Tue Feb 25, 2014
If there's a defining attribute of New York City barbecue, it's the loss of definition. North Carolina has whole hog, Texas has brisket, Kansas City had ribs, and New York City has pitmasters who are trying their best to emulate all of those traditions, but at the same time, not feeling beholden to them in a way a Southern local pitmaster may feel. That means you can get pretty stellar pork, brisket, and ribs in the city, but on the menu you may find smoke meats you wouldn't not see normally, like lamb ribs, coriander pork steaks, pastrami, and more.
One joint that embodies this spirit more than most is Fletcher's in Gowanus, who proudly advertise they serve "Brooklyn Barbecue." Unfortunately I've only gotten there once, but that one time I went, among the standard spare ribs and brisket, my tray also had a pile of sliced char siu pork shoulder steak. This clash of Chinese and American influence left a strong impression on me—it was unique, it was delicious, and I knew I needed to try to make it myself.
I'm no stranger to char siu—a Chinese "barbecue sauce" so to speak—due to the large amount of spare ribs, pork fried rice, and other grilled meats I loved at Chinese restaurants growing up. Char siu is a pretty simple sauce consisting of hoisin, honey, soy sauce, sherry, and five spice powder, but due to the complexity of many of those ingredients, it's flavor is incredibly deep and layered. It hits some barbecue standards like sweet and tangy, but the hoisin adds a fermented touch, the sherry a little sharpness, and five spice an earthy undertone.
Armed with the sauce, I needed to get my pork steaks in order next. While at Fletcher's, I did inquire how they do their steaks, and pitmaster Matt Fisher said it's nothing more than sliced up a pork butt that's marinated then smoked for six hours. So I just followed those instructions and picked up a beauty of a pork butt and cut it up into steaks about two inches thick.
Before marinating though, I thought I could push the flavor deeper by applying a rub. Sticking to the char siu tradition, I kept this simple and just used five spice powder, dark brown sugar, and salt. The steaks were rubbed down with this mixture until well coated all over.
Into a large Ziploc bag the steaks went, followed by the char siu sauce. Although I think you could do a quick marinade of only an hour with this, I left my steaks in the fridge over night to ensure they absorbed as much flavor as possible.
Just as I would have done with any pork butt, I fired up my smoked to 225 degrees and threw on the meat. Since the steaks were significantly smaller than a whole butt, they cooked up a lot faster than the usual twelve to fourteen hours. Granted I didn't want to cook them until they were falling apart like pulled pork—the goal was to be able to slice and serve—but these were still done in a comparatively quick 6 hours.
While the steaks were smoking, I took the char siu sauce the meat soaked in and boiled it down to a thick glaze. Then, in the last half hour on the smoker, I brushed the pork with this concentrated char siu to give the final product a coat that glistened after it had baked down.
The results were everything that I could have asked for. They had all the sweet, salty, tangy, and earthy components of char siu against a tender and juicy pork that was lightly smoky. The steaks I had at Fletcher's had the sweetness pumped up a bit, but I thought my attempt was a completely solid and worthy contender. Most importantly, it made me feel free from barbecue pigeonholes and got me thinking of other possible mash-ups—slow smoked al pastor anyone?
Smoked Char Siu Pork Shoulder Steaks
- Prep Time:
- 15 Minutes
- Inactive Time:
- 8 Hours
- Cook Time:
- 6 Hours
- Total Time:
- 14 Hours 15 Minutes
- 10 to 12 servings
- For the Char Siu Sauce
- 2/3 cup hoisin sauce
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/3 cup dry sherry
- 2 teaspoons Chinese five spice powder
- For the Rub
- 2 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
- 1 1/2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 boneless pork butt, about 7 pounds, cut into steaks about 2-inches thick
- 2 to 3 fist sized chunks of light smoking wood, such as cherry or apple
- For the Char Siu Sauce: Whisk together hoisin, honey, soy sauce, sherry, and 2 teaspoons of Chinese five spice powder in a medium bowl. Set aside.
- For the Rub: Mix together 2 tablespoons Chinese five spice powder, brown sugar, and salt in a small bowl.
- Coat shoulder steaks all over with rub. Place shoulder steaks all in a large resealable plastic bag. Pour in char siu sauce, seal, and toss to thoroughly coat pork. Place in refrigerator and marinate overnight.
- Fire up smoker or grill to 225 degrees, adding chunks of smoking wood when at temperature. When the wood is ignited and producing smoke, place pork in smoker or grill, reserving marinade, and smoke for 5 1/2 hours.
- While pork is smoking, pour reserved char siu marinade into a small saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat, reduce heat to low and simmer until sauce has thickened and reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Brush pork with reduced sauce and continue to smoke for 30 minutes more. Remove pork from smoker and let rest for 15 minutes. Slice and serve.