Porchetta isn’t the sort of dish anyone in Italy contemplates cooking for oneself at home. After all, there, it's a whole, gutted, boned, and stuffed pig spit-roasted over an open fire or roasted in a large oven. Plus, porchetta's sold almost everywhere anyways. But, if you don’t live in Italy and want to make porchetta, there’s a way to cook a more modest section of the pig and get close to the same result.
While there is a bit of a discussion as to whether or not one should cook porchetta quickly or slowly, I’m firmly in the slow-cooking camp. It allows the meat to breakdown and become meltingly tender and soft, even while you continue cook it to beyond done. In addition to slow cooking, you need the following essentials: A piece of pork, such as the shoulder, with the skin still attached to it (the crispy, crackling skin is a porchetta hallmark) and flavoring. Wild fennel pollen is so closely associated with porchetta any other meat, such as rabbit or duck, cooked with fennel pollen is said to be “in porchetta”. This dried aromatic piney spice is combined with plenty of rosemary, sage, garlic, salt, and black pepper and is used to season the porchetta aggressively.
Usually, I make porchetta at home with two different cuts of meat, depending on what’s available and how many people I’m cooking for. The first way is to use a pork shoulder bone in or out (I always think on the bone cooks more flavor into it) with the skin attached. I score the skin in a diamond cross hatch pattern—using a brand new box cutter—and stab the meat all over, stuffing the fennel pollen, herb, garlic, salt paste into the cuts, and then smearing underneath the pork shoulder with the leftover rub.
I tie the roast to let it cook evenly. Now, this tying a porchetta or anything seems complicated, and while it does require some practice, once you get the hang of it it’s pretty simple. When I was a young chef, I practiced how to do so on zucchini, but I don't think you need to be that obsessive. Here’s how to do it (and check out the video above!):
Cut yourself a long piece of cotton butcher twine (about 10-20 times longer than the roast you want to tie). You want the string to be long enough you don’t run out in the middle, but not so long you’re going crazy dealing with tangled twine.
Starting at one end, tie a tight loop around the roast. After tying you should have one piece of quite short string and the whole length of the rest of the string on the other side.
Form a loop and slide the loop over the roast. Pull tight (as tight as you can!) then continue down the roast, making loops and pulling tight. You should be tying the roast every 1 to 3 inches.
When you get to the end, you can trim the string and be ready to go. However, you can, if you like, go back and check to make sure the twine is even and tight. I like to flip the roast over and run the twine down the other side, looping it into and around the bands of twine holding the roast together. Then, I pull it tight again, evening everything out, and flip the roast over, bringing the string up and tying it to the first loop. After that, the string just trim the strings and you’re set.
Phew! You’re done tying the roast. Now, slow cook it at 200 or 250 °F for 8-9 hours. The fatty striation of the pork shoulder meat takes well to long, slow cooking, with the fat continually basting the meat as it renders out. When it’s done, I pull it out of the oven crank the heat up to 500 °F and put it back in the oven for 10-15 minutes to crisp up the skin. Remove from the oven once again and let it rest 10 to 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
To get a porchetta that’s closer to the traditional Italian version (with all its variety of cuts, like the lean loin, fatty belly, and dark bits), you need to upgrade to a pork loin wrapped in a skin-on pork belly. If you’re lucky enough to have a good butcher in your neighborhood, you can get them to cut you a piece of pork specifically where the belly remains attached to the loin and simply wrap the belly all the way around the loin after scoring the skin and seasoning the meat. I would cook it the exact same way (aka long and slow) until soft and done, pull it out of the oven while the oven preheats, crank the oven’s heat to high, and then return it to the oven crisp up the skin. After it comes out of the oven the second time, let it rest.
As for what to do with porchetta, I either put it in sandwiches or serve it on a plate with beans and greens. Either way, when I cut it up I try to get a little bit of everything on the plate: the crispy skin, fat-braised meat, lean loin, and highly seasoned dark meat pieces. Porchetta’s a messy undertaking, but well, well worth it.
Do you have any questions about porchetta? Ask us in the comments!