the marinade paste, making sure to get it into the punctures, but avoiding the skin.

Rub a little achiote oil over the skin, just to color it lightly. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the baking powder over the skin and rub it in well. Be sure to use the baking powder only on the skin; if baking soda gets on the meat, the meat will become slightly bitter.

Set the pork on the rack, skin side up, and refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.

About 1 hour before you plan to roast the pork, remove it from the refrigerator. Using a towel, clean off any excess paste. Brush the pork all over with some of the achiote oil. Use as much as it takes to cover the pork in a thin film of oil, then season with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 250 degrees. Roast for 1 hour, then rotate the baking sheet, front to back. Using a pastry or basting brush, lightly brush the skin with more achiote oil. Roast for 1 more hour. Rotate the pan front to back again and brush achiote oil on the skin once more. (If you run out of achiote oil, you can use olive oil.) Repeat for the next 4 hours, rotating the baking sheet and brushing with the oil every hour or until the pork's internal temperature registers 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and a fork slides into the meat with little resistance. Remove from the oven and tent with lightly oiled piece of foil.

Increase the oven temperature to 475 degrees. When the oven has been at 475 degrees for at least 5 minutes, set aside the foil and return the baking sheet to the oven. Rotate the sheet pan front to back every 5 minutes, until the skin has blistered and sounds hollow when tapped with the back of a wooden spoon, 15 to 20 minutes total.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven, tent the pork again and let the meat rest for at least 10 minutes before carving and serving.

Nutrition Information Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

From food writer Monti Carlo

Print Headline: Puerto Rican pernil is a standout holiday roast. Just guard that crispy skin.


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