Ask anybody for the best pork adobo recipe, and they’ll tell you it’s their parent’s, grandparent’s, aunt’s, or uncle’s. There’s no perfect adobo recipe, and no one can claim to be the absolute best. So we’re not. This adobo recipe is just our best version of the dish, one that promises tender, flavorful meat in a classic adobo sauce—all achieved in the least amount of effort.
We tested everything from the ingredients to every single step in the method. But there’s nothing really ground-breaking here. We didn’t want to introduce new methods that people at home wouldn’t try, even if those ultimately made the adobo better. The thinking behind it really was to test the methods people usually followed to make adobo to see what made a difference or not.
The Pork Adobo Ingredients
There are four cornerstone ingredients to classic Filipino adobo: soy sauce, vinegar, black pepper, and garlic. Here, we use all four and some bay leaves for a bit more earthiness. This recipe also opts for cubed pork belly as its main protein.
Soy Sauce and Vinegar
We used regular Filipino-branded soy sauce and vinegar in this recipe. Most people just use whatever soy sauce and vinegar they already have stocked at home to make adobo, and that’s really a key part of the dish. So there’s no need to fuss over which specific brand or type of soy sauce and vinegar to get; whatever you have is fine.
There’s some contention as to the pepper aspect of adobo. Some people like using whole peppercorns; while others prefer just using ground pepper. Whatever you choose, the important thing to remember is that there needs to be a lot of it; the peppery flavor is an essential part of adobo.
Our recipe uses whole black peppercorns because we found that it gives a nice discernible kick of pepperiness to the final dish. Plus, we like that it tenderizes with the meat as it cooks. That said if you’re not into the whole peppercorn business (i.e. you hate biting into random corns when eating your adobo), you can opt for ground pepper. Just swap the two tablespoons of black peppercorns in this recipe for two to three teaspoons of ground black pepper.
The recipe calls for two whole heads of garlic. It sounds like a lot, but don’t worry, there’s very little effort needed for this part of the ingredients list. We’ll be marinating (*gasp* yes—more on that later) our pork, so we’re putting these heads halved into the marinade. There’s almost no difference in the amount of flavor released in relation to whether the garlic is whole or cut up. So it’s just smarter to take the convenient route of throwing it as a whole. At the end of the cooking process, the garlic softens (in the same effect as it would if it were roasted), and it’s nice to be able to pick them out and eat them with your adobo. It’s also better to eat this way, rather than there being small bits of garlic in your adobo sauce later on.
Bay leaves are optional in adobo. You can even do this recipe without it (good news to the bay leaf-adverse!). But we found that the addition of bay leaves add an earthy, slightly bitter flavor that cuts nicely through the soy sauce taste. This makes the dish a little more two-dimensional.
For this recipe, the main question we had about the pork is whether it’d be better to use pork kasim (shoulder) or belly. We tested both cuts of meat in the process to see which one would get more tender, absorb more flavor, and not dry out in the long cooking time. Pork kasim is what you’ll likely get from the supermarket if you ask for adobo-cut pork. These have a thick cut of lean meat and a large chunk of fat preceding the skin. On the other hand, pork belly has fat layered alternately between chunks of lean meat.
We originally thought that the anatomy of the kasim would help yield better results. But we found that in our process, the kasim ended up having dry and stringy meat. And since the fat was so thick, it didn’t cook properly, resulting in an unpleasant taste and texture. There’s a way to use kasim in adobo that works. But in this recipe, we recommend using pork belly because its fat-meat-fat-meat characteristic gives you more insurance to achieve tender, flavorful pork in the time that it cooks.
The Pork Adobo Process
Making adobo is a simple process; most households simply combine all the ingredients, then leave that mixture to braise. But in making this recipe, we wanted to test whether taking different steps (or not) in the process made a difference in the flavor and texture of the adobo.
Marinating the Meat
Not a lot of people marinate their adobo meat, so right off the bat, we’ll admit that this step is controversial. Some people just braise the meat—and that’s enough. But we found that there is a significant difference between using plain (non-marinated) and marinated meat in the adobo. After cooking, the latter was discernibly darker and it developed more flavor.
We even tried cooking the plain meat longer (in an attempt to infuse more flavor into it) than the marinated meat. But it still didn’t get nearly enough flavor than its counterpart.
Searing and Braising
At this stage, we tested what searing the meat before braising it—versus just braising it straight—did to our adobo. We seared a batch of the non-marinated meat and the marinated meat, put the meat in the liquid, then braised it. We also directly braised a batch of the non-marinated meat and the marinated meat to see the difference. At this point, all four adobo searing-braising combos had the same amount of ingredients in each. We let them boil until the meat was fork-tender (about 30 minutes) to see which combination developed the most flavor.
