The Food Lab: Sorry, Pulled Pork, It's Cochinita Pibil's Moment

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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An impressive hunk of smoked pork that's perfect for a party. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Until I'd tasted cochinita pibil in its native territory, I never really got it. Does that sound snooty to you? I don't mean it to sound snooty. It's just that I always felt, who'd want to order mild, kinda dry shredded pork when there's carnitas or lengua on the menu?

What I didn't realize was that the "cochinita pibil" served in the restaurants I'd been visiting in the United States had as much to do with actual cochinita pibil as Crock-Pot pulled pork has to do with true Southern-style barbecue.

Real cochinita pibil is far from mild or dry. True, it's not spicy (the heat comes in the form of intensely hot condiments on the side), but it has a uniquely sweet, earthy aroma imparted by bitter Seville oranges, achiote, charred garlic, and a host of other spices. That earthiness is backed with the herbaceous aroma of the banana leaves it's cooked in, along with smokiness from hours of slow cooking in a smoky, steamy píib (or, in modern Mexican Spanish, pib), the Mayan oven consisting of a hole in the ground lined with hot stones.

Dishes cooked pibil—the term for anything roasted in a pib—are the Yucatán's most distinguishing cuisine, and cochinita pibil, whole roasted pig rubbed in achiote, is the king of the Mayan barbecue pit. In many respects, it's very similar to the clambake of New England. Both use local ingredients (pork, if not endemic, is at least widely adopted in the Yucatán) that are cooked via a combination of smoke and steam in an underground pit heated with live wood and hot stones. Both achieve similarly unique flavors and textures, with the smokiness of barbecue and the pull-apart tenderness you get from slow-cooking foods in a steamy environment. And, of course, both are messy, fun, and perfect for parties.

Let's put something to rest right off the bat here: If you want to be pedantic about it, you can't make cochinita pibil without an actual pib, any more than you can have a true clambake without a pit or Neapolitan pizza without a wood-burning stone oven. But you can fake it pretty darn well, and that's what we're going to do today.

For such a remarkable dish, the recipe is quite simple: Rub pork in a marinade. Wrap it in banana leaves. Smoke it until it's done. Ta-da!

The details in the ingredients and technique are where the magic lies.

The Spices

The markets in Mérida are lined with merchants selling recado, colorful bags of pre-blended spice pastes designed for specific uses, much like the curry pastes sold by vendors in Thailand. Every maker's version is slightly different, but the basic recado rojo, or red paste, is what we're after for cochinita. Its primary ingredient is achiote, the seeds of a small shrub that have a bright red color and a mild but distinct flavor. It's widely available in Latin markets, either as whole seeds or as a paste (typically labeled "annatto"). I prefer the seeds because you can toast them for more flavor before grinding.

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A spice stand in Mérida's Lucas de Galvéz market.

In addition to the achiote, my recado includes a big pinch of dried Mexican oregano (more floral than the Italian version, though Italian will also work), three whole cloves, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, and allspice berries. Allspice is one of the few spices native to the New World, and is still the only widely available spice grown exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. It's essential to the flavor.

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The final ingredient is cinnamon, and in this case, it's worth it to seek out Ceylon cinnamon. Folks who like to impress their food knowledge upon you to make you feel inferior might refer to it as "true cinnamon" (or even "real cinnamon"!), though there's not really anything more "true" about it. The cinnamon we more commonly get here is cassia cinnamon, the thick bark of the C. loureiroi tree. It's got a spicy, brash flavor that's great in cookies and spice cakes, but overpowering in this dish. Ceylon cinnamon (C. verum) has wispier, more scroll-like bark, with a milder spiciness and a sweeter, almost vanilla-like aroma. I find it in bulk bins at my local Latin market, where I can buy it a stick at a time, but you can typically find it packaged in the spice sections of any Latin market. (If you're using regular cinnamon, cut down on the amount by half.)

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If you were making a straight-up recado, you'd toast the spices dry before grinding them and combining them with moist aromatics. In this case, I know that I'm going to end up adding oil to the marinade anyway, so I find it much easier to simply bloom the spices in oil (or lard, if you prefer). The oil distributes heat more evenly than a dry skillet can, which means more even toasting and better flavor development. Bonus: Most of the aromatic compounds in these spices are fat-soluble, which means more flavor retention than you'd get by letting them fly off into the air, as they do when the spices are dry-toasted.

