My Citizens, I am proud to kick off the week of “Divine Swine” here at TFD in honor of the Chinese New Year of the Pig! As such, the next several recipes are all for whole hog cooking at its finest!
However, unlike most of my recipes where we dive straight into the history and specifics, it will be necessary to first have a discussion of how to properly make roast whole pig – it is an extremely involved process to do this right, and it is imperative you understand the fundamentals before you DARE approach whole animal cookery.
Let me be clear – this is by no means an inexpensive method of cooking – you need a lot of specialized equipment and the pig isn’t cheap. However, your investment in the right equipment means you can make this delicacy on a regular basis, and if you have a few dozen people over, have them chip in for the pig cost! They should feel honored and blessed to contribute to this holy cause – if they’re true meat fiends, they’ll thank you and pay the price of entry.
What follows below is a good “Master” recipe/techniques for cooking whole hog – the skills you master here are applicable to all the recipes you’ll see in the next week for this type of cooking and it will certainly make a delicious pig roast.
With my help, never fear – you will become a BBQ GOD by the time you finish this and assiduously follow its commandments! Remember – baby steps in learning this style of cooking. I’m making it easier for you, trust me. For one thing, most of my recipes are for small suckling pigs under 30 pounds, so they aren’t overly intimidating. You can move up to the big 75+ pound boys later once you’re more comfortable with this style of cooking.
With that – we begin!!!
First off – safety first! Please read this article before doing anything else!
Next, I strongly encourage you to partake of the wisdom of one of the great guiding lights of BBQ – please visit the awesome site amazingribs.com and read this article. Only parts of it are valid for this recipe and others I’m sharing, but it’s still a crash course on how to do it properly. I’ll excerpt a few choice parts, but if you are bold enough to tackle whole hog cooking, you should and must join the community there – they are beyond knowledgeable and very friendly.
First – the matter of pit vs. specialized cookers. There is no right or wrong answer here, though the pit is definitely the cheaper route. This article details how to make one in your backyard using cinderblocks. For this option, you’ll need a motorized rotisserie spit to do the pork justice – this brand and model is my strong favorite.
If you go the motorized rotisserie spit route, learning how to properly affix the pig to the spit is very important – if you go with my preferred manufacturer, this video will prove quite helpful.
Or, if you’re less the DIY type, I strongly recommend buying an integrated charcoal grill / rotisserie. Don’t be fooled by cheap imitators, you need one with at least a 40W motor and solid construction. I am very partial to this model as it is not too expensive and high-quality.
The last option is a simple cinder block pit, which does not use a rotisserie and is certainly the cheapest alternative. My friend Brian turned me onto this design used at Texas A&M University by the professors to teach whole hog BBQ. Would that my college had offered such a course, I’d have been immersed in the subtle arts of smoke and fire as opposed to dusty tomes of ancient history!
No matter which option you go for, please, PLEASE invest in a top-quality🧯capable of handling A,B or C-class fires – it’s an absolute necessity. I like this one.
Once you’ve decided whether to create a do-it-yourself BBQ pit with a separate rotisserie, a no-rotisserie pit or buy a complete piece of equipment and the right accessories, you’ll need to get a pig. Depending on how many you’re feeding and/or the recipe, the beast can range in size from a tiny 10 pounds to a behemoth 200 pounds!
You should be able to order one of the apropos size from your local butcher – I often order mine from a Chinese market where the price is cheaper if it’s a big pig, or if I’m feeling “high on the hog” I’ll order an heirloom piglet from my butcher or a rancher friend. These are always a better choice – I’m fond of Gloucestershire Old Spot, Berkshire and Mulefoot, personally!
The butcher is your absolute best friend here – don’t make extra work for yourself, have the butcher clean the pig for you as opposed to you doing it. I love the way the amazingribs.com author tells his butcher to prepare it – I’ll edit it to include my preferred additions/subtractions for both stuffed and butterflies pigs.
If you are stuffing the pig, order it this way:
“I want a whole dressed hog about X pounds delivered, fresh killed within a week of delivery, never frozen, skin on, hair scalded off, head, ears, trotters, tail on, all glands removed, tendons cut at all the ankles and pleura/silverskin all removed. Please crack the hip joints. Please remove the spinal cord. Save me the liver, kidneys, and tongue, on the side please.”
If it’s going to cook unstuffed:
”I want a whole dressed hog about X pounds delivered, fresh killed within a week of delivery, never frozen, skin on, hair scalded off, head, ears, trotters, tail on, all glands removed, tendons cut at all the ankles, and pleura/silverskin all removed. Please cut through the backbone and breastbone and crack the hip joints so it will lie flat. Please remove the spinal cord. Save me the liver, kidneys, and tongue, on the side please.”
One area where noobs typically show their inexperience is forgetting they have to MOVE the pig – not just from the butcher to your place of cooking, but also taking a roaring-hot, super-slippery beast from pit to table after (CAREFULLY) removing it from the spit or grate. The best solution is – and bear with me on this one – a body bag. Yes – I said a body bag. It has handles, prevents any fluids from dripping out and on you and is more than big enough to hold even the largest hog. I like this particular brand and style.
You can also safely store the pig in the bag with large quantities of ice surrounding it until you’re ready to cook, in case you need to hold the pig at your place overnight before cooking. You’re much better off getting the pig very early in the morning from the butcher’s cold storage meat locker and cooking same day, but this does at least offer you another option if that’s not feasible.
When cooking the pig, it’s all too easy to see your perfectly-bronzed pig go from ideal to burnt in the space of a few minutes before it’s totally cooked. Foil is your friend – if the ears and snout start to burn before the rest of the body, wrap them in foil. If the whole body starts to burn, wrap it ALL in foil! Get LOTS of foil at a restaurant supply store or Costco.
This chart from ncpork.org is very helpful to figure out fuel needs, cooking times and temps (note that these are for flat and butterflied hogs – if your pig is stuffed, cooking times are longer):
For a whole hog, you want the meat internal temperature to be at least 180, preferably 185 Fahrenheit. Check it in the thickest part of the thigh (using a heat-proof thermometer probe permanently stuck in there throughout the cook) and several other places on the pig with an instant-read thermometer – and remember that residual carryover heat will continue to rise even when you take it off the heat!
As to the cooking fuel – some swear by glowing hardwood embers and I have to agree, they can’t be beat for smoky flavor goodness! However, embers are finicky, spark a lot and require constant tending to maintain the proper temperature of 225 (ideal)-250 degrees (absolute max!) F throughout the cooking process. If you’re bold and experienced, by all means go this route. For sanity and convenience, I’d instead recommend charcoal – this is my go-to brand for this type of cooking in an integrated cooker.
For a cinder block pit, you’ll probably need a lot more charcoal – as such, go with a good-quality but not too expensive brand. Keep a second fire going to have the coals ready-to-go when you need them! You’re going to want to have at least 50 pounds of charcoal at the ready for smaller pigs, a lot more for the 100 lb.+ behemoths.
Some sage advice, again from my friend Brian, the meat professional:
Many use charcoal to help start a fire, but more seasoned pros typically use wood in a burn barrel and create their own coals to be shoveled in. For a “Texas”-style hog, one would use oak or mesquite, but hickory is the go-to for a traditional BBQ hog.
Fun woods with subtle nuances in character might include apple, cherry, pecan, and peach. All that said, ideally your wood choice should mimic your regional supply for authenticity. The Pacific Northwest uses alder while the California Central Coast uses red oak.
These lightly-edited instructions from amazingribs.com are gospel for the basic cook, IMHO:
Before you start operating on the patient, fire up your pit and get it up to 225°F and stabilized. Start the fire by crumpling at least six sheets of newspaper and placing them in the bottom of the grill. Squirt some cooking oil on them, not charcoal fluid. Dump one 18 pound bag of charcoal on top and light the newspaper in several locations.
