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Roasting a whole piglet on a spit is much easier than you'd probably think, and vastly more tasty than you can imagine.
We roast a pig every year for my sister's birthday right in her backyard in Brooklyn. If we can do it in the middle of New York, you can probably do it where you are as well.
Roasting whole animals has an unrivaled celebratory appeal that taps into one or the other of the primal centers of our brains, and nothing comes close to touching a whole young hog.
When purchasing a whole pig, plan on having about one pound of dead weight per person, which translates to around six ounces of meat after cooking and discarding the bones. The best pigs for roasting on a spit are under 90 pounds. Young pigs have extremely gelatinous and relatively low-fat flesh that practically melts as you cook it, oozing rich, sticky, porky juices. Older pigs have more fat, but their meat can begin to get drier and tougher, and are better suited for more gentle applications like Southern barbecue.
Since you're not going to be adding much flavoring to the animal, the quality of the pig is the biggest factor that's going to affect it's final flavor. Look for a happy, naturally raised animal which has had access to pasture. Ours came from Hemlock Hill Farms in Westchester, just outside of the city. Buying direct from the farm will save you a lot of money—particularly if you live in a city like NY where butchers will mark up the price around 200%.
You'll generally have to place an order for a pig at least a week in advance to allow time for slaughter and proper hanging of the animal. Young pigs have to be hung after slaughter for a few days in order to allow the muscles to relax after rigor mortis has set in.
Once you've got your pig, you can store it overnight in garbage bag in a bathtub covered in ice if necessary. Just remember to remove the pig before showering.
Equipment and Ingredients
The biggest piece of equipment you'll need is a spit. I don't know anyone who owns their own spit, but fortunately many farms that sell small pigs will also rent spits out for a relatively minimal fee. Call your local farms and inquire.
You'll also need:
- Charcoal briquettes. You can be all macho and use hardwood coal instead of briquettes, but I find it burns too fast and too hot, and is difficult to maintain the slow, even heat necessary for prolonged cooking. Plan on at least one pound of coals per pound of pig, but have an extra 25 pounds or so on hand. You don't want to make a coal run in the middle of the roast.
- A chimney starter. It's the most efficient way to light a batch of coals.
- A long set of tongs for arranging the coals underneath the pig during cooking.
- Kosher salt is the only seasoning you need. The pig should have plenty of flavor on its own. Rub the salt generously on the pig inside and out.
- Beer and friends. The pig will take about an hour and 15 minutes per 10 pounds. It's gonna be a long, lazy day of pig-spinning, so make sure you are amply lubricated and the company is good.
The most crucial step is securing the pig to the spit. Dead pigs are heavy, and unless they are extremely well secured, they have a tendency to flop around as the spit turns if you don't secure them properly. The slideshow will teach you a method that involves strapping the spine to the spit to ensure your pig stays nice and secure.
The cooking itself is a lazy process. Once you get the coals under the pig and the pig turning (most spits have an electric motor to rotate the pig automatically), you can sