So, there’s a BIG difference between Kahlua and kalua. Until recently, I had no idea. I’ve been to Hawaii before, and I’ve been to a luau, so inevitably, I’ve had kalua pork before. But, I guess I never knew it was called kalua pork. Why isn’t it Hawaiian pig? Or pig-buried-in-the-ground, or something else? When people talked of Kahlua pork before, I always thought they were referring to Kahlua, the coffee liquer. I was never quite sure how coffee liquer and pork went together, but since I don’t drink, I figured I was just missing out on something. Fast forward to a time recently when my cousin posted a picture on her Facebook page of her dinner plate recently, and she made kalua pork for dinner and in response to someone else said that it was fall-off-the-bone amazing! Naturally, I had to ask her for the recipe. While waiting for her recipe, I actually looked up kalua pork and discovered that it is kalua pork and no Kahlua pork! Silly me!
So, if you’re like me and didn’t know before, kalua is a traditional Hawaiian method of roasting a whole pig in an imu, or underground oven. Generally, for a luau, you’ll see guys take a whole pig, rub it completely with alaea salt and herbs to prepare it. A pit is dug in the sand where a fire is built, and rocks are put directly over the fire, which absorbs the heat of the flames and will in turn cook the pig. The pig is wrapped in banana leaves and then put into the ground over the hot rocks. Sand is thrown over the covered pig, creating an oven in the ground which the pig roasts in all day until its time for the luau. By the time the pig is dug up and pulled out of the ground, the meat of the pig is fall-off-the-bone tender. Since most people don’t have a whole pig, and pit in the ground they can dig up, you can try to re-create the taste and texture of kalua pig using your crockpot and cooking the pig low and slow. Which is exactly what I did when I decided I wanted to try my hand at kalua pig. The ingredients are simple: 3-5 pound pork shoulder, Himalayan pink salt, bacon, garlic cloves and liquid smoke (missing from the picture).
The easiest part? Take three strips of bacon and line the bottom of your crockpot with the bacon. The bacon helps to provide moisture, from the fat, and a bit of saltiness. In case you’re wondering what the plastic in the picture is, I used slow cooker liners to line the inside of my crockpot so that clean up would be a cinch.
Next, its time to prepare the pork. You need to take a fork and pierce wholes throughout the pork shoulder. Just take your fork and stab all over the pork shoulder – take your aggression out of this hunk of meat. This allows the heat to penetrate into the meat.
You’ll need about 4-5 cloves of whole garlic, peeled.
Take a knife and cut a deep slit into the meat for each clove of garlic you have. You’ll stick a whole clove of garlic into each slit that you cut. The garlic will flavor and season the pork. Believe me, you’ll actually be able to taste it. You don’t want to put the garlic cloves next to each other, cut these slits on all sides of the pork so that the garlic flavor is distributed throughout.
It’s time to take the Himalayan pink salt and let it do its work. Now, you’ll notice at the beginning when I explained what kalua pork was, that I mentioned traditionally alaea, or Hawaiian red salt, is used. While that is true, I wasn’t about to go out and buy salt specifically for this dish, as I could end up with a cabinet full of 20 different specialty types of salt for every dish that requires a different type of salt. So, I used a salt that I already had on hand which was Himalayan pink salt. Himalayan salt is supposed to be good for curing and seasoning meat, so I thought this would be a good substitute. The salt over the pork helps drawn out the moisture, tenderizes the meat and adds flavor during the cooking process. Take the salt, with a course grind, and cover the entire pork shoulder in salt. Make sure to rub it all the way into the meat.
Finally, you need a little bit of liquid smoke. The liquid smoke will help give the pork a little bit of the smoky flavor and aroma associated with real kalua pork roasted in an underground pit. Remember though, liquid smoke is potent, so a very, very little goes a long way.
Take a few drops of the liquid smoke and drizzle it over the pork. Take your hands and rub the liquid smoke into the pork shoulder, all over the meat. Again, only a few drops is all you need.
Take the salt and liquid smoke rubbed pork and drop it into the crock pot right over the strips of bacon. Now, put the lid on the crockpot, turn it on low, set the timer for 16 hours and let it go. The fat on the pork will slowly begin to melt, and the pork will begin to cook in its own juices from the heat of the crockpot. The name of the game here is low and slow. Don’t open the lid and release the heat. Just go and do something else and don’t worry about the pork and trust that the crockpot is doing its job.
With about 3 hours to go in the cooking process, take a large white onion, thinly slice it into strips.
If you have a clear lid on your crockpot, you’d see that all of the fat has melted off the pork, and where it was just the pork and the bacon sitting in the crockpot before, you have a cooked pork sitting in a fatty, liquid bath. Those juices, though fatty, are rich and delicious. Take the onions you’ve cut up and throw them into the liquid in the crockpot so that the onions can absorb all those yummy flavors. 2-3 hours is the perfect amount of time for the onions to caramelize.
After about 16 hours of cooking, your kalua pig is now down. When you lift the lid on the crockpot, you’ll see that the onions are perfectly caramelized and the pork is cooked all the way through.
All you need to do now is take two forks and start shredding the pork, which should fall apart when your fork hits it. Shred it to the consistency that you prefer – super thin pieces of meat or chunkier pieces of meat. You can separate out the onions if you want and serve them separately, or you can just mix the shredded pork in the crockpot with the onions to make one big mixture. If you feel better, you can also skim some of the fatty liquid out of the crockpot.
When you’re ready, serve the kalua pork hot. Take some tongs to your pork and caramelized onion, and grab some pork to load up your plate. Drain off the excess liquid, because that’s where most of the salt that you rubbed on to the pork initially lies. Serve your pork with a side salad, perhaps Hawaiian rolls or bread rolls. Or, in our case, we dished up the kalua pork with a corn on the cob and some biscuits. Easy, delicious, and light enough for a perfect summer meal. Now, I’ll never mistake Kahlua for kalua again!