clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The best way to cook turkey on Thanksgiving is to cook Momofuku pork shoulder instead

Mouthwatering image of Momofuku pork shoulder
Mouthwatering image of Momofuku pork shoulder
Yummy Supper

There's a reason people basically don't eat turkey save on one day in November (and then a few more as they're desperately trying to rid their refrigerators of the disappointing leftovers).Turkey isn't a very tasty meat to begin with. It's leaner even than chicken — and fat is where most of the flavor resides. But the bigger problem is turkey is a terrible bird to roast whole.

There's virtually no way to put an entire turkey in an oven and have the the dark meat cook to the point of safety without the white meat cooking beyond the point of edibility. Or, to be more precise, the problem with roasting a whole turkey is that the leg meat needs to get to 165° but the breast dries out over 150° (and note that USDA tells you to cook the breast to 165° which is, as Serious Eats says, "a guarantee you'll have dry, tough meat").

That's why we cover turkey in jellied, sugared cranberries and thick gravy at the same time in order to enjoy it. We're making up for its lack of fat and the fact that it is almost always badly overcooked.

You don't see people doing that with, say, pork shoulder.

I don't want to be too dogmatic on this. There are ways to make turkey delicious. But they tend to mean betraying Thanksgiving tradition and cutting the turkey into parts so that the different pieces can be cooked properly, as with Mark Bittman's braising method, or cutting out the backbone and flattening the turkey so the entire bird cooks at the same rate, as with spatchcocking. Or they take an enormous amount of work (one of my closest friends smokes his turkey and it's amazing — but it's also incredibly labor intensive, and you need a smoker).

So if you're an adventurous cook and you want to prove yourself by making something delicious out one of the worst proteins around, then go nuts. But if you're a normal human being who already has too much to do on Thanksgiving, then the best way to cook a turkey is to cook a Momofuku pork shoulder instead.

The benefits of pork shoulder

David Chang, the profane head of the Momofuku empire, talks cooking at Google.

Unlike turkey, pork shoulder is delicious. Unlike turkey, it's easy to make insanely well. Unlike turkey, it's reasonably easy to find in humane, organic forms. And unlike your turkey, your Thanksgiving guests will remember your pork shoulder. It will make your Thanksgiving different, memorable, better. They will fondly think back to how unusually delicious Thanksgiving at your house was, because you served Momofuku pork shoulder and not turkey. You will be a hero. Can't you hear their cheers now?

The rebuttal here is that turkey is tradition. Turkey is what makes the fourth Thursday of November into Thanksgiving. But the earliest Thanksgivings certainly didn't have turkey. As Robert Krulwich wrote in an A+ headline for NPR: "First Thanksgiving Dinner: No Turkeys. No Ladies. No Pies."

Tradition isn't everything. Thanksgiving is better with ladies. It is better with pies. And it is better with pork shoulder than with turkey.

David Chang's Momofuku cookbook has a particularly good recipe for pork shoulder (it says pork butt, but remember that pork butt, confusingly, is just pork shoulder). And it's dead simple.

You take a bone-in pork shoulder. You coat it with a cup of white sugar and a cup of salt. You cover it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight. The next day, you unwrap it and roast it in the oven for six hours at 300 degrees, basting hourly. (Quick note: some people wash or wipe off the salt/sugar rub before roasting — it just depends on your tolerance for salt.) Then you take out the pork shoulder, coat it in seven tablespoons of brown sugar plus another table spoon of salt, jack the oven up to 500 degrees, and give it another 10-15 minutes to develop a crust.

If you're a visual learner, the Working Class Cooks have a good video outlining the process:

And that's it. Make whatever sauces and sides you want. You can go the full bo ssam route and serve it with lettuce wraps, oysters, kimchi, ssam sauce, and ginger-scallion sauce. Or you can just serve it with cranberry sauce, gravy and mashed potatoes. After all, it's Thanksgiving.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.