We were celebrating four birthdays at the family office in Cebu last week, so attempting Lechon #4 seemed timely. If you have been following my recent series called the “Lechon Chronicles,” you would be well aware of my quest for a terrific lechon with good flavor and incredibly crisp skin. And hopefully, with no commercial tricks like the use of sinigang cubes, lots of sugared water or soda basted on the skin, MSG, etc. But let me take you back a year or two… and click this link to an earlier post outlining what qualities I thought (at that point in time) the best lechon in the Philippines should have… The most glaring quality that has come under personal review is that the skin of the lechon must be smooth (in addition to the skin being crisp and the meat incredibly flavorful). Perhaps 90-95% of city dwellers DO NOT MAKE their own lechons, but rather, are happy to order it from a commercial or semi-commercial source. And I have noticed that over the past 30+years, more and more of these commercial lechons seem to have a slowly evolving, incredibly crisp, hard, often “shellacqued” quality to them. And since they represent the vast majority of lechons consumed in the city, I suspect that the commercial version is driving our modern preferences and tastes…
This healthy skepticism towards mass-produced lechons has led me to try my own hand at cooking a lechon “in the backyard”, and the lessons learned so far with just four pigs under my belt, seem priceless to me. I am increasingly of the opinion that MANY commercial lechons probably employ shortcuts or tricks, and while that may not bother most of their patrons, it is something that WOULD bother me. Throughout the life of this blog I have always tried to cook dishes with as much fresh and natural ingredients as possible, though I admit to having used an occasional shortcut. The main areas for commercial lechon tricks are in the source of concentrated and highly salted flavorings for the stomach… often in the form of instant sinigang powder or cubes, rife with artificial and natural flavors, MSG, etc. This is often rubbed into the cavity of the pig, and while it does result in incredible flavor bang for the buck, I think I can often distinguish a lechon which has used this trick. The flavor near the stomach is unnaturally sharp and intense, and my tongue practically tingles from overstimulation. The fragrance from the stomach cavity is sharp, not naturally fragrant. On the skin, to get a uniformly crisp result, I think some places use what is the equivalent of a sugar/salt wash that serves to help caramelize the skin, provide flavor and crispness. As for the turning, commercial operators use machines to turn their lechons, which takes away the personal touch and close eye that traditional lechoneros employ to achieve their personal versions of lechon. But these are mostly my conjecture and opinion, and hopefully readers who sell lechons commercially will correct me as they perhaps only sell “naturally” crisp lechons… How they remain crisp for several hours after they come off the coals, when all backyard versions we have tried seem to fail that task miserably (as did all of the ones my grandmother’s lechoneros made and shipped to Manila on PAL cargo holds), is a mystery that will simply remain unexplained… :)
So does the skin of the ideal Marketman lechon HAVE to be smooth? I would have said yes up until the “SLITCHON” that I cooked with slits down the side that resulted in incredibly crisp crackling and lechon skin that was music to my tastebuds. My objective for Round 4 was to attempt to get the most mouthwatering, crisp, texturally engaging and flavorful skin I possibly could… and the results? A self-rated 9.60-9.75 out of a possible 10.00, or pretty darned good, in my biased opinion. And some 85+% of the entire skin surface of the pig was incredibly crisp for up to 45+ minutes after it came off of the fire! So now I would be willing to say that EITHER a totally smooth and crisp lechon skin OR a less conventional, rough and texturally shocking skin, COULD score a Marketman 9.50 or higher rating, it would simply be a matter of choice which version I would choose to eat on a given day…
This is how we cooked Lechon # 4. The 35 kilogram live weight pig (the biggest we have ever used) was first stuffed with a mixture of seasonings nearly identical to attempt #3, with garlic, peppercorns, lemongrass, chillies, onions, lemons, salt, thyme and rosemary. The only miscalculation here was the continued struggle to put enough salt. I always fear I will over do it, but it is hard to put too much salt. And at perhaps 22-25 kilos of meat after it was cleaned, the volume of salt needed would probably exceed a good cup or two of sea salt. Once the pig was all sewn up and on the spit, we took about 8 of the largest sized home sewing needles and with four people total, we lightly pricked the entire surface (except face) of the carcass with the pins, taking care to just break through the skin and go some 1/8th to 1/4th of an inch deep into the underlying fat. I didn’t want to reach the meat, only the fat. Now where did I get this idea? From one of my current favorite television chefs, Emmanuel Stroobant of the “Chef in Black” of the Asian Food Channel, who did an episode that featured Chinese Roast Pork Belly. He detailed a frequently used trick or method of the Chinese chefs who prick the skin of their pork belly and roast it until it is incredibly crispy. I had also read many months ago how the roast suckling pig in Chinese restaurants were made, with a similar pin pricking procedure. And a comment or two on previous lechon attempts also mentioned the pin treatment. So it was not original idea, but it is certainly the first time I have ever come across someone applying the concept to an entire pig on a spit.