The Aromatics

There are only two remaining aromatics, and they are as essential to Yucatecan cuisine as the spices: charred garlic and bitter-orange (Seville orange) juice.

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The first we obtain by charring garlic directly over the flame of a gas burner. You can do it a whole head at a time, but it takes a good 10 minutes or so of constant attention. By breaking the head apart and threading each individual unpeeled clove onto a skewer, you can cut that time down to just a couple of minutes. When I say "char the garlic," I mean it. Totally black on every surface is what you're going for. This not only gives it a smoky flavor on the exterior but also guarantees that the interior is cooked and softened, reducing the harsh bite of raw garlic. (If you don't have a gas burner, you can do this with a blowtorch or by tossing the garlic in a dry skillet until it's blackened on most surfaces.) Once it's burnt, peel away the outer skins, and you should be left with tender, smoky cloves with a few black spots here and there.

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Seville orange, also known as bitter orange or marmalade orange (or naranja agria in Spanish), is a hybrid between a pomelo and a mandarin,* with a flavor somewhere in between. It's got some of the aromatic nature of a navel orange, but a great deal more bitterness and astringency in its juice. It's the key ingredient in all three of the Yucatán-style condiments I wrote about earlier this week (all of which you'll want to make to accompany the cochinita). Problem is, it's not easy to find in the States unless you happen to have a particularly well-stocked Latin grocery nearby. For a substitute, I go with the recommendation of David Sterling, author of the awesome book Yucatán and proprietor of the Los Dos cooking school in Mérida: a combination of lime, navel orange, and grapefruit juice.

* Which, now that I think about it, makes me question whether a combination of mandarin and pomelo juice would hit the sweet spot.

Once the spices are toasted and the citrus juiced, I blend it all together in a blender, along with a glug of white vinegar for acidity and a small splash of soy sauce to boost the umami factor (no, soy sauce is not a traditional Mayan ingredient). The marinade should have the texture of ketchup—it should flow, but still be nice and thick.

The Pork

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Historically, a whole pig (or, for the less adventurous, a half pig)—head, organs, and all—has been the cut of choice for cochinita pibil, but nobody does it that way anymore; it's simply not practical, and, to be quite honest, most parts of the pig are better cooked in other ways. Instead, shoulder (butt) or leg (ham) is the way to go. Both cuts have plenty of marbling to keep things moist and juicy, and both have abundant connective tissue that will break down into succulent gelatin over the course of slow cooking.

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With barbecue, in which the pork is cooked while exposed to the direct heat of the smoker, keeping the bone in and the rind on (or at least a good fat cap) is important to protect it from drying out too much. In this case, our meat gets wrapped, so, bone-in, bone-out, rind-on, rind-off—it doesn't really make much difference in the end.

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The marinade is rubbed thoroughly all over the pork before cooking. As with most marinades, I don't find much benefit in allowing the marinade to sit on the meat for longer than a few hours (though longer doesn't hurt, if you want to break up the cooking process over a couple of days). I do, however, find a benefit in cutting the full shoulder down into smaller, two-inch-thick pieces so that you get more surface area for marinade application. (Cut them much thinner than this, and they'll dry out as they cook.)

So I Don't Got a Mayan Earth Oven. Now What?

Okay, so now we're up to the tricky part: the technique. And, honestly, it's not that tricky. The uniqueness of foods cooked in a pib comes from a combination of flavor from smoke, tenderness from a moist cooking environment, and aroma imparted by the banana leaves. Let's tackle these issues backwards.

The banana leaf flavor is a no-brainer: Just get yourself some banana leaves. They're readily available frozen in Asian supermarkets, they thaw quickly, and they last pretty much forever without loss of quality in the freezer. My first thought with the banana leaves was to do it the easy way: line a baking dish or disposable aluminum tray with leaves, place the pork on top, then place more leaves on top of that. This is actually very similar to how it is done in an actual pib.