When they are covered in a thin layer of ash, shovel them off to the side of the pit, but NEVER under the space where the hog will lie. You want to cook this baby with convection heat flowing up and around it rather than under it. Put a few extra coals in the four corners so the hams and shoulders get a bit more heat. Add a fist-sized piece of dry smoking wood of your choice (TFD prefers hickory) on top of the coals
You can also use hardwood instead of charcoal, but you need to burn it down to glowing embers. Don’t put raw logs onto the fire. After about 10 minutes, use your shovel to shuffle the coals around so they all light evenly. When the coals are ready, shovel them into the four corners of the pit with a little extra at the end where the hams will go.
Getting the temp right, and keeping it there is tricky. If you can do a dry run the day before, without the hog, that would be ideal. Set a probe on the cooking grate in the center and walk away for at least 30 minutes. Shoot for an ideal of 225° but you will not suffer if it runs up to no more than 250°F.
Prepping the skin
Get a work table and cover it with a plastic table cloth. Then put plastic table cloths under it to protect the ground. There will be splatters and spills. Wear old clothes and an apron.
Place the stretcher that you will use to carry the meat to the cooker on the table, and place Miss Piggy belly down on the stretcher.
As much as I like the shiny lacquered look of the competition hogs, the skin is leathery and not really good eats, so I prefer the blistered crackling Cheeto-textured skin that Sam Jones and Jackie Hite get. It ain’t pretty, but my guests love munching on it, and I chop some of it up and sprinkle it on the meat on a sandwich.
Now wet the skin thoroughly. Splash it on and wipe it all over. Don’t be shy. Soak the skin. Then take kosher salt and sprinkle it all over generously, about two tablespoons per square foot. You’re not oversalting. Much of it will fall off during the rest of the prep and the cooking.
Discard the contaminated table cloth, pull up a lawn chair, crank the tunes, and pour a drink. You have a multi-hour wait.
Keep a close eye on the proceedings. You do not want to leave the side of the pig for any longer than it takes to get a beer or make room for it. Dripping fat can cause a grease fire that can easily engulf the whole hog and incinerate it in minutes.
Now, notwithstanding all of the above, if you’re cooking a whole hog in competition, things are done differently! If you’re boldly venturing into the world of competitive Q, you can read all about how to cook competition-style whole hog at the excellent article here.
As to whole hog BBQ accessories – they are myriad.
First, you’ll need a strong trussing needle to sew up the pig after you’ve stuffed it (if the recipe calls for that) – don’t even dare attempt it with a regular needle, it just won’t work. This is a good choice.
A good digital thermometer is absolutely essential, ideally one that has double probes that can check the temperature of the meat in 2 different places (thigh shoulder) and a separate device to measure the surrounding ambient heat of the grill. If you’re going to be doing this a lot or professionally, get the best (and most expensive) set here. A FAR less costly but still accurate way to spot check meat and grill temp is this.
If you do burn yourself, get IMMEDIATE medical attention – this kit is a good place to start.
You’ll need a shovel or two to help move the coals into the pit or BBQ and to move them around to maintain proper heat control. This is my go-to.
To baste the pig, if you’re doing competition BBQ, you’ll need a mop. Yes – a mop, preferably one with an adjustable handle so you can avoid heat and flames. This one is especially designed for the task.
Once cooked, if you’re going to shred the meat, Carolina-style, you’ll need/want a set or three of these handy “wolf claws” that make that task a breeze for yourself and your helpers.
Needless to say, you’ll definitely want some comfortable lawn chairs, tunes and beer/soft drinks aplenty throughout this process – it’s thirsty work! You will also want a REALLY BIG sheet metal pan to put the pig on as you cut it/shred it (try a restaurant supply store), and a garbage can to throw the bones in (assuming people aren’t gnawing on them!). Some washable tarps are also handy if you want to lay the pig on the ground for any reason.
Lastly, once you are done, be sure to clean up thoroughly – this is the best grill cleaner spray I know of and this is a great grill cleaning brush. TFD is a huge fan of using his guests as forced/slave labor to help with the entire cleanup process – you may choose otherwise as you see fit.
Battle on – The Generalissimo
P.S. – MANY thanks to my friends Brian, Johnny Love (who has the best mail-order competition meat store on the planet!), and the squad at amazingribs.com for their input on this!