June 4, 2018
Taste Egg Icon
Adobo Seasoning and the Art of Puerto Rican Dry Marinade
Taste_Adobo_007

Why are plastic canisters of Goya adobo seasoning so ubiquitous in Puerto Rican kitchens? Because the spice blend goes well with pretty much everything.

When my parents got divorced, my dad didn’t know how to cook, but he knew how to shake a giant jar of Goya Adobo. He’d pour shocking amounts onto pork chops before they hit the grill, then add some more to the mashed potatoes. For a time, he was a real-life version of a Jennifer Lopez parody video, all but guzzling the blend of salt, granulated garlic, tricalcium phosphate, oregano, black pepper, and turmeric.

Goya launched the product in 1966 and now makes at least 10 varieties, some with coriander and annatto, others with bitter orange or saffron, still more with less sodium or no pepper. Each label features illustrations for its suggested use: a burger, fish, turkey, steak. Other spice brands have made their own versions, but Goya has always reigned, likely because the company, started by Spanish immigrants to the U.S. in 1936, was inspired by the influx of Puerto Ricans to New York City in the 1940s to focus on importing its kitchen staples specifically, eventually opening a processing center in the city of Bayamón.

They’re synonymous with Puerto Rican flavors, and that’s why I grew up with the red-topped version in my house at all times: for seasoning the ground beef in my mom’s empanadas, with an assist always from the brand’s similarly salty sazón, a blend of garlic, onion, cumin, turmeric, black pepper, and salt made red by achiote, a seed used for its color. Both are what I use when I make my vegan version of those empanadas, filled with red beans. I shake my own Costco-size jar onto vegetables as they sauté for easy flavor. It’s always next to my stove, hanging out with the kosher salt and olive oil.

“Adobo” comes from the Spanish word adobar, to marinate. Most blends include garlic, pepper, salt, and oregano, and there are new versions on the market that boast organic spices and less sodium, such as the one by New York–based brand Loisa. Some chefs and home cooks even make their own as a way to customize and tweak the spice blend’s balance beyond the flavors sold in the plastic canisters.

In Santurce, a neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, chef Mario Juan cuts the black pepper. At his Lote 23 sandwich truck, Pernileria Los Proceres, they make a blend composed of kosher salt, garlic, ají dulce, cumin, dried oregano, fresh oregano brujo, and coriander. A far cry from the supermarket one he’d occasionally sneak tastes of straight from the jar as a kid, his mix leans heavily on the garlic and oregano, creating sort of a cross between adobo and a traditional pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) marinade. The oregano brujo, a large-leaf version of the herb, is used fresh and in large quantities because it’s a hearty plant; the ones growing in front of Pernileria survived Hurricane Maria and don’t require much tending.

All it takes to make your own is a food processor. “The spices are ground, toasted, and mixed in thoroughly with the salt,” he explains. “We leave it out in a large container, not under refrigeration, and we use it in the course of a couple of weeks.”

He and the cooks at Pernileria utilize what they jokingly refer to as a “solera system” of aging used often in wine, rum, and vinegar production, in which some of the last batch is incorporated into each new one by never letting a container get empty. This allows the flavors to meld as the salt cures all the peppers, garlic, and herbs.

In A Taste of Puerto Rico, Yvonne Ortiz includes her instructions for a four-tablespoon blend as the first recipe in the book, showing you can’t get a taste of the island without it. The recent release Coconuts & Collards, by Von Diaz, puts three varieties—chicken and seafood, pork, and beef—right after the sofrito, the island’s foundational cooking sauce.

Diaz didn’t grow up with the dry supermarket blend. Her mother and grandmother weren’t into its high level of saltiness. “I love salt, but since we didn’t have spice mixes at home I never got in the habit of using them,” she tells me. “Now, in my own kitchen, I’d rather adjust my seasonings from dish to dish.”

This was shocking to some, which drove home for her just how common it is to simply pick some up at the grocery store. “A Puerto Rican friend once insulted me for not having adobo seasoning in my pantry, saying, ‘Tu no eres Puertoriqueña!’ [‘You are not Puerto Rican!’]” she recalls. “I was crushed—and confused. I came to realize that my family’s reliance on homemade seasonings and spices isn’t all that common.”

