Why It Works
- Toasting the spices in oil develops flavor for the marinade.
- A combination of lime, orange, and grapefruit juice mimics the flavor of Seville oranges commonly used in the Yucatán.
- Wrapping pork tightly in banana leaves helps trap moisture, resulting in tender meat.
- Smoking on the grill imparts the smokiness you'd expect from a traditional pib oven.
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 from the 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 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 in banana leaves. Smoke until it's done. Ta-da!
The details in the ingredients and technique are where the magic lies.
Traditional Spices for Cochinita Pibil
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.
In addition to the achiote, my recado includes a big pinch of dried Mexican oregano (more floral than the Italian version, though Italian will 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.
The final ingredient is cinnamon, and in this case, it's worth it to seek out Ceylon cinnamon. Some refer to it as "true 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 find it packaged in the spice sections of any Latin market. (If you're using regular cinnamon, cut down on the amount by half.)
If you were making a straight-up recado, you'd toast the spices dry before grinding and combining with moist aromatics. In this case, I'm going to add oil to the marinade anyway, so it's easier to bloom the spices in oil (or lard, if you prefer). The oil distributes heat more evenly than a dry skillet, 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 when spices are dry-toasted.
Traditional Yucatán 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. Garlic can be charred 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 on 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.
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 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 that you should 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, blend it, 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 be nice and thick.
The Best Pork for Cochinita Pibil
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 really does it that way anymore; it's simply not practical. 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.
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.
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 find a benefit in cutting the full shoulder down into smaller, two-inch-thick slabs so there is more surface area for marinade application. (Cut them thinner than this, and they'll dry out as they cook.)
How to Make Pibil Without a Pib
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 smoke flavor, tenderness from a moist cooking environment, and aroma imparted by 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, thaw quickly, and last pretty much forever 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. I realized that with 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 get tough, like the bark on a barbecued pork shoulder. That's a fine texture for barbecue, but not for cochinita. (In a real pib, soil placed on top of the banana leaves keeps moisture in place.)
To get that moist cooking environment without digging a hole, I used another one of Sterling's techniques.
Start by laying a few overlapping banana leaves on the counter, then place 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.
Next, roll and wrap the entire thing like a burrito and secure it with string. (If you want it to look rustic, 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 bigger. Wrapping the pork tightly is key.
Smoking and Finishing Pibil
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 the stovetop. It's not particularly difficult; it's just a little finicky (and, no matter how hard you try to prevent it, your house will smell like smoke). To do it, I use a wok that I line with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Place a wire rack on top to hold the meat, then put wood chips in the base of the foil. 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. (See some pictures here.) 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 the seasoning off 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.
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 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.
The finished packages are a really impressive sight coming off the grill, and 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.
When you serve the pork, make sure to place it inside a rather deep dish or shallow bowl—it's going to be juicy, and when you shred the pork with a couple of forks, mix it right back into those juices and season with a little salt. 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.
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 scrambled eggs, in quesadillas, on rice, or even pasta.
I know 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.
For the Marinade:
1 whole head garlic, separated into individual unpeeled cloves
2 tablespoons (30ml) lard or vegetable oil
1/4 cup achiote (annatto) seeds (1 1/2 ounces; 40g)
2 tablespoons (about 6g) Mexican oregano
3 whole cloves
1 (3-inch) Ceylon cinnamon stick, or a 1 1/2-inch piece of cassia cinnamon (see note)
2 tablespoons (about 8g) whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon (about 4g) whole cumin seed
1 tablespoon (about 4g) whole allspice berries
3/4 cup (175ml) bitter (Seville) orange juice, or 1/4 cup (60ml) each lime, orange, and grapefruit juice
1/4 cup (60ml) white vinegar
1 tablespoon (15ml) soy sauce
For the Pork:
4 pounds (1.8kg) boneless pork shoulder or 6 pounds (2.7kg) bone-in pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch-thick slabs
6 to 8 banana leaves (see note)
2 Roma tomatoes, sliced
1 red or green bell pepper, sliced
1 white onion, sliced
12 bay leaves
Warm corn tortillas
Thread garlic cloves onto a metal skewer and grill directly over the flame of a gas grill until completely blackened on all sides, 3 to 4 minutes. Alternatively, toss in a dry skillet over high heat until blackened. Peel blackened skins when cool enough to handle.
Heat oil or lard in a skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add achiote, oregano, cloves, cinnamon, black peppercorns, cumin, and allspice and cook, tossing and stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a blender along with peeled garlic, bitter-orange juice, vinegar, soy sauce, and a big pinch of salt. Blend until smooth. Season to taste with more salt. It should be quite salty and have a consistency like ketchup. If too thick, thin it with water until it flows slowly.
Pour marinade over meat and rub it in with your hands. Cover, refrigerate, and let it rest at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
Lay out 2 to 3 overlapping banana leaves on a work surface. Place 1 piece of pork in the center and layer with some of the tomatoes, bell pepper, onion, and bay leaves.
Form a tight parcel by folding the bottom side up and the top side down, then rolling in the sides. Secure parcel with kitchen twine and transfer pork to an oven-safe baking sheet or disposable aluminum baking tray. Repeat with remaining pork and banana leaves.
Light 3/4 chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to medium-high, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes.
Place a few large hardwood chunks on coals (no need to soak). Place aluminum tray or baking sheet on the side opposite the fire and close lid. Smoke pork, aiming for a temperature between 250 and 300°F inside the chamber the whole time, until a metal skewer inserted into pork shows no resistance, 4 to 5 hours total. (Adjust heat by adding coals and/or adjusting the air vents.) Add extra wood chunks to coals once per hour.
Remove pork from grill and transfer parcels to a deep platter or shallow bowl. Unwrap banana leaves, shred pork with two forks, stir it into drippings, stuff it into tortillas with pickled red onions and salsa, and serve immediately.
Look for "true" or Ceylon cinnamon, which has a thinner, more scroll-like bark and a milder flavor. It's available in specialty spice shops or in Latin markets. If unavailable, regular cassia cinnamon can be used in its place (use half the amount called for). Banana leaves can be found in the freezer section of most Asian supermarkets.