THIS POST IS SPONSORED BY
the National Pork Board, who I loved partnering & sharing with you this year! We’ve explored the deliciously wonderful world of pork together, including today’s culinary trip to Hawai’i! All thoughts & opinions are my own.
While I love all the recipes that we share here on PWWB, there are a handful of recipes that make me giddy with excitement & put butterflies in my stomach just before hitting the “PUBLISH” button. Today’s recipe is one of those recipes. It’s with great excitement that I am finally introducing you to one of my most treasured family recipes: Best-Ever Kālua Pig.
Kalua pig is a traditional Hawaiian pork dish – though, to me, it’s more than a meal…it’s central to some of the best memories of my life. I’ll spare you the nostalgia-filled deets, but know that it’s a really special dish that embodies love, family, togetherness, & the generous Hawaiian spirit of aloha.
Kālua pig – a traditional Hawaiian dish that embodies the generous spirit of Aloha.
My mom & I have worked on this recipe for a really long time, testing & retesting to ensure it’s just right before sharing it. And my goodness, we finally got it to a point where it’s just that.
This kalua pig recipe is…
- RICH, JUICY, & FLAVORFUL – A slow & low oven-braise yields the most succulent, fall-apart tender pulled pork shoulder that’s infused with rich earthiness & smokiness.
- EASY TO MAKE – This kalua pig recipe calls for just 5 key ingredients & requires very little hands-on prep time. It’s also slow cooker- & pressure cooker-friendly – more on that below!
- VERSATILE – Shredded kalua pork a freezer-staple at our house because you can enjoy it in so many different ways: on its own (plate lunch-style!), or piled into sandwiches & sliders, tacos, burritos, nachos, & so much more.
- HAWAIIAN GOODNESS – This recipe honors the traditional Hawaiian flavors of smoking a whole pig in an in-ground oven with a method that is a bit more home-cook friendly, especially for mainlanders!
This treasured recipe is brought to you in partnership with the National Pork Board’s Pork Passport program, a celebration of the delicious & diverse world of pork. As an ingredient that’s used & well-loved in different cultures throughout the world, cooking with pork is a fun & exciting way to explore different dishes & cuisines all from the comfort of our very own kitchens. And, if you ask me, aside from a trip to Hawai’i, this kalua pork is the next best thing.
Pure Hawaiian comfort food. ♡ Read on to learn more about this kalua pork, or jump straight to the recipe & get cookin’!
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What is Kalua Pork? (And where’s the Kahlúa!?)
Kālua, which translates to “cooked in an underground oven” in native Hawaiian, is a traditional Hawaiian cooking technique. So, while it sounds an awful lot like the famous coffee liqueur, we’re talking about Hawaiian kalua here!
Any number of different foods can be prepared kalua-style, though the most famous is likely Kalua Pork – Hawaiian smoked whole pig. (If you’ve ever been to a Hawaiian luau, you’ve probably enjoyed kalua pig!) Making traditional Hawaiian kalua pig is an hours-long process in which the surface of a whole pig is salted & its cavity is filled with blazing hot stones. The pig is lowered into an underground oven (imu), covered in banana leaves or ti leaves (the palm-like leaves of the Hawaiian ti plant) & soil, & left to cook.
The resulting pork is succulent, juicy, & melt-in-your-mouth tender. Kalua pig is permeated with smokiness, but what makes it really unique is the earthy flavor it takes on from the soil & banana/ti leaves.
As a mainlander, it’s nearly impossible to make truly authentic kalua pig yourself. (That is, unless you’re willing to fly to Hawaii, build an imu, & smoke a whole hog. For the record, I don’t suggest doing so!) But, if you take some time to source the right ingredients, kalua-style pork is really easy to make at home!
Key Ingredients in this Hawaiian Kalua Pig Recipe:
Like many Hawaiian recipes, this kalua pig is made with simple, flavorful ingredients. While there is some sourcing involved (as is the case with recreating any authentic dish from other countries & cultures!), the ingredients list is pretty minimal. You need just 5 key ingredients to make delicious homemade kalua pork.
Note: full ingredients list & measurements provided in the Recipe Card, below.
