Genius Pork Shoulder Ragu (a.k.a. The Instant Dinner Party)

December 16, 2015

For me, and maybe for you, entertaining feels like a hurdle to be buckled down against—and I'm the Creative Director of a food and lifestyle company. Something is wrong here.

Photo by Linda Xiao

Maybe it's the swirl of unattainable scenes on Instagram and Pinterest, or the Genius Recipes moniker to live up to, or my ungenerous Brooklyn living space, but when did dinner parties get to be so scary? It doesn't have to be that way—right?

I believe it will one day come more easily—2016? Is that you?—but in the meantime, I rely on a sleeve full of cozy, disaster-proof recipes, and on people like Andy Ward and Jenny Rosenstrach to keep publishing blog posts like "Instant Dinner Party." Nothing could sound happier.

Photo by Linda Xiao

The recipe that makes a party—instantly—is their deliriously good, make-ahead pork shoulder ragu with pappardelle—the second most popular ever on their blog Dinner: A Love Story (only surpassed by Chicken Parm Meatballs, which went wild on Pinterest).

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About the ragu, Jenny told me, "I think it was the only thing we cooked for dinner guests for, like, three years. Eventually not only for its logistical advantages but because it was so damn good!"

Photo by Linda Xiao

The logistical advantages are many: First, there's that "instant" claim—you can make the ragu completely ahead, even a day or two before, so that a dinner party could happen at any moment.

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Top Comment:
“I'm going to make more of the base sauce tomorrow. There have been questions on adapting this for a slow cooker. I think it would be quite easy. I've made a similar recipe with Boston butt and salsa at least half a dozen times -- I usually throw everything in the pot and set it on low (8-10 hrs). Perfect every time! ”
— TeaForMe

This ragu-making all happens in one pot. You don't even bother cutting the pork down into chunks, or taking it out of the pot after you brown it. Why would you? It's going to cook forever, till it falls to smithereens, anyway.

Photo by Linda Xiao

Once you brown the whole hunk and nudge some onions and garlic around it, the rest is a matter of tossing in whole ingredients—sprigs of thyme and oregano, a handful of fennel seeds, red wine, a can of tomatoes, and, importantly, hot sauce—then leaving it mostly in peace in your oven for 3 to 4 hours.

By the end, it will have braised into a soft, wobbly heap that shreds cleanly at the pull of a fork, sinking into the sauce. Whether you serve it that day or reheat it for a party tomorrow, "It will make the house smell amazing," Jenny said, "Which, in my opinion, counts for more than flower arrangements when having dinner guests." (I agree! I'll do this too!)

Photo by Linda Xiao

Time and a slow oven did the lion's share of the work to make a sauce that's rich and heady and perfectly spicy from a full tablespoon of hot sauce. Or perfectly spicy for adults, at least. "Best of all," Jenny told me. "If there are kids coming over, and they don't like the ragu, we can usually count on them liking the pasta with a little Parm—so it minimizes drama on that end, too." And whatever ragu is left behind is a boon: over polenta, in tacos, on sandwiches, or frozen and awaiting more dinners.

So this is actually the no-drama, great-smelling, cooks-itself, freezable, instant dinner party. That, I can do.

Photo by Linda Xiao

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Joanie922
  • Lizzie Lou
    Lizzie Lou
  • Charlie
  • ashley
  • Rachel
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Joanie922 January 15, 2023
I'm not a fennel fan, can I reduce the amount without compromising the flavor?
Lizzie L. December 15, 2018
Could I use fresh fennel in place of fennel seeds?
Charlie January 10, 2017
Any suggestions for making this gluten-free? Would mashed potatoes or rice work instead of the pasta?
beezus January 11, 2017
Charlie - Mashed potatoes would be yummy with this recipe.
Jamey C. July 3, 2019
Polenta would be good too
ashley November 21, 2016
Okay, everyone else loved this recipe, but my pork was tough, and I only cooked for 2 hours. I also used an oven thermometer, so I can confirm that it was 325. What could I do better?
beezus November 21, 2016
I cooked in a crock pot and it came out fine. As per my previous post, I did brown it first.
Kristen M. November 21, 2016
Hi Ashley—that's a bummer, but all is not lost. This is actually one of those counterintuitive times that cooking longer, low and slow, is what breaks down the connective tissue and makes it so fall-apart tender. So 2 hours was not enough time. If you still have the pork, you can put it back in the oven or on the stovetop and keep cooking it—as long as it's never been cooked above a low simmer, it should continue to relax.
ashley November 21, 2016
I will try that with the leftovers. Thank you for your response, and yes, that does sound counterintuitive!
Kristen M. November 21, 2016
Braising is funny that way, but it's so worth it!
Rachel November 14, 2016
Oh dear, I just finished preparing this with pork shoulder from the farmer's market and the cut of meat doesn't look anything like the picture. I'm a former vegetarian cooking for meat-eating teenagers. The meat I bought had a bone in it and it looked more like a steak, albeit a super thick steak. Also, I threw it in the pressure cooker. I'll let you know how it comes out in an hour or so.
Rachel November 15, 2016
Delicious! I cut the meat into two pieces and browned them in the pressure cooker before adding the remaining ingredients. Modified the recipe based on available ingredients and kids' preferences - reduced to 1/4 c wine, 1 tsp sriracha, less oregano and thyme. Pressure cooked for 1 hr. Natural pressure release (about 10-15 min). The sauce scorched to the bottom of the pressure cooker but the top layer did not taste burned. Lesson learned - I should have added 3/4 c water to replace the missing wine.
Randi H. October 23, 2016
We don't do alcohol.. eine substitution suggestion?
Florence M. July 8, 2016
We made this in the pressure cooker using pork loin steaks and gammon steaks we had in the freezer. Every now and then we get too many of both in a weekly surprise meat box we get and don't know what to do with them. This recipe was perfect. Once it had come to pressure we cooked it for about an hour.
darshy February 22, 2016
I don't eat pork, so I sub lamb. I love this recipe. Thank you
Esther R. January 15, 2016
I added a bunch of fresh sage as well - great recipe!
PM J. January 9, 2016
What am i doing wrong with this recipe? I've attempted in twice and both times i wind up with a delicious but hearty stew and not a pasta sauce? I can't imaging service this stew over noodles! Way too heavy! But, again, delicious!
Alanna R. January 9, 2016
Too much pork or liquid maybe? I used a 2 1/2 lb pork shoulder and I was worried it would be too much but it shrunk significantly while cooking. I shredded the pork then returned it to the oven with the sauce and let it cook without the lid on for a bit to let the sauce reduce to the perfect amount. You could try that?
Kathi P. October 19, 2016
Just add some pasta cooking water to the sauce, until it is the right amount of runny :)
Alanna R. December 31, 2015
making this tonight, super excited. I am omitting the fennel seeds though so we'll see if it makes a difference.
Carla December 29, 2015
So which hot sauce edged out the winner for you? Trader Joe's or Hey Fong? I have both in stock here. ☺
Carla December 29, 2015
Oops. . Huy Fong. Stupid auto-correct! ?
Kristen M. December 29, 2015
I actually haven't tried it with Trader Joe's yet, but plenty of others have and loved it. I've used Huy Fong Sriracha, Tabasco, and Cholula and my favorites have been the first two, and I didn't detect a huge difference between them with all the other rich flavors in this sauce (not enough heat in the Cholula).
Carla December 29, 2015
Thanks, Kristen ?

