Sometimes you read about a food combination that is so unlikely, that you know it is either going to be insanely good or downright disgusting. Pork braised in milk is such a recipe and, believe it or not, it actually falls into the first category. It's not the most appealing sounding dish, I'll admit, and when it first comes out of the oven, dotted with beige globules of curdled milk it's actually quite a frightening sight, but it only takes one bite to convince you otherwise. Tender in your mouth, the flavor is sweet and nutty like dulce de leche, with subtly herby undertones.
There are a few rules that you must adhere to in order to have this dish turn out the way it’s supposed to and should you fail to follow these, you will likely find yourself chewing on a piece of ashen looking, glop covered shoe leather and asking yourself why you ever trusted me.
Rule number one: Ignore all of the recipes that tell you to use pork loin or, god forbid, tenderloin. Both cuts are just too lean to stand up to the long cooking time. If you happen to find yourself at a butcher in Italy, or are lucky enough to find a heritage breed in the U.S. that still resembles what American pork used to look like (that is, marbled with thick layers of delicious, flavorful fat) then by all means, buy the loin. If not, however, your best bet is to go for a cut that lends itself to a longer, slower cooking time–my preference is pork shoulder.
It's true that you will not get pristine, neat slices like you get from a loin, but what you lose in appearance you gain in flavor and after all, where are your priorities? Besides, if you’re really that concerned about ending up with a piece of meat that can be neatly sliced, you can always just tie the shoulder into a nice, uniform shape before you cook it and that pretty much does the trick.
Rule number two: Don’t skimp on the seasoning. You’ll find that most recipes call for generous amounts of salt and pepper, as well as a good dose of fragrant, sturdy herbs such as sage, rosemary or savory. Don’t get overzealous and risk ending up with a dish that tastes more like pork braised in sea water and cough medicine, but don’t be timid either. That goes for the garlic, nutmeg, lemon, onions and any other additions your recipe calls for as well. Remember, this is a big hunk of meat and it can stand up to robust flavors.
Rule number three (and this is a biggie): Don’t overcook the meat. Some recipes call for cooking this pork on the stove top and others in the oven. I prefer the oven because the temperature remains more consistent and I don't have to worry about things like scorching the bottom of the pot or the milk boiling too rapidly. A 2 to 3 pound roast takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 hours to cook. Many recipes recommend that you go in every 45 minutes or so and turn the roast over so that both sides spend an equal amount of time submerged in the liquid. This is also a good way to gauge the doneness of the pork and when the meat gives way easily with the slight prodding of a fork, it is done.
Once the pork is cooked there are two approaches you can take. If you're a purist, you can leave the liquid as it is, dotted with caramel colored flecks and large curdles or, if you find this just too unsightly, you can simply skim off the excess fat and puree the sauce in a blender with a little bit of milk or water to thin it out as needed. Both are delicious, one is just more rustic, the other more refined.
I'm not sure how the chemistry of this dish works, but I'm guessing that there are enzymes in the milk that help to tenderize the meat while the sugars in the milk slowly caramelize into a luscious, silken sauce. But don't worry about how it all works, just take my word that it does and get out there and give this dish a try. You will not regret it!