The key ingredients include…
- Boneless pork shoulder – Also commonly called a Boston butt or pork butt. Look for a meaty roast with nice marbling, which, when braised, transforms into succulent, fall-apart tender, & richly flavored pulled pork. Learn more about pork shoulder here.
- Banana leaf – An absolutely crucial component of this recipe. Much like authentic Hawaiian kalua pig, the pork shoulder is wrapped in banana leaf before it braises, infusing it with a rich, earthy flavor. This earthiness is impossible to replicate without it! You can find banana leaf sold in the freezer section of most well-stocked Asian grocery stores.
- Hawaiian sea salt – Another crucial component of this kalua pig recipe. Hawaiian salt is richer in minerals than conventional salt (& it’s as authentic as it gets!). I use this ‘Alaea salt (red clay salt with naturally occurring minerals & iron) & this Hawaiian sea salt in my kitchen – either will work wonderfully in this recipe.
- Liquid smoke – A cheater ingredient to add smokiness without actually smoking the pork. I like using hickory liquid smoke, but mesquite works well in this recipe, too. You can find liquid smoke in most conventional grocery stores, near the BBQ sauces.
- Garlic – One of my additions, which is certainly not authentic…but it’s delicious!
Pretty simple! If you’re unsure where to find any of these ingredients, check the Recipe Notes, below, for some sourcing guidance.
How to make Kalua Pork:
Once you’ve gathered the ingredients, making kalua pork at home is really simple! My preferred method is a straightforward oven-braise, which consists of just 2 primary steps. (Note: full Recipe Directions with step-by-step photos provided in the Recipe Card, below.)
First, prepare the pork shoulder:
While neither traditional nor authentic, I like to start off my kalua pig with a couple of easy, flavor-boosting steps:
- Stud the pork with garlic: Everything is better with garlic! I use a paring knife to cut deep slits into pieces of pork shoulder, pressing sliced garlic cloves into each pocket. The garlic flavors the pork from the inside out, nearly melting away as the pork braises. It is so good.
- Brown the pork shoulder: Taking a couple of minutes to brown the pork before braising promotes a richer, deeper flavor.
Then season the pork, wrap it in banana leaves, & braise:
Here’s where the authentic kalua pig flavor comes into the equation: the seared pork is seasoned with Hawaiian sea salt & liquid smoke, wrapped into a happy little bundle with banana leaves, & braised until it’s fall-apart tender. Some notes:
- SEASONING – The recipe calls for a generous amount of salt & liquid smoke – don’t be alarmed by the measurements. The natural flavors of both pork shoulder & banana leaf are incredibly rich & earthy. Kalua pig’s seasonings need to be able to stand up to those big flavors. Take the time to use your hands to rub the seasoning into the surface of the pork (lomilomi-style!).
- WRAPPING – Banana leaves are pretty large, so it’s helpful to cut them down into a few smaller pieces, bundling the pork layer by layer. The banana leaf may split a little bit as you wrap the pork, which is totally fine – just do your best to completely encase the pork.
- BRAISING – Place the banana leaf-wrapped pork shoulder into a Dutch oven, which functions as the DIY imu in this kalua pig recipe. Set in the oven to braise for a couple of hours, until the pork is fall-apart tender. Your kitchen will smell heavenly!
Once braised, the kalua pork will be fall-apart tender. Carefully peel back the layers of banana leaf, pull the pork out of the pot, & shred. I like to spoon some of the braising liquid over top & re-season with a little bit of liquid smoke as I shred to keep the kalua pork nice & juicy.
ALTERNATE COOKING METHODS:
As written, this kalua pork recipe is oven braised. Based on the amount of time you have, you can easily adapt it with a few other commonly loved techniques:
- Can I make kalua pork in a slow cooker? Yes! Kalua pork cooks up beautifully in a slow cooker. I still suggest taking the time to brown the pork before seasoning it, wrapping it in the banana leaf, & slow cooking, as browning helps develop rich flavor. Full slow cooker kalua pork instructions are detailed in the Recipe Card, below.
- Can I make kalua pork in a pressure cooker? Yes! Between braising, slow cooking & pressure cooking, a pressure cooker is admittedly my least favorite way to prepare this kalua pork recipe. While its quickness is certainly nice, it sacrifices some of the rich flavor. Nonetheless, if that’s what you have time for, go for it – full pressure cooker kalua pork instructions are detailed in the Recipe Card, below.