I feel the Huy Fong pull myself.. making this for New Years Day. Love how supportive everyone is here. Happy 2016! ?
Carla December 28, 2015
So ... trying to decide between Trader Joe's Chili Sauce or Sriracha sauce (aka "Rooster" sauce).

Has anyone tried to make this dish with the Huy Fong Sriracha? Which tastes better with the Pork Shoulder Ragu? Thanks.
TeaForMe December 29, 2015
Had the Huy Fong in the fridge. I was a little leery about using this, but It was the only hot sauce in the house. It turned out GREAT! You're going to love it!!
Kristen M. December 29, 2015
I've used Huy Fong Sriracha, too, and loved it.
lauren December 24, 2015
I'd like to make this but I have a 6 lb boneless pork shoulder . What adjustments should I make in cooking time ?
Kristen M. December 26, 2015
Lauren, I'm sorry for the delay—I recently made this with a 4+ pound bone-in roast and the timing was actually pretty comparable. You just want to watch for when the meat gives a whole lot more when you poke at it and shreds easily. If you already made it, I hope it worked out well!
TeaForMe December 22, 2015
As promised, the house smells amazing and the flavor is fantastic! My picnic shoulder was closer to 4lbs, so I doubled the sauce -- good thing I did! Otherwise, this would have been very dry. I'm going to make more of the base sauce tomorrow.
There have been questions on adapting this for a slow cooker. I think it would be quite easy. I've made a similar recipe with Boston butt and salsa at least half a dozen times -- I usually throw everything in the pot and set it on low (8-10 hrs). Perfect every time!
abby December 22, 2015
What's a small handful. I'm a novice cook and that is just too ambiguous for me. thanks
HailstonesinAfrica December 22, 2015
If you have big hands then its half a handful whereas if you have small hands its a handful.
Kristen M. December 22, 2015
I've used 1 tablespoon a number of times and loved the results.
ojailyn December 21, 2015
Has anyone tried this in crock pot or pressure cooker? or with spaghetti?
Kristen M. December 21, 2015
Spaghetti (or plenty of other pasta shapes) would work well—I'm planning on making it with some big conchiglie tomorrow. I haven't used a crock pot or pressure cooker, but there are some other notes in this thread about adapting for both.
Jeffrey D. January 4, 2016
I prepared this yesterday in a crock pot. I had a 4 lb. bone in pork butt. Cooked it for 4.5 hours on high and it came out great. At the end I let it cook without the lid so that it would thicken a bit. I'll try the pressure cooker next time.
SELGY January 25, 2016
Any tips on how to convert this for a pressure cooker - ie: cook time?
darshy February 22, 2016
I've only made this in a crock-pot. And it's beautiful
Rick December 21, 2015
What is the sauce?
Kristen M. December 21, 2015
The simmered down wine, tomatoes, and other cooking liquid becomes the sauce, along with the shredded pork. It's delicious.
Rick December 22, 2015
linda December 21, 2015
Pork butt is just another name for pork shoulder, so yes..
Patricia S. December 20, 2015
Can I make this with a boneless pork butt ?
jane December 21, 2015
I wouldn't use a pork butt, I'd use picnic shoulder......too much fat and goop in pork butt and no opportunity here to get rid of it. Both Boston butt and picnic shoulder are "pork shoulder" and I'm surprised this recipe doesn't specify.