Sweet Pepper Braised Pork Butt Tacos

Summer harvest means an array of sweet and spicy peppers just perfect for flavoring braised pork butt. All a good hunk of meat needs is a few aromatics, quality stock, and time to turn into tender braised shreds just askin’ to be layered into a tortilla with a squeeze of lime. (Add some raw veggies for crunch and top with fresh herbs for best results.)

Let’s take a look at what makes this chunk of meat so special!

What is Pork Butt?

My boyfriend and I received a hunk of pork labeled “pork butt” in our most recent Butcher Box. I stood over the freezer with the massive chunk of meat in my hands, staring at the sticker on the plastic as somewhere in the catalogue of my cooking knowledge, dim recollections started bubbling towards my consciousness. Somewhere, somehow, at some point along my foodie journey, I remembered that pork butt is not in fact a pig’s butt.

We’ve all had ham, right? Well isn’t ham from the hindquarters of a pig? A quick Google search confirmed this.

where does ham come from?

Boom. Confirmed. Ham = rump. So why didn’t the massive slab of meat in my hands (which looked nothing like a ham, by the way) say “ham” if it was, in fact, from a pig’s butt?

Deep in the recesses of my brain, memories continued to stir, leading me to ask:

Are pork butt and pork shoulder the same thing?

I googled diagrams of pork cuts. Let’s just say humans have certainly figured out how to get the very most out of the animal.

pork cuts

There it is: Boston butt, clearly distinct from ham!

But to make matters even more confusing, continued Googling revealed that Boston butt is also sometimes called Boston shoulder. Naturally, this lead to further questioning…

are pork butt and pork shoulder the same thing?

As you can see in this diagram from The Spruce, the Boston butt sits just above the picnic shoulder on the pig.

 

Why is the Boston Butt Called the Boston Butt?

So, if the Boston butt doesn’t come from anywhere near the animal’s rump, why is it called a “butt”?!

As is true of many mysteries, the answer is rooted in history. In colonial New England during America’s fledgling years, butchers used to pack inexpensive cuts of shoulder meat into barrels, called “butts.” Used for transporting their wares across New England, the contents of these barrels became known as “pork butts,” the name we still call some shoulder meat today.

So yes, pork butt and pork shoulder, Boston butt and Boston shoulder, are all referring to the same cut of meat.

Primal Cuts of Pork

As you saw in the second diagram above (which is not even a complete breakdown of every cut of pork), we parse out many pieces of meat from a single pig.

First, however, a butcher must make several initial cuts, called primal cuts. These are shoulder, loin, belly, and hind leg cuts.

From there, an experienced butcher will continue to cut out pieces we know and love, like spare ribs, tenderloin, and bacon.

What Makes Certain Cuts of Meat More Expensive Than Others?

There are several factors in play when determining the value of a price of meat. These include but are not limited to:

  • flavor
  • tenderness of cut
  • fat marbeling
  • animal diet
  • USDA certifications, like organic or grass-fed and finished

Another influential factor is supply and demand. For example, Bacon is rich in fat marbling, inherently tender because of its cut, and also happens to be extremely flavorful. It is also simple to prepare because of these positive characteristics. I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground here when I say that these are the reasons why bacon is so popular. In short, it’s truly delicious.

What this means for the market, however, is that bacon prices range from $6.99 for 16 ounces to $17.50 for the same weight. Bacon quality ranges from the cheapest money to buy to the most luxuriously-seasoned, thick-cut bacon available. Unless we collectively undergo a radical cultural shift around the cuts of meat we love, there will always be a market for bacon.

Less favorable cuts from the pig, like pig feet, can go for as little as $2.00 per pound. Typically, people purchase pig feet for traditional recipes or for dog food, but still others work to break ground on new ways to use these less sought-after cuts. (For the curious, check out Serious Eats’ recipe for crispy grilled pig feet here.)

Cultural Shifts Affect the Price of Meat

Flank steak is an example of a cut of meat that has had its reputation revamped. Years ago, flank steak was dirt cheap. Flank steak is a very lean cut on the cow that generally has little fat marbling. If handled poorly, this cut of meat can be tough and flavorless.

But when certain diet trends suggested ways of preparing the lean cut of meat, like the South Beach Diet in the mid-1990s, it gained popularity. The price of flank steak last year according to the USDA was $8.25 per pound. This month, it’s $9.16.

From this example, we can see that cuts of meat we value culturally can shift. So who knows: maybe someday we will be inviting neighbors over for grilled pig’s feet!