To test out the methods of wrapping, I cooked pork both in my oven and over indirect heat on the grill. What I soon realized was that with this kind of loose wrapping, the pork loses too much moisture as it cooks. Water is an essential component of the reaction that breaks down tough collagen into tender gelatin, and without it, the edges of the meat end up getting tough, much like the bark on a barbecued pork shoulder. That's a fine texture for barbecue, but not for cochinita. (In a real pib, the dampening power of soil placed on top of the banana leaves is enough to keep that moisture in place.)

To get that moist cooking to work properly, I use another technique of Sterling's, which he demonstrated to me in the context of a beef dish cooked in a similar fashion.

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You start by laying a few overlapping banana leaves out on the counter, then placing the marinated pork in the center, along with plenty of marinade and a few moist vegetables—onion, tomato, pepper, and bay leaves—for another layer of flavor.

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Next, you roll and wrap the entire thing up like a burrito, securing it all together with string. (If you want it to look all rustic, you can use the central strands from the banana leaves, though I find that's more trouble than it's worth.) The technique makes sense. It's very similar to the way you'd use banana leaves to wrap Colombian-style tamales—another dish in which moisture retention is vital—just much, much bigger. Getting that wrapping on tight is key.

Now on to the smoking.

Smoking and Finishing

There are two ways you can go about this—three, if you count digging a pit and setting it on fire. The first method is on the stovetop. It's not particularly difficult; it's just a little finicky (and, no matter how hard you try, your house will smell like smoke). To do it, I use a wok that I line on the inside with heavy-duty aluminum foil. I place a wire rack on top of that to hold the meat, then put some wood chips in the base of the foil. I then heat up the wok on a hot burner until the wood chips start smoldering, before placing the lid on top and folding up the foil to seal in the smoke and moisture. (You can see some pictures here—sorry about the terrible quality of my photos from six years ago.) Incidentally, this method also works for getting smoky flavor into Southern-style barbecue indoors.

You could technically cook it from start to finish in this setup, but I've never successfully been able to do it without constantly fiddling with the heat (not to mention eventually burning off the seasoning on my wok), so, if you're using this method, I'd recommend smoking it for a short period with a LOT of smoke, then finishing it in the oven.

That said, this dish truly shines when it's cooked outdoors, as the Mayans intended.

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I cook mine by placing it on a thin metal tray—I use a rimmed aluminum pizza sheet—and setting it over the cooler side of a grill in which all the coals have been banked to one side. (If you use a gas grill, turn on one set of burners and leave the rest off.) On top of the coals I place a few chunks of hardwood for smoke. I tried it with mesquite, hickory, and apple, and to be honest, once the pork is unwrapped, you cannot tell the difference between any of them—use whatever you've got on hand.

This is low-and-slow cooking, so I aim for an air temperature of between 250 and 300°F. The pork takes about five hours to fully tenderize in this temperature range. The easiest way to check if it's done is to use a metal skewer and poke the pork in a few locations; the skewer should go in and out with barely any resistance, even if you twist and turn it.

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The finished packages are a really impressive sight coming off the grill, not to mention the fact that they smell incredible. I love dishes that require a little bit of flashy table-side action. This one comes out like a birthday present—a smoky, banana leaf–wrapped birthday present—except you've got a big ol' pile of extra-tender, earthy-and-sweet, juicy pork inside. I'd take that over new socks or a video game any day.

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When you serve the pork, make sure to place it inside a rather deep dish or shallow bowl—there are going to be a lot of juices that seep out, and, when you shred the pork with a couple of forks, you should be mixing it right back into those juices and seasoning it with a little salt as you go. For the simplest way to enjoy it, serve it with a stack of small tortillas and some Seville orange–pickled red onions and crazy-spicy salsa.

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This is the kind of dish best made in large quantities, so you'll either need to have plenty of hungry friends or be prepared to eat leftovers for days. Fortunately, cochinita pibil chills and reheats really well and can be used in countless dishes. Tacos, sandwiches, as a pizza topping, mixed into your scrambled eggs, in quesadillas, on rice or even pasta, whatever.

I take it that a lot of you are going to have busy achiote-toasting, pork-wrapping weekends, and I want to both thank you for taking the time to cook for your friends and family and also apologize in advance, because that stuff you get at the restaurant is never going to be good enough for any of them again.