While J. Kenji López-Alt is not the first cook to take science to task in the kitchen, his recipes and writing may very well be the most accessible of the lot, as well as he himself (his Twitter handle is very active!). In his incredibly detailed, James Beard Award-winning compendium The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, Kenji delves into the science behind even the simplest techniques to produce better strategies, and results, for home cooks—there's almost 1,000 pages of exceptionally well-tested recipes, witty banter, and useful references.
He covers everything from why you should make (Genius!) smashed cheeseburgers and if you should marinate chicken to how to make better sticky buns and ultimate potato casseroles. At one point, in the chapter Chickens, Turkeys, Prime Rib, and the Science of Roasts, he ponders the following question:
So it’s holiday time again, and your little sister has adopted a pet calf, so beef’s off the menu; your mother can’t stand the aroma of lamb; and everybody’s sick of turkey. What to do?
According to Kenji, you go all out and make a crown roast of pork, that's what. So he conducted a one-on-one interview with himself (posing as a pork newbie) to lay it all out: What to look for, how to prep, and how to cook the cut.
Kenji: What is a crown roast?
Kenji: A crown roast is nothing more than one or two regular bone-in pork loin roasts (that’s the big muscle that runs down the back of the pig) formed into a circle with the ribs pointed skyward. Essentially, it’s a long rack of pork chops joined together (or, more accurately, that have never been cut apart) and twisted into a crown shape.
K: Ah, I got it. The same way that a prime rib of beef is like a bunch of rib-eye steaks left connected to each other, right?
K: And what’s the point? Does it make cooking easier? Does it taste better in the end?
K: The “crown” in a crown roast serves about as purpose as the crown on a king: it’s mostly aesthetic—a crown roast simply looks stunning when presented at the table. But it does aid in even cooking to a small degree. With the bones twisted so that they are all on the exterior of the roast, heat transfer to the meat is slowed, making for juicier, more evenly cooked meat in the end—though the trade-off is that the fatty cover around the meat will never get quite as crisp and browned as it would if you were to roast a whole rack of pork without forming it into a crown.
K: So it’s a bit of give-and-take. Say I want to go for it— how do I go about finding a crown?
K: To form a crown with a single rack of ribs (about 10 ribs, enough to feed 6 to 8 normal-appetited people), you need to score the spaces in between the ribs slightly so that they splay out. However, by doing this, you end up increasing the surface area of the pork, which can cause it to dry out more than it would if it were completely intact, and I don’t recommend buying single-rack crown roasts for this reason. Better to buy a crown roast formed by two bone-in loins attached end to end, which are large enough to form a circle without unnecessary scoring.
When purchasing a crown roast, you will usually have to ask your butcher to form it for you—only very dedicated butchers are likely to have them formed and ready to go. You may have luck finding a ready-to-roast crown at a high-end supermarket, particularly around the holidays.
K: How big a roast will I need?
K: Aim for about a rib and a half per person, or two per person if you’re big eaters or looking for leftovers.
K: I’ve got my crown roast home (and boy, was that heavy!). Now, how the heck do I cook this thing?
K: Well, remember—a crown roast is nothing more than a series of connected pork chops, fast-twitch muscle. Like all fast-twitch muscles (say chicken breast, New York strip steak, or tuna loin), it has plenty of fine-textured muscle and not much connective tissue or fat. This means that internal temperature is the most important factor when it comes to cooking it. With little to no connective tissue to break down, as soon as it reaches its final temperature, it’s done. Holding it at that temperature for an extended period of time will change it very little. The key is to get the entire roast, from edges to center, to around 140°F (medium, which is what I like my pork cooked to) while simultaneously crisping the exterior.
Remember: the hotter your oven temperature, the more uneven your roasting will be. So for example, if you cook a crown roast in a 400°F oven, by the time the very center is at 140°F, the outer layers of the meat are well past the 165° to 180°F mark. Roast it in a 250°F oven, and you can get the entire thing pretty much exactly at 140°F from edges to center. Then all it takes after roasting is a rest and a quick bang into a 500°F oven to crisp up the fat on the exterior.
K: Neat! And what about flavoring?
K: If you want to be all fancy-pants about it, you can add other seasonings to the exterior in addition to the kosher salt and black pepper I opt for. Herbs stuffed into the center would be nice, as would be garlic, shallots, citrus fruit—whatever tickles your fancy (pants). Some folks even like to fill the center with sausage or bread-based stuffing. It’s a fine thing to do if you have tons of guests to feed, and a solid stuffing like that will actually improve the cooking qualities of the pork, as it acts as an insulating barrier to heat. Do note, though, that it will dramatically increase cooking time—count on up to an hour more. Or, better yet, count on your thermometer.
K: I’m the kind of person who likes to wear a hat just to go pick up the mail. What would you suggest for someone like me?
K: Go ahead and put cute little paper hats over the ends of the bones before serving to cover up the charring they will get (or, if you prefer, use foil hats while they cook to prevent them from charring). You can buy those paper hats online very cheaply. Personally, I like the primal nature of the way charred ribs look, enough so that I had my wife’s engagement ring delivered to her on the bone of a wild boar chop. Isn’t that romantic?
For the caramelized applesauce:
- 4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into1⁄2-inch cubes
- 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup apple cider
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the crown roast of pork:
- 1 crown roast of pork, 6 to 10 pounds (12 to 20 chops; see Note above)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Caramelized Applesauce (recipe above; optional)
Part of this article is reprinted with permission from The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015) by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. This article is brought to you by W. W. Norton & Company. Head here to learn more about The Food Lab.