Puerto Rican Pernil
Pernil is the driving force behind a solid, Puerto Rican Christmas dinner. Garlicky, succulent, slow-roasted whole pig. It’s traditionally served with arroz con gandules and pasteles (which are a Puerto Rican version of tamales wrapped in banana leaves). My family has always made bone-in and skin-on pork shoulder since it’s much more accessible than a whole hog, so that’s what I would totally suggest here! The fat helps by keeping the meat moist while slow roasting.
But the best part of the pernil though? The crispy, crunchy skin. We call it cuerito and it’s truly the most coveted part of the roast next to the cheek (when you’re getting an entire pig roasted up). We often cut up enough pieces of cuerito so everyone gets a little bit with the meat during dinner.
My favorite place to visit back home for pernil is a town called Guavate, known for its famous Pork Highway. Just a relatively short drive outside of San Juan, here you can find kiosks and lechoneras (roasting stands) lined all up the down the tropical, mountain road roasting whole pigs with the fixings. Below is a photo with my Dad enjoying the day and literally pigging out on a shared feast.
What’s most important to remember about making pernil at home is having the time do so. This isn’t a dish that’s done quickly. You have to dedicate a night to marinate the pork with mojo and about 30-45 minutes per pound of meat when roasting; so the cooking time is really going to depend on how much your pork shoulder weighs.
Puerto Rican Pernil
Prep time: overnight marinade
Cook time: 3-5 hours, depending on weight of pork
Serves: 10-15 people
6-8 pound Boston butt (aka pork shoulder), bone in and with fat cap left on
2 small heads garlic, cloves peeled and left whole
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp black pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp Goya Adobo all purpose seasoning
1 packet Goya Sazón con Achiote
In a small food processor or blender, combine the garlic, dried oregano, black pepper, olive oil, and adobo. Set the mojo aside for the pork.
Next, cut the fat cap almost off the pork by leaving it hanging like the photos below. If you have fat left on the skin after cutting the skin off, that’s totally fine and typically ideal. This will help keep the meat juicy when roasting. Then, using a paring knife, cut small slits all over the meat without cutting into the skin. Take the mojo and spoon it into the slits and rub all over the pork.
Once the mojo is added to the pork, rub in the sazón and make sure everything is fully mixed and place the fat cap back over the pork like normal. Refrigerate the pork overnight.
When ready to roast the next day, preheat your oven to 350ºF and take the pork out of the fridge. Let it sit for about 30 minutes to get some of the chill off and then roast. Here is where you’re going to leave things alone. Depending on the weight of the pork, roast for 30-45 minutes per pound.
After the 3 hour mark, check the pork’s internal temperature. Once it’s at 180°F, the pork is finished. The skin should be a beautiful, golden color at this point but you’re going to want to crisp it up. Crank the heat up on the oven to 450°F and crisp the skin for the pork. This will be to your liking and normally takes 10-15 minutes, but my favorite way to test out the skin is by knocking on it. If it sounds like you’re knocking on a tiny door, the cuerito is ready. It should be super crisp on the outside and tender underneath from the layer of fat.
Let the meat rest for about 20 minutes before carving or pulling. Remove the cuerito completely and then serve up the meat. Cut the cuerito up into small pieces so each person gets some skin on their plate for dinner. Serve the pernil with arroz con gandules, tostones, and sliced avocado for an authentic Puerto Rican Christmas dinner.
A good tip? Leftovers the next day always make for some bomb ass Cuban sandwiches (that’s how we eat them at home a day or two later) so make sure to save some for later!