My first-ever attempt at roasting a whole pig was by all accounts a huge success. Here it is, in 9 easy steps.
This idea got itself into my head about maybe almost a year ago. At that time the back yard was a disaster — all mud and about-to-be landscaped and I thought if ever there was a great opportunity to dig a big pit and roast a pig (because that’s all I knew, or thought I knew: that you roast pigs in big pits in the ground) it was before the yard was done. I stumbled across an article called A Beginners Guide to Roasting a Whole Pig (link at end) which made it all seem pretty straightforward, if not maybe exactly simple or cheap.
STEP 1: Pick a date and tell lots of people you’re going to roast a whole pig.
STEP 2: Arrange a pig.
This step can potentially be challenging. Doing step 1 first ensures you’ll try your hardest not to fail at step 2. Not that I doubt your commitment! But if you do fail at step 2, you’re off the hook for all the following steps.
My good friend and accomplice Dave was all in favor of researching local pig auctions and then making a project out of killing, bleeding, and cleaning one. I’m as romantic as the next guy, but not so much up for all that. Something I’d like to watch sometime, but I’m pretty confident there’s about zero chance I’d do it right myself. I called a butcher and discovered it’s pretty simple here in Boomtown: $4.99/lb, how big do you want it? I said 60-70lbs and a week later they had a 57lb gal ready for me, cleaned and butterflied, spine and skull cracked, ready to go.
STEP 3: Arrange a keg.
Getting a keg is pretty easy almost everywhere, as long as you’ll settle for what’s available. But since you’re reading this blog, I know that you’re not the type to always just settle. And getting a keg of Shiner Bock anywhere outside of Texas can be tricky at best. It may require a few days lead time. Stay ahead of the ball on this one.
STEP 4: Build a pit.
You can build the pit out of cement blocks, stacked in such a way as to keep the heat in but providing a few vents around the bottom to let in air for the coals. You don’t have to dig into the ground; in fact, if your yard is newly sodded and just starting to grow, you can build the thing right on your back patio, next to the pool. Two rows of blocks surrounding a “pit” about 4-5ft square-ish. resting on top of that, the grate for the hog. Then another row of blocks, then on top of that a couple sheets of aluminum to keep the heat in.
There’s a lot of different ways you can go with the grate, just don’t use anything galvanized! Stainless steel works best. In fact, what really works best is to have a friend who works at an oilfield equipment company in town plasma-cut a solid sheet of half-inch-thick stainless steel into a grill pattern. That’s my recommendation — just keep in mind the thing will weigh about 180 lbs. My accomplice Dave coordinated production on this.
STEP 5: Pick up the pig and get her into a fridge, season the grill, and pick up the keg.
You’ll need enough fridge space to hold a whole pig. You can either wait until after you’ve spent the $300 for this to occur to you, or you can get in front of it. A large cooler can work too, in a pinch. I’m here to help.
Seasoning the grill gets a little oil on it. It’s good practice and a good excuse to test-drive the whole fire building process in your new pit. An effective and delicious way to season a new pig-sized grill is to fry up a couple packages of cheap bacon from QuickTrip.
STEP 6: Score and salt her.
Do this at least 24 hours before cooking time. We did this about 48 hours before, then let her lie there in the dark fridge for 36 hours thinking about all the salt on her before we did the next thing. You have to score the skin with a box cutter or a razor blade. Must be sharp! You’ll be surprised how tough the skin is. Goal is to cut through the skin and the top layer of fat in little short cuts, especially all over the thicker meatier parts. Don’t cut into the meat. Then rub salt all over her. Can’t really over-salt, so be generous.
Put her back in the bag, back in the box, and back in the fridge, then walk away for a while. At least overnight.
STEP 7: Make a mojo-marinade and soak her in it overnight before roasting.
It can go a bunch of ways from here. You can skip the marinade altogether, or you can try to attempt basting during the roasting process. The problem with basting during roasting is that it requires removing the cover from the pit and that lets out the heat. I’m not sure the mojo-marinade made a ton of difference, but apparently there’s enzymes in lime juice that help to tenderize the meat so it’s never a bad idea. Lots of recipes out there; I did something reasonably close to a Bobby Flay recipe I found poking around online.
Pour the mojo-marinade all over her. Helps if she’s in a bag. Back in the fridge for the night.
STEP 8: Roast the pig!
For a 60-pound pig I expected the cooking would take about six hours and about 60 lbs of hardwood charcoal. If your project is of similar scale, then you’ll need:
- one of those cooking thermometers with a probe and a long cord
- a few of those disposable cheap foil baking pans, for coals
- about 60 pounds of hardwood charcoal
- olive oil
- oven mitts
- an accomplice who can be counted on to show up about 7 hours before you want the pig to be finished cooking
We wanted her to be ready for lunch. So with a goal of getting her on the grill at 6.00a, I got up and started the coals around 5.00a. Two foil baking pans with about 8 lbs or so of coals each. Foil pans can be slid in and out of the side of the pit by removing a couple bricks — this’ll have to be done several times during the cooking. Lie the thermometer probe on the grill, cover the pit, and watch the temp.
(My accomplice Dave, while good for project-managing custom-engineered grates and thinking big ideas such as killing and skinning live pigs, is not to be counted on to wake up for a 5.00a start. Enter accomplice #2, my brother Mike.)
Get a couple extra pans so you can get new coals going outside the pit before switching them. Dry off the pig, rub her back with olive oil. When the grill’s hot (about 220-240 degrees F), lie her down on her back and cover the pit.
Keep the heat reasonably constant. My pit started creeping up to 250-260 early on so I had to block several of the air vents. After that it was pretty straightforward to keep her steady.
After 2.5 hours or so, uncover the pit, get some help (and some oven mitts) and flip her over. She’s still tough enough that you can lift her by the feet. She’ll cook on her stomach for the rest of the time. No more flipping.
After another 2.5 hours or so, stick the thermometer probe in the think part of the pig’s thigh. You should by now have a pretty good handle on keeping the pit at the right heat, so now you’re going to keep an eye on the pig temperature. When the thermo says 155-160 F, she’s done.
Take her out and let her rest for 30 minutes. Patience, patience.
STEP 9: Pull her apart!
Another thing which may not occur to you — as it didn’t to me — is you’ll need a strategy for what to do with the pig when she’s done roasting. You don’t carve a pig, you pull her apart. In fact I’ll bet you almost pulled her apart unintentionally when you tried to lift her off the grill… she doesn’t have quite the same arm strength after 6-7 hours of roasting, does she!
In my case, it turned out that Austin, who machined and delivered the grill for me and who also had the idea to use one of our aluminum pit cover sheets to slide under the pig to lift her off the grill, is also an adept with two oversized forks and happy to step up when it comes time to pull apart a whole entire pig. Voila! He even saved me the tongue.
That’s it, folks. I strongly recommend you try this yourself someday. If you’re in the Tulsa area perhaps I’ll even lend you a grill.