Ricardo Barreras, chef/owner behind Pilar Cuban Eatery in Brooklyn, shows GQ how to do a Caja China right.
There are two main things you need to throw a proper backyard Caja China: time and friends.
Slow-roasting a pig is "intentionally inefficient," says Ricardo Barreras, Miami expat, owner and executive chef of Pilar Cuban Eatery in Brooklyn, and—most importantly—pig-roast master supreme. "Whenever you cook something slower, it's gonna be tender."
The origins of the Caja China—basically “Chinese box” in Spanish—and particularly how it made its way to Cuba from Asia been distorted by time, but the basic method inverts traditional cooking structures by placing the coals on top of the box. This allows the pig to slow-roast in indirect heat (remember, heat rises) inside the metal-lined oven underneath.
When done properly, the result is juicy pork you can rip apart with your fingers and crisp shards of maple-colored skin that crackle in between your teeth; patience rewards. Now, it’s important to remember that a Caja China is first and foremost an event (in Cuba it's typically reserved for Noche Buena, says Ricardo), so again: the time thing. You’ll need 24-hours for the marinade to take hold, and realistically, for a 65 to 70 pound animal, seven to eight hours of roasting in very low heat. If you see any browning in the first hour, you’re cooking too fast.
As for where to keep the pig, the night before the roast? “At home, Cuban families do it in their bathtub,” says Ricardo. “This is to the fear of their wives their mothers.”
(Special thanks to La Caja China for providing the box.)
ROASTING A PIG
The Caja China
- The pig, 60 to 70 pounds. (Feeds 75)
- Olive oil
When you first get the pig, use a hammer and knife to separate the collar bone from the backbone. You want it to be spread eagle.
- 1 quart of freshly squeezed sour orange juice (typically found in Latin super markets. Avoid the bottled stuff. Alternatively, you can use equal parts orange juice, grapefruit juice, and lime juice)
- 1 1/2 cup of fresh pureed garlic
- 1/2 cup of oregano
- 1/4 cup of ground cumin
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups of salt
Put all the ingredients in a blender until pureed; it should be able to fit in the syringe that comes with your Caja China. “It should be pretty salty,” says Ricardo. “It should taste like ocean water. Really garlicky. When you taste it, it shouldn't taste good. It should be strong.” Inject the non-skin side of the pig with marinade—every square inch or two. “ You don't want to pierce the skin or put too much moisture in, or it's not gonna crisp up.” Let the pig rest in a large refrigerator or bagged in a bathtub filled with ice. Let it sit for 24 hours. (Needless to say you’ll need to plan ahead.)
Wake up early. Have a beer. When starting the Caja China (which should include instructions—unless you built it from the ground-up yourself), the temperature inside should be low—between 275 to 325 degrees. (Yes, you’ll need a thermometer.) Set the pig inside, skin-side down. We started at 11 A.M. and the pig was ready around 6 that evening.
Once you start roasting, you’ll need to change the coals about once an hour. The trick is to be aggressive about temperature control. Again: If the pig starts to brown in the first hour, it’s too hot. You’ll need to remove some coals and cover the burning areas of the pig with foil. Be vigilant about keeping the pig inside that temperature sweet spot.
About six hours in (whenever you start to see the bones separating from the meat), you’ll want to flip the pig so the skin is facing the coals. Brush the skin olive oil and sprinkle with a few fistfuls of salt. Finish for an extra hour-and-a-half to two hours.
Remove from the Caja China and set on paper-covered table. Bask in the glory.
The Mojo Sauce
- 2 cups of sour orange juice
- 1 cup of olive oil
- 1/2 cup of garlic
- Half bunch of scallion greens
- Salt to taste
Blend together. Slather on anything on your plate: yuca fries, pork. Eat until it hurts, maybe. You earned this.