Tender, moist and smokey Kiawe-roasted Kalua Pig… Ono!
You can make Kalua Pig either the traditional way in an Imu (underground oven), or the easier faux method using liquid smoke in a conventional oven. Well leave the hard labor and the liquid smoke behind this time, as I’ll show you how to make Kalua Pig using Kiawe (mesquite) wood and a barbecue grill!
The natural smoked flavor from the Kiawe is unbeatable, and it’s relatively easy to do, only requiring a few simple steps, time and some TLC. If you like barbecuing (like me), this should be a fun and rewarding project!
What you will need for the fire:
- A large coal-burning barbecue grill that has a cover (in this case, I’m using the classic 22″ Weber Kettle Classic)
- Kiawe Wood Logs (if you don’t have this, use mesquite wood chips found at most grocery and hardware stores)
- Disposable foil pan
- Lighter fluid*
- Newspaper (to start burning coals)
What you will need for the pig:
- Pork butt (bone-in with plenty of fat is preferable for better flavor), in this demo, I’m using a 5 pound cut.
- Hawaiian rock salt
- Ti leaves (prepared by washing thoroughly and stems cut off), enough to completely wrap the pork butt(s). If you can’t get Ti leaves, use Banana leaves. You need this for proper flavor, so don’t omit it!
- 18″ width heavy-duty aluminum foil
First, prepare the pig…
Begin by laying a large sheet of foil on the work surface. Then layer the Ti Leaves (or Banana leaves) on the foil as shown above. Place the pork butt on the Ti Leaves, then sprinkle Hawaiian Salt on all surfaces of the Pork Butt. Enough just that it’s evenly, but not heavily covered (don’t over salt it!). If you want, you can lomi (massage) it in. Make sure the fat-side is up when wrapping it (as shown).
To wrap it all up, first gather up the Ti Leaves and wrap it over the pig, leaf by leaf, then hold them together with one hand, while with your other hand, bring up the foil to form a “packet”, which will look like this…
One thing critical in how you wrap it is that you provide a sealed “bottom” to retain all the flavorful juices from the pork. If there’s a leak on the bottom, the juices will drip off and your pig may turn out dry. So keep that in mind.
Finally, using a sharp knife, poke holes on the TOP SIDE of the packet to allow the smoke (flavoring!) in. Poke all the way through until it penetrates the meat. I’ve made 8 holes here.
Repeat this process for however many pork butts you plan on cooking. In this demonstration, I only made one. I’d say the 22″ Weber I used could fit about 4 total.
Put wrapped up pork butts in refrigerator and prepare the fire…
Before you begin, remember to WORK SAFELY. Just cook the pig. Not yourself or your house!
Build the fire by laying a (small) bed of 10 charcoal briquettes on one side of the bottom grate, with the Kiawe log sitting on top of it. Drizzle the coals and kiawe with enough lighter fluid for a light soak, then get the fire started with a crumpled newspaper on the side.
Here are several pieces of dried out Kiawe wood logs (hana hou photo added 3.13.07)…
The shorter dark ones on the left came from a more mature tree and are much more DENSE, hence they burn much longer. They’re a struggle to cut, even with a chainsaw; almost like cutting a metal pipe.
If you’re using Mesquite chips, use more coal (about 25 briquettes) and add the chips only when you’re ready to cook. Pre-soak the chips in water (for smoking).
When the lighter fluid has fully burned off, the coals are almost ashed over (white) and the Kiawe is burning consistently (usually takes about 30 minutes), it’s ready for the pig…
Place a foil pan filled with water next to the fire. This will create some steam in the chamber that will help keep the pig moist. Place the cooking grate on the grill then place the wrapped pig on it. In this case, the fire was REALLY HOT, so I kept the pig on the opposite end. This is INDIRECT cooking, where you’re only using the fire as heat source. DO NOT place the pig near the flame up area (shown on the left side).
If using Mesquite chips, this is the time to sprinkle them over the burning coals. It will immediately begin smoking.
Cover the grill.
Notice the billowing Kiawe smoke!
With the heat source on one side and the cover on, you’re basically turning your grill into an outdoor oven. Albeit, one with all that flavor-enhancing Kiawe smoke!
Set all the vents open, underneath and on the lid. Let the “Kalua’ing” begin! It takes about 6 hours for the pork to fully cook and reach fork-tender, fall-apart consistency. Because of this long duration, you’ll need to feed more Kiawe and Charcoal to the existing burning coals every hour or so. The charcoal briquettes can be slipped through the side opening of the grate, but you’ll need to remove the grate when adding the larger Kiawe log. You want to keep the heat inside the grill (not the meat) maintained between 250 to 325 degrees maximum. If in doubt, use a BBQ temperature gauge. I use the “hand-testing” technique, as I’ve done this many times already.
About 5 hours into the cooking time, it looks like this…
As you see, I’ve just fed more charcoal and a new chunk of Kiawe. The existing burning embers will eventually start to burn the new batch. The foil wrapper has taken on a bronzed color from the heat and billowing smoke created by the Kiawe wood (or Mesquite Chips if you use that). That new chunk of Kiawe will burn long enough for the final 2 hours of cooking it needs.
Remember to keep the grill COVERED throughout the cooking process (even though it’s tempting to look!). This is how you maintain and keep a stable cooking temperature. Only uncover it when you need to add more coal and/or Kiawe or Mesquite.
After approximately 7 hours, it should be done. Check it by opening the foil slightly and taking a fork to it, try to “pull” the pork. If it shreads easily, it’s done! Remove the pork butt(s) from the grill, bring into kitchen and prepare to shred the meat. Here it is just unwrapped. Yum!….
IMPORTANT! Before you open the foil, poke a whole on the bottom of the packet and drain the precious liquid into a clean transfer pan that you will use to shred the pig in. Then set the packet down, open the foil and Ti leaves and remove the cooked pork INTACT and place in transfer pan with cooking juices…
Discard foil and Ti leaves.
Using two forks, shred the Kalua Pig (that’s what it is now!) in the pan while it’s still hot. Taste test for saltiness. Adjust with more if necessary. After several times, you’ll get the hang of how much salt to use at the prep’ stage. Remember, you can always add, but you can’t subtract.
The finished result will look like this…
After shredding, that (originally) 5 lb. pork butt filled this entire 9″x11″x2″ deep pan… that’s alot of Kalua Pig!
That’s it. All pau cook. Now time to kaukau!
Notice how moist it looks. This is why you need to retain those cooking juices, so you can mix it with the Kalua Pig. Whinnahz.
This might be a good time to bust out that Squid Luau and Poi!…
If done properly, you can get “almost as good as the Imu” results in the oven thanks to the liquid smoke. Yet this barbecue grill method tastes that much closer to the Imu thanks to the natural smoke, without nearly as much work.
Hana hou photo added 3.13.07…
A full pan of about 13 lbs of Kalua Pig made from two very large pork butts. Next to it is a fresh bowl of 3 lbs. of Taro Brand Poi, which currently costs 11.99/bag at Costco. Ouch. The pork butt was on sale at Foodland for $1.49/lb. Cheap! Most of that pan will be bagged and frozen for a luau we’ll be throwing for a family visitor from the mainland a week from now.
Note that it took longer than 6 hours to cook those larger pork butts (about 8 lbs. each). Taking about 10 hours total and using more coals and Kiawe.
*If you have an aversion to lighter fluid, use a fire chimney. The smoking wood will eventually start to burn and give off smoke.