One of the things I love about this blog is that it has egged me on to do more than a home cook would normally do. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I knew this experiment COULD have been an utter failure, and with a PHP4,000 pig as the base ingredient, it would have been a costly mistake. But this is precisely the reason that few folks stray from tried and proven methods… for fear of failure. But once you liberate yourself from that form of tunnel vision, the resulting freedom to try new things (within some bounds of reason), can more often than not, lead to simply spectacular if not “breakthrough” results. I often share my successes with you all, sometimes the failures, though some disasters have been relegated to a locked and secure area of my psyche!
Once we had pricked the pig all over, at say 1/2 inch intervals on average on all parts of the skin except the head, we massaged the skin with some olive oil, added some kosher salt and lots of dried rosemary and thyme. We put the lechon over a HOT fire with about a sack worth of charcoal and within minutes there were little popping and cracking sounds, as air or whatever came bursting out of the pin holes, starting the process of blistering the skin. At some point, huge sections of the skin puffed up and I feared a massive explosion, along the lines of the recent Qantas cargo blowout on a flight that did an emergency landing in Manila a few weeks ago, but swift adjustments by the guys turning the bamboo pole made sure that not a single bubble burst. As the pig turned on the hot fire for 15 minutes, the cracking sounds were clearly a unique aspect of this attempt, as we had heard nothing like in in the previous 3 pigs!
AFter about 45 minutes, the cracking stopped and the skin looked like this photo up above. By about an hour, I had a really good feeling that things were going to work out just fine…
At this point, I regretted not pricking the head of the pig as well, as it did not brown as evenly as the rest of the lechon. Besides the cracking sounds, a little bit of oil kept emerging from the pin pricks and slowly self-basted the lechon for the entire 2 hour cooking period. As this happened, a natural air pocket or cushion formed between the puffed skin and the fat underneath it, which I think helped to crisp the skin even further!
At about 1 hour and 45 minutes, I pricked the skin with a needle tied to a bamboo stick and the skin was just so INCREDIBLY CRISP on nearly EVERY part of the pig. I thought I would need to pin prick the lechon about an hour into cooking but it wasn’t necessary at all. While the pig looked cooked, I was worried that because of its size, it might need a little more time on the fire.
At two hours, we decided to take the lechon off the fire and let it rest for 10-15 minutes before we tasted the skin. The verdict? In my opinion, possibly the crispest lechon skin I have ever eaten. But more than crisp, it had a puffed texture. It had good mouth feel and didn’t seem that oily or greasy. It was “lighter” than a traditional piece of skin. And it was just gorgeous. It could have had more salt, and I will remove the herbs in the next attempt as they are easily mistaken for pig hairs and otherwise burn up, but this was just incredible lechon skin, despite it NOT being the smooth brown skin most folks associate with a pinoy style lechon.
Most of the office crew did not seem bothered by the rough texture of the skin, and while they may not have expressed totally frank opinions for fear of their boss crossing his eyes, I am counting on Artisan Chocolatier to comment on this lechon as he was present with his family that day to taste Lechon # 4. they arrived about 45 minutes after the pig was taken off the fire, so I am curious for his views on the pig, positive or negative… :)
Breaking off nice large crisp pieces of crackling or skin while the steam was still coming out of the butt was such a thrill in and off itself, the whole experiment done in our “back yard,” but the crispness of the skin was just mind-boggling.
And my rating on attempt # 4? About a 7.75 on taste as I lacked salt and perhaps didn’t put enough herbs in the cavity of the lechon. But for the skin, a definite 9.75, for a total score of 8.75, the best we have done so far. Once I get to say a 9.00/10.00, I will be satisfied. And I hope to be able to do that with both a smooth and crackled pig skin! Gotta reach for the stars, right?
As for the name of this version, I am partial to Accuchon, but have decided to put it up for a vote so you can all participate in the process of naming it. I also liked Desecrachon, but couldn’t see that being a permanent name of a dish of mine, a bit blashphemous, no? :) Once we get a definitive winner in the name category, I will revise the title of this post! Thanks!