What to serve with Kalua Pork:
One of the best things about kalua pork is its versatility. Just like any smoky pulled pork, kalua pork can be used in an endless number of dishes:
- Hawaiian plate lunch: Served alongside a scoop of rice & Hawaiian mac salad.
- sandwiches or sliders: Load up a buttery & sweet Hawaiian roll with zippy slaw, kalua pork, & some Hawaiian Bar-B-Que sauce.
- tacos: Whip up a quick pineapple pico & pile it on top of kalua pork in a warm tortilla.
- other favorite kalua pork dishes: nestled in nachos, wrapped in a burrito or on top of a burrito bowl, stuffed inside a baked sweet potato & slathered with spicy mayo, a Hawaiian breakfast plate with rice & a fried egg…the options are endless!
PWWB’s Pick – Kalua Pig and Cabbage:
My favorite way to enjoy kalua pork is a pretty traditional preparation of kalua pork and cabbage. I usually eyeball things, so I don’t have a specific kalua pork and cabbage recipe, but it’s simple enough to throw together.
Heat some kalua pork, a couple of handfuls of finely shredded cabbage, & a splash of shoyu in a pan. Once it’s hot & the cabbage is wilted, serve over a pile of rice. If you want to take things to the next level, drizzle spicy mayo over top & serve alongside Hawaiian mac salad. Simple Hawaiian comfort food!
I’m so excited for you to try this Kalua Pork recipe soon. It’s simple, flavorful, & versatile, & it’s the kind of thing that will transport you to the warm, breezy beaches of Hawai’i as soon as you taste. it.
If you do give it a try, be sure to let me know! Leave a comment with a star rating below. You can also snap a photo & tag @playswellwithbutter on Instagram. I LOVE hearing about & seeing your PWWB creations! Happy cooking! ♡
More Recipes Like This:
Hawaiian Recipes and Local Favorites
A treasured family recipe – the Best-Ever Kalua Pig! Succulent, fall-apart tender pulled pork shoulder infused with rich earthy & smoky flavor, kalua pork is pure Hawaiian goodness, perfect for traditional kalua pork & cabbage, pulled pork sandwiches & sliders, tacos, nachos, & more. Oven, slow cooker & electric pressure cooker instructions provided.
- 2.5–3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 3–4 large pieces
- 8–10 cloves garlic, sliced in half lengthwise
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large banana leaf, thawed if frozen & cut into 3 smaller pieces (see Recipe Notes)
- 2 tablespoons Hawaiian sea salt (see Recipe Notes)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons liquid smoke, divided
- 2 cups water or chicken stock
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F, ensuring a rack is positioned in the center of the oven.
- Stud the pork with garlic: Using a sharp paring knife, carefully cut a few deep slits into each piece of pork shoulder, then insert sliced garlic into each pocket.
- Sear the pork: Add the olive oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid over medium-high heat (I use a 5-qt Dutch oven). Once the oil is hot & shimmering, carefully add in the prepared pork. Work in batches, as necessary, to avoid overcrowding the pot (which prevents browning). Cook for 4-5 minutes per side, until nicely browned. Transfer the browned pork to a plate, remove the pot from the heat & set aside to cool.
- Wrap the pork in banana leaves: Place the seared pork in the center of one of the pieces of banana leaf. Season with the Hawaiian sea salt & 1 tablespoon of the liquid smoke, using your hands to rub the salt & liquid smoke all over the surface of the pork. Arranged the seasoned pork in a small pile at the center of the banana leaf, folding the corners & edges of the banana leaf into the center to encase the pork. Carefully flip & set the wrapped pork seam side down on the second section of banana leaf. Repeat folding with the remaining pieces of banana leaf. Note: The banana leaf may split a little bit as you work, which is okay. Just work quickly & do your best to completely encase the pork in the banana leaf.
- Braise the kalua pig: Carefully set the banana leaf-wrapped pork seam side down in the pot used to sear the pork. Pour the water or chicken stock around the sides of the banana leaf-wrapped pork. Cover the pot & transfer the pot to the oven. Cook for 2 1/2 – 3 hours, until the kalua pork is fall-apart tender.
- Finish the kalua pork: Carefully transfer the pork to a plate or cutting board. Use tongs or 2 forks to shred the pork into bite-sized pieces. Once shredded, transfer to a large mixing bowl. Season with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon liquid smoke & a few spoonfuls of the cooking liquid in the pot as desired, stirring to combine. At this point, you can enjoy your Hawaiian kalua pulled pork immediately or cool & store for later use (see Recipe Notes for storage & freezing directions).
KALUA PORK & CABBAGE: My favorite way to enjoy this kalua pig is a pretty classic preparation of Kalua Pork and Cabbage. When I cook kalua pig and cabbage, I mostly eyeball things, but here’s the gist of how it’s done (the below steps yields 1 generous portion, multiply as desired for more servings!):
- Add a couple of teaspoons of neutral cooking oil to a skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is hot & shimmering, add in roughly 1/2 cup of kalua pulled pork & a couple of handfuls of finely shredded cabbage. Stir to combine.
- Once the pork is hot & the cabbage begins to wilt, pour in a few teaspoons of shoyu (or soy sauce/tamari/coconut aminos). Stir to combine & continue to cook 1-2 minutes more.
- Serving: Kalua pig & cabbage begs to be served over a pile of rice! If you want to take your meal to the next level, drizzle with spicy mayo & serve alongside Hawaiian mac salad. Enjoy!
- Banana leaf: Banana leaf is absolutely crucial in this kalua pork recipe, as it perfumes the pork with a rich, earthy flavor. You can find banana leaf sold in the freezer section of most well-stocked Asian grocery stores.
- Hawaiian sea salt: Hawaiian sea salt is also crucial in this kalua pig recipe. It’s richer in minerals than conventional salt (& it’s as authentic as it gets!). Yes, you need 2 full tablespoons for this recipe – Hawaiian sea salt is very coarse (so there are fewer crystals per tablespoon) & it’s notably less salty than conventional salt. When it comes to Hawaiian salt, I use this ‘Alaea salt (red clay salt with naturally occurring minerals & iron) & this Hawaiian sea salt – either will work wonderfully in this recipe. If you don’t wish to use Hawaiian sea salt, substitute with coarse rock-style salt.
- Make-Ahead, Storage & Freezing:
- Storage Instructions: Kalua pulled pork stores incredibly well! Transfer cooled kalua pork to an airtight container & store in the refrigerator for 4-5 days. Easily reheat on the stovetop or in the microwave.
- Freezing Instructions: Kalua pulled pork is also incredibly freezer-friendly. To freeze, transfer cooled kalua pork to a freezer container (or divide it up between multiple freezer containers for smaller portions). Freeze for up to 3 months. To thaw, place the frozen kalua pig in the refrigerator overnight or submerge the freezer container in room temperature water for a quicker thaw. Easily reheat on the stovetop or in the microwave.
- Alternate cooking methods:
- SLOW COOKER KALUA PORK: Prep the recipe according to Steps 2-4, above. Transfer the banana leaf-wrapped pork to the slow cooker, along with water (or stock) as directed in Step 5. Slow cook on high for 4-5 hours or on low for 7-8 hours until the kalua pig is fall-apart tender. Finish as directed in Step 6. If your slow cooker has a searing/browning feature, you can use it to cook this entire kalua pork recipe (Steps 1-6) in the slow cooker.
- ELECTRIC PRESSURE COOKER KALUA PORK: Use your electric pressure cooker’s “Sauté” setting to cook the recipe according to Steps 2-4, above. Place the rack insert that came with your pressure cooker into the bottom of the pot, then set the banana leaf-wrapped pork over top. Pour just 1 cup of water (or stock) around the sides of the banana leaf-wrapped pork. Cover & seal the pressure cooker. Cook on manual high pressure for 50 minutes. Allow the pressure cooker to naturally release pressure for 15 minutes before carefully flicking the valve to its “venting” position to vent out any residual pressure. Finish as directed in Step 6.
Keywords: kalua pork, kalua pig, Hawaiian recipes, oven braised, slow cooker, electric pressure cooker, gluten-free, dairy-free, comfort food recipes
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Recipe and Food Styling by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by Rachel Cook, Half Acre House.