The winner was the marinated meat that was braised straight, followed by the non-marinated meat that was braised straight. The worst of the lot was the non-marinated meat that was seared before braising. This test concluded that searing the pork created a barrier in the meat that stopped the flavors from the liquid to penetrate through. So in the case of the marinated meat that was seared prior to braising, it retained the flavor from the marinating step. But it didn’t get any more flavor from the braising unlike the marinated and non-marinated meat that were braised directly.
Essentially, marinating the pork and not searing it—and therefore not creating that seal—gave the pork more opportunity to absorb more flavor during the braising step.
Water gives you time; the more water you have, the more time the adobo cooks—therefore, the more time your meat has to absorb flavor and fully tenderize. That said, too much water can waterlog your adobo, running the risk of losing all the flavor you’ve already developed up to this point. So this recipe calls for two cups of water, which should just be enough to cover the amount of meat.
Reducing the Sauce
We took the winner from the braising step (marinated, un-seared pork; at this point, now fork tender), then tested how to reduce it in four ways.
Reducing Adobo Sauce with Pork
First, we simply reduced the sauce together with the meat. This lets the pork develop a lot of flavor since it’s basically just allowing the meat to take on everything in the liquid. It also gives the meat a lot of time to become more tender. The only risk in this step is possibly overcooking the meat, but you already avoid this by using pork belly instead of kasim from the beginning.
Reducing Adobo Sauce without Pork
Second, we took out the meat (considering some people might worry about overcooking it), let the sauce reduce on its own, then returned the pork after the sauce reached the right consistency. This method stopped the meat from developing more flavor. So although it was already great from the previous step, it stopped there. And after reintroducing the pork into the sauce, it tasted like two separate components since the meat and the sauce didn’t really get the chance to meld.
Reducing Adobo Sauce with Seared Pork
For the third test, we tried searing the meat. Although we already found that searing wasn’t effective before braising, we wanted to see if at this point—since it already had the flavor from the previous steps—it would help to sear the meat. After searing, we returned the meat to the sauce and let it reduce together. The seared meat got a bit more toastiness. But just like in the braising step, the searing created a barrier that stopped it from absorbing more flavor. Plus, the meat didn’t retain the texture it had from searing. Instead, it was hard, chewy, and stringy.
Reducing Adobo Sauce without Seared Pork
For the fourth method, we seared the pork while the sauce was reducing on the side. Then when that was done, we stirred the meat back in (like in the second method). This test retained a little bit of the seared characteristic of the meat. But in the same way as the second method, it did not have enough time to get to know the sauce since it was only added later. So, still, the flavors felt disjointed.
Out of the four tests, the first one—reducing the meat together with the sauce—yielded the best flavor and texture.
Pepper’s Classic Pork Adobo
In the end, we found that the most fuss-free method worked the best in producing our classic pork adobo recipe. The pork belly, soy sauce, vinegar, black peppercorns, garlic, and bay leaves are combined and left to marinate overnight. Remember to flip it halfway so that the meat marinates evenly. The following day, transfer everything into a pot with two cups of water and braise the meat covered until it’s fork-tender. 15 to 30 minutes later, remove the lid, add soy sauce then let it thicken at full boil until you reach your desired consistency.
There’s an addition of soy sauce as you reduce the sauce because the marinating step absorbs most of the liquid. So this extra soy sauce ensures that there’s still some of it left once the water evaporates after reducing your sauce. It’s also your main source of saltiness (there’s no salt in this recipe). Depending on how salty your soy sauce is, you might need to reduce it to half the amount (that’s two tablespoons) in the final step.
A Few More Things…
If you follow the recipe to a T, you’ll end up with an adobo that’s in-between soupy and dry, leaning a tiny bit more towards the latter. You can adjust to the consistency that you prefer during the final step, while the adobo is at full boil. You can stop as soon as it boils for a soupy adobo, or you can cook it for the whole 30 minutes for a drier adobo.
Note that this recipe was developed for pork adobo—not a chicken adobo, nor a chicken and pork adobo. The final step of taking the adobo to a full boil is beneficial to the skin of the pork here, since it gives it a nice gelatinous texture. But if you do this to chicken, it will most likely fall apart.
This recipe was tested throughout 1.5 x 1-inch thick cubes of pork belly. However, it also works with smaller-cut pieces, which might be the case if you end up getting pork belly that’s been pre-sliced into liempo cuts at the supermarket (or if you’d just rather have more bite-sized pieces).