How to Prepare Lean Cuts of Meat

There are several things to consider when you work with a lean cut of meat. When a cut of meat has little marbling, that means it will tend towards toughness and may be low on flavor.

Fortunately, there are certain tricks you can employ in order to make the most out of your lean cut of meat. Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. Marinate your meat. Marinating your meat in acid or vinaigrette helps to tenderize it before the cooking process. Lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, and apple cider vinegar are all great bases for marinades. Don’t forget to add a little honey to balance your flavors–honey is also acidic!
  2. Use a meat mallet. Physically tenderizing your tough cuts with a meat mallet or rolling pin helps to break down thick muscle fibers.
  3. Allow your meat to come to room temperature before cooking. This will help the meat to cook more evenly, especially for bone-in cuts. More control over your meat temperature means more control over moisture and overall “done-ness”.
  4. Rest your meat after you cook it. This helps restore the natural juices in the meat by allowing them to redistribute around the whole cut, rather than spilling out under your knife once you start cutting. A general rule is, rest for five minutes per inch of thickness.
  5. Cook lean cuts low and slow. Slow-roasting lean cuts can reduce the risk of “shocking” the meat or causing unnecessary loss of moisture. This is especially true for braising, during which process the meat is completely submerged in tasty cooking liquid like broth or wine.
  6. Cook meat to the right internal temperature. It may seem obvious, but overcooking your meat highlights any negative characteristics, like toughness and dryness, which can be avoided by cooking it on the rarer side.
  7. Cut against the grain. Cutting against the grain of long muscle fibers makes for tender bites that are easy to chew. You might be amazed at what a difference this simple step can make!

Sweet Pepper Braised Pork Butt Tacos

Perhaps the best part about this recipe is how simple it is. The primary flavor comes from whatever peppers you have in abundance, onion, and aromatic herbs. The soft, flavorful peppers make an excellent addition to your tacos as well as the meat from the braised pork butt.

sweet and hot peppers, candle, olive oil

Brush olive oil on your peppers and broil on high until the skin is blistered. I used red bell peppers, sweet mini peppers, and spicy Fresno peppers.

braised pork butt ingredients

After your peppers are blistered, allow them to rest in their own flavorful juices while you brown the meat. No need to get fussy over peeling garlic or mincing onion–big chunks here are great!

browned pork butt

Sear your pork butt, fatty side first, and save the rendered oil! Set meat aside while you sear your onion and garlic.

seared onion and garlic in pork fat

Once you’ve browned your meat on all sides, sear the garlic and onion to flavor rendered pork fat. Settle your meat, herbs, peppers, vinegar, and stock into the dutch oven and bring to a boil.

braising pork butt

Ideally, your meat will be completely submerged. My pork butt was MASSIVE, however, and would barely fit in the dutch oven. I compensated by leaving the dutch oven covered for the entirety of the cooking process and by rotating the meat halfway through.

After about four hours have elapsed, shred the pork butt into bite-sized chunks, cutting any particularly long muscle fibers against the grain for maximum tenderness. Spoon braised pork butt and sweet peppers into warm tortillas with some fresh vegetables and herbs, and top with a squeeze of lime!

sweet pepper braised pork butt tacos

For more braised meat recipes, check out this recipe for miso-braised au jus sandwiches, or for garlic and wine-braised short ribs!

braised pork butt tacos

Sweet Pepper Braised Pork Butt Tacos

Using a few choice ingredients like garlic, onion, and aromatics, this dead-simple recipe is big on flavor and low on effort!
Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 4 hrs 30 mins
Total Time 4 hrs 35 mins
Course dinner, Main Course
Cuisine American, Intuitive, Mexican, Seasonal, traditional
Servings 8 people

Equipment

  • heavy bottomed dutch oven

Ingredients
  

  • 4 Tbs olive oil, divided
  • 5-7 lb pork butt or pork shoulder, at room temperature
  • 2 red, orange, or yellow bell peppers, whole
  • 4-6 sweet mini peppers, whole
  • 2-6 spicy peppers of your choice (I used Fresnos)
  • 1 white onion, skinned and cut into quarters
  • 1 head garlic
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 6-8 cups chicken or pork broth, or enough to completely submerge the pork
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • corn tortillas, warmed
  • 2 ears raw corn, kernels cut from the cob
  • cilantro, for serving
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges

Instructions
 

  • Turn the broiler on high. Brush your peppers in olive oil on all sides and arrange on a rimmed cookie sheet. Roast under the heat until the skin begins to blister, turning peppers as necessary so they roast evenly. This should take between 4-7 minutes per side. Once your pepper skins have blistered, place in a bowl and set aside.
  • Preheat the oven to 275°F. Generously season the pork on all sides with salt. Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat until drops of water quickly evaporate. Add pork shoulder, fattiest side down, and sear 5-8 minutes per side, or until deeply golden brown. Turn heat to medium-low and set the browned pork butt aside.
  • Cut the head of garlic in half horizontally and sear the exposed garlic cloves in the rendered pork fat until a nice caramel color, lowering heat if necessary. Remove from heat and add the onions. Sear undisturbed until the onion quarters take on some color, about 3 minutes.
  • Add stock and vinegar to the pan, scraping up any flavorful browned bits from the bottom of the dutch oven. Season the liquid with salt and pepper. Settle the pork butt into the liquid, fat side up, and add the two halves of the seared garlic head, bay leaf, rosemary, and thyme. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn off the heat. Cover, then place in the oven for 3.5-4 hours, or until pork is falling off the shoulder bone.
  • Pull pork out of the liquid using tongs and, once it has cooled slightly, break apart using a fork or gloved hands. If necessary, cut any long muscle fibers against the grain to enhance tenderness.
  • Gently pull peppers from the cooking liquid and remove seeds and stems. If desired, roughly chop into bite sized chunks. Using tongs, place pork, peppers, corn, and cilantro into a warm tortilla and squeeze lime over the top. Serve immediately. Pork keeps up to 5 days in the fridge.
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Gooey Lemon Meringue Pie Bars

With the passing of Memorial Day came a swift–if not entirely unpredictable–craving for sugar. Coupled with the knowledge that I had four or five lemons which were on the precipice of going bad, I knew there could only be one delightful conclusion: lemon dessert.

While most of us are familiar with lemon bars and lemon meringue pie, perhaps not all of us have had the great pleasure of sinking our teeth into these beauties. Gooey, sticky, lemony, and slightly tart, these bars make an excellent BBQ dessert. While they are fun to share, I ate nearly an entire pan to myself over the course of five days before finally demanding that my boyfriend take them away to share.

Y’know, for science. So for the record, they keep surprisingly well in the fridge.

While one could hypothetically eat these pie bars with ones’ hands (and I’ve definitely stuffed a bite-sized morsel into my mouth while running out the door on my way to work) they are an INCREDIBLY sticky mess and are best eaten with a plate and a fork. This way, you know how to prepare for that potluck dessert you were puzzling over. (Gatherings are beginning to happen again, thank everything good.)

Another bonus of finding this winner of a recipe? Trying my hand at another kind of meringue. This recipe calls for Swiss meringue in order to add a silky smooth finish to your lemon pie bars.

Different Kinds of Meringue

There are three basic kinds of meringue. Chances are, you’ve been exposed to them at some point in your life–maybe even eaten and enjoyed them–without knowing just what they are. From meringue cookies to pie toppings to Baked Alaska, mastering meringue is a pivotal step for any baker or home cook.

French Meringue

French meringue is created by whipping egg whites until soft peaks form, then gradually adding sugar while beating until firm peaks appear. For this process, it is best to use fine sugar or confectioner’s sugar for easier absorption and maximum dissolvability. This particular kind of meringue is often folded into desserts like Julia Child’s chocolate mousse in order to create a fluffy, airy quality.

Italian Meringue

While this touted as the most stable of the three meringues, it can also be the trickiest to get right. It is undoubtedly the least forgiving of the meringues, but the results are versatile and have been used in everything from macarons to buttercream. First, egg whites are beaten until soft peaks form. Then, sugar syrup (simple syrup) is heated to 236°F-240°F. Gradually, the syrup is added to beaten egg whites as you continue to whisk. When all the sugar is incorporated, you will have glossy, firm peaks that will set quickly unless incorporated into another ingredient.

Swiss Meringue

For this meringue, sugar and egg whites are whisked together over a simmering pot of water until they are very warm to the touch. The heated mixture is then beaten until smooth, firm, glossy peaks form. Adding the sugar to the egg whites in this way makes for a less voluminous result, but improves the overall texture, especially when compared to French meringue. (Hint: THIS is the meringue used for lemon meringue pie!)

Ways to Use Meringue

One of the great qualities of meringue is that it is essentially sticky, edible play-dough; once it’s met with time and/or heat, it holds its shape forever. Torch your meringue when you want it to set, and you’ve made an edible creation. Because of this aspect of meringues, they make a fun addition to nearly any dessert. Improvise, and have fun!