Adobo Marinade

Adobo Marinade

1 serving per pound of meat

Ingredients

  • Adobo for Chicken and Seafood (for each pound of meat)
  • 1 medium garlic clove, finely minced
  • ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • Adobo for Pork (for each pound of meat)
  • 1 medium garlic clove, finely minced
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lime, lemon, or sour orange juice
  • Adobo for Beef (for each pound of meat)
  • 1 medium garlic clove, finely minced
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice, or white or red wine vinegar

In Coconuts and Collards, Von Diaz looks at the meeting point between Puerto Rican food traditions and Southern cooking.

To adobar or season/marinate meat is what gives much Puerto Rican food its signature flavor. As a rule, marinating should be done as far in advance as possible—preferably overnight—but it’s still delicious if you only have thirty minutes to spare. This is a very adaptable marinade. If you love garlic, add more. If you prefer lime juice to lemon juice, use it. Recipes are for chicken, seafood, beef, or pork but are mostly interchangeable. A series of recommendations for other adjustments, such as adding smoked paprika to give depth and color, are included with individual recipes. Traditionally, an adobo is ground in a wooden pilón (or mortar and pestle), but like my mother, I use a food processor because it’s quick and easy.

Note: Each recipe is per pound of meat, and all salt is measured in teaspoons. Meat should always be rinsed with cold water and thoroughly dried with paper towels before rubbing down with adobo. The best way to store carne adobada (seasoned meat) overnight is in a large, heavy-duty zip-top bag or tightly wrapped in plastic wrap.

  1. Put all the ingredients in the bowl of a small food processor and blend into a smooth puree, scraping the sides halfway through to incorporate fully.

Ingredients

  • Adobo for Pork (for each pound of meat)
  • 1 medium garlic clove, finely minced
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lime, lemon, or sour
  • Orange juice
  • Guava BBQ Sauce (Makes about 2 cups)
  • 4 cups guava nectar
  • 4 small guavas, quartered
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup
  • 1 ½ teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Pork Ribs
  • 1 ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ¾ teaspoons ground achiote
  • 1 (3- to 4-pound) rack of pork ribs
  • 3-4 batches Adobo for Pork
  • 2 cups Guava BBQ Sauce

In Coconuts and Collards, Von Diaz looks at the meeting point between Puerto Rican food traditions and Southern cooking.

These are fall-off-the-bone, finger-lickin’ addictive ribs. I made them once for Tata, and I swear she ate half a rack alone, wiping BBQ sauce off her face with the back of her hand, as did my pseudo-vegetarian mother. My advice: go ahead and double the recipe. You won’t be sorry. Special thanks to Lisa Thrower for sharing her rib wisdom for this recipe.

    Adobo

  1. Put all the ingredients in the bowl of a small food processor and blend into a smooth puree, scraping the sides halfway through to fully incorporate.

Guava BBQ Sauce

  1. Combine the guava nectar, guavas, and garlic in a medium saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for about 20 minutes, until reduced and thickened. The sauce will darken slightly and have a glossy sheen. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on the fruit with the back of a large spoon to get the most out of the juice.
  2. Whisk in the mustard, ketchup, and vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to use, or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Pork Ribs

  1. Whisk the smoked paprika and achiote into the adobo. Place the ribs in a large shallow baking dish and pour over the adobo. Cover with aluminum foil and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or overnight if possible.
  2. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 300°F.
  3. Place the marinated ribs in a new baking dish, cover tightly with foil, and bake for 3 hours, or until the ribs are evenly browned and a significant amount of fat has separated from the meat.
  4. Remove from the oven, remove the foil, and transfer to an oven-safe wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet.
  5. Turn the broiler to Low. Baste the ribs with BBQ sauce and place under the broiler. Broil for 7 to 10 minutes, watching closely to make sure the ribs don’t burn, until crisp and browned on top.
  6. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Cut into individual ribs, brush with BBQ sauce, and serve with remaining BBQ sauce.

Alicia Kennedy

Alicia Kennedy is a Long Island–born, Brooklyn-based food writer and recipe developer. She's an editor at Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, and a contributor to the Village Voice.

[email_signup id="3"]
[email_signup id="3"]