For Teryluz Andreu, holidays meant pérnil, a glorious heap of flavorful, tender pork crowned by golden brown, crackly skin. To this day, every rich, meaty bite conjures her childhood in Humacao, the small Puerto Rican beach town where she grew up. Pérnil was the signature dish of her mother, Tere, who made it for special occasions. “It’s one of those recipes that really recalls a lot of great times with family and friends,” Andreu says.
But when her mother passed away in 2019, the pérnil disappeared from the family table. Determined to keep the family tradition going, Andreu (now living in Florida) tried recreating the dish herself. But her attempts proved disappointing. “I either didn’t get the crispy skin or the meat was too dry,” she says.
Stumped, she turned to Milk Street’s My Family Recipe television show, which helps home cooks re-create lost recipes.
In Puerto Rico, pérnil often is as much an event as a meal. “It’s a pretty involved recipe,” Andreu says. “It needs to be the star of the dinner.” After marinating in a garlicky adobo rub, the pork braises for hours. Andreu’s mother cooked it on the stovetop in a caldero (an aluminum pot similar to a Dutch oven). But how did she achieve that beautiful crispy skin?
Andreu did have a few clues. Among them, a scrap of paper tucked into a spatter-stained cookbook that revealed, in her mother’s neat cursive, the ingredients for the adobo marinade: salt, pepper, herbs, garlic, vinegar and olive oil. But the exact method for cooking the meat remained a mystery.
The first step in our testing was to choose the best cut of meat for the job. We opted for a bone-in pork butt. This well-marbled shoulder cut holds up to a long braise, and it sports plenty of skin to transform into cracklings. Up to 24 hours before cooking, we seasoned the pork with a paste made from copious garlic and olive oil, plus oregano and cilantro for peppery, herbal notes.
Next, we tackled the great cooking conundrum inherent to a well-made pérnil: how to achieve tender, juicy pork while also getting crispy golden-brown skin.
For pérnil al caldero, one way to achieve that crispy skin is to first braise the meat in a pot on the stovetop, then carefully remove the fatty skin and crisp it in a skillet. However, we ultimately found an easier solution in pérnil al horno—a version of pérnil that’s cooked in the oven.
While the meat rests, we transform the pan juices into a rich sauce—simply a matter of defatting the liquid, then adding a splash of vinegar for brightness and cilantro for freshness. The tangy, herbaceous, garlicky sauce beautifully balances the deeply savory meat.
However it’s made, pérnil is a labor of love—one Andreu appreciates more than ever, as it helps her feel connected to her parents. “I certainly wish they could be here right now,” she says. “But I feel comforted that their memory and their spirit is always with us.”
Watch how we developed this cherished family recipe—and many others—at 177milkstreet.com/tv/my-family-recipe.