Okay, Now You’re Ready To Play With Meringue

Roll up your sleeves, gather your ingredients, and get to work!

We start with the graham cracker crust. Who doesn’t love a graham cracker crust?

You’ll need two sleeves, butter, sugar, and salt for this sweet step. A food processor makes the procedure more enjoyable, unless you love smashing things in zip top bags until they are a fine powder. Sometimes this can be cathartic?

Once par baked, it’s time to make the lemon filling. I love this lemon filling because juice, flesh, and rind are all blended together, creating a complex and robust lemon flavor. Yum!

Once blitzed together, it gets baked. It WILL look bizarre and even unevenly browned. But trust me (and the recipe!), once you slather some of that sweet, sweet Swiss meringue on top, nobody will bat an eye.

 

That’s the beauty of Swiss meringue: everything goes in one bowl (ideally the bowl of a stand mixer)!

Chill that sucker! While it’s cooling, whip up your Swiss meringue.

That’s the beauty of Swiss meringue: everything goes in one bowl (ideally the bowl of a stand mixer)! Put it over heat until it is very warm, whisking throughout.

It won’t look very “meringue-y” at first (I confess I had a brief moment where I wondered if I was doing it right) but once you put the warm mixture under a whisk, magical things happen. Spread the finished meringue over your cooled lemon bars and torch.

Before!

After! Serve immediately. If you can’t eat them all in one sitting, don’t worry. They are still just as delicious five days later, and I have to say they were even better on day two.

Gooey Lemon Meringue Pie Bars

With a buttery graham cracker crust, blitzed sugar and whole lemon filling and a sweet Swiss meringue topping, this crowd-pleasing dessert makes an excellent addition to any gathering. Keeps up to five days in the fridge. This recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen.
Prep Time 30 mins
Cook Time 40 mins
Cooling Time 2 hrs
Course Dessert
Cuisine American, traditional

Equipment

  • Blow torch or oven broiler
  • Stand mixer or electric hand beater

Ingredients
  

Graham Cracker Crust

  • 2 sleeves graham crackers, original
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 pinches fine salt
  • 10 Tbs cold butter, cut into cubes

Whole Lemon Filling

  • 2 whole lemons, scrubbed
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 8 egg yolks, with whites reserved
  • 1 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt

Swiss Meringue Topping

  • 8 egg whites
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt

Instructions
 

Crust

  • Heat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9x13 pan with two pieces of parchment paper large enough to overhang on the sides of the pan. (This is to remove the lemon bars after they've cooled.)
  • Place graham crackers, sugar, and salt into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until fine crumbs form. Add the butter and pulse until incorporated. The mixture should look and feel like wet sand. Transfer to the parchment papered baking pan and press the crumbs down into it in an even layer, taking care to send crumbs all the way to the corners. Bake for 10 minutes, or until just golden. Allow to cool.

Filling

  • Trim the ends off of your lemons and slice two lengthwise. Cut into thin half moons (about 1/8th of an inch thick) and remove the seeds from the slices. Wipe out the food processor and place lemon slices, juice of one lemon, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla, salt, and butter and blend until smooth. (Alternatively a blender works well for this.) Pour the mixture over the par baked crust and return to the oven, baking for 30 minutes more. (Don't worry of the graham crust is still warm when you pour the lemon filling into it.)
  • Pull the lemon bars from the oven after 30 minutes and allow to cool completely in the fridge at least 2 hours or freezer at least 1 hour. Don't worry if the top looks unevenly browned or unsightly as it's going to get covered with meringue swirls!

Meringue Topping

  • Once the bars have cooled completely, pull from the fridge. Using the parchment paper handles, pull the bars in one mass from the baking pan and discard the paper. Return the bars to the baking pan.
  • Add egg whites, vanilla, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer (or other heat safe bowl, if using electric hand mixer) and place over a pot of simmering water (even 2 inches of water in the bottom of the pot is enough. Whisk continuously until the mixture is homogenous and very warm to the touch.
  • Transfer the bowl to the stand mixer and beat until firm, glossy peaks form, 2-3 minutes. Plop the meringue over the cooled lemon bars and swirl using an offset spatula until desired effect is achieved.
  • Using a torch or your oven's broiler, heat meringue until golden and toasted, around 1 minute. Keep a close eye on the meringue so it does not burn.
  • Serve immediately. Keeps well up to five days in the fridge.
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