Char siu pork (often simply called Chinese barbecued pork) is a Cantonese classic that is most often seen mixed in with pork fried rice. Sadly, the version of char siu pork in most fried rice is a pale imitation of the real thing. If you’re fortunate enough to have a Chinese barbecue restaurant in your town, you may have seen it—glossy and deep amber red—hanging in the window alongside crisp-skinned roast ducks. Savory and sweet, tender and juicy, char siu pork is usually served with plain white rice, but can also be used in steamed buns or as a tempting addition to soups. But if you don’t have such a restaurant near you, you can enjoy this addictively delicious dish at home by following this recipe from Epicurious and exercising your thermal know-how.
Char siu pork is part of the larger Cantonese category of Siu Mei—fire roasted meats. But what makes it so special, is the sweet, reddish, almost crispy layer of lacquered sauce that is cooked onto it. This lacquer, traditionally made of soy sauce, hoisin, spices, and honey, combined with the traditional wood-fire cooking, imbues the meat with a rose-colored ring near its surface (similar to American barbecue’s famous “smoke ring”). That ring is so characteristic of this dish that many recipes call for red food coloring, a sure way to get red color into the dish, but not strictly traditional.
So we want to make authentic char siu pork with tender and juicy meat inside and a lacquered, sweet crust that’s had some caramelization on the outside. If we watch our temperatures and pick the right meat we can do both.
Caramelization and Maillard
To make great char siu pork, we need caramelization of the sugars, and that only happens with sustained exposure to temperatures above 320°F (160°C). We won’t get that lacquered, sticky exterior at lower temperatures. Temperatures above 300°F (149°C) will also produce Maillard browning from the sugars and the proteins. (Read more about Maillard browning.) The problem with cooking at these higher temperatures is that thin strips of tender cuts like pork loin and tenderloin will easily overcook, becoming tough and dry.
Tender Meat at High Heat
The high-heat problem can be solved, however, by using a tougher cut of meat. Pork shoulder is a great candidate, since it’s usually cooked to 175°F (79°C) anyhow. The high collagen content of the pork shoulder renders to gelatin at those higher temperatures, which makes it tender, not tough. (Usually, this cut is used for long, low cooking, which turns it into fall-apart tender pulled pork, but we don’t need that for char siu pork.) So by using a cut that can stand the heat longer, we end up with char siu pork that is tender (even if not fall-apart tender) and has had the time needed to achieve quality caramelization on the exterior. Cooking at 475°F (246°C) will help the glaze caramelize quickly and will also get the meat into collagen-melting territory quickly. We’ll use a ChefAlarm® to keep track of the temperature, basting our pork once it reaches 145°F (63°C) and then again when it reaches 165°F (74°C), finishing the meat at 170°F (77°C).
On the method:
We went ahead and and cooked the meat over a charcoal fire in a barrel cooker. This gives a more intense flavor and is more authentic. Cooking over a fire is also essential to getting that rosy border, or “smoke ring,” around your meat.
Alternatively, you can cook the meat on a rack in your oven with a ChefAlarm probe, turning it as you baste. But if you have a smoker or grill, we recommend open flame cooking. Part of the special flavor of the authentic dish comes from meat and glaze juices falling into the fire, burning/evaporating, and re-condensing on the surface of the comparatively cooler meat.
Recipe for Chinese Char Siu Pork
From Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen, as seen on Epicurious:
- 2 1/3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, well trimmed (2 pounds after trimming)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
- 4 1/2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
- 3 tablespoons light (regular) soy sauce
- 1 1/2 tablespoons dark (black) soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- Slice pork into strips about six inches long and 1-1 ½ inches thick.
- Make the marinade by combining and whisking together all the other ingredients. Set ⅓ of the marinade aside for basting.
- Marinate the pork, covered, in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours, or overnight, turning the pork 2 or 3 times.
- Remove the pork and marinade from the refrigerator 45 minutes before cooking.
- Heat your grill to 475°F (246°C). We used a Pro-Series® High Temp Air Probe with our ChefAlarm to make sure our cooker was at a high enough temp.
- Hang the pork on hooks in the cooker, spaced so that air can circulate around them. We used a Pit Barrel Cooker.
- Insert a probe attached to a ChefAlarm, and set the high alarm to 145°F (63°C).
- Roast the pork. When the ChefAlarm sounds, spot check the meat with a Thermapen Mk4®. Then baste the meat with some of the reserved marinade. Continue to cook the pork, resetting the ChefAlarm high alarm for 165°F (74°C).
- When the ChefAlarm sounds again, baste the meat one more time and reset the ChefAlarm high alarm one more time to 170°F (77°C).
- When the ChefAlarm sounds this last time, verify your final pull temperatures with your Thermapen Mk4 (we used the new Limited Edition Operation BBQ Relief Thermapen Mk4).
- When ready, remove the meat from heat.
- Allow to rest for 10 minutes
- Slice and enjoy!
Cooking at high heat doesn’t lead to tough meat if we use the right cut, and that high heat also yields a tasty glaze that makes this char siu pork (Chinese barbecue pork) as tempting and addictive as any restaurant’s.
Resources: Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen, as seen on Epicurious
The Cooking of China by Emily Hahn (part of the Time-Life Foods of the World series)
Meathead: The Science Of Great Barbecue And Grilling by Meathead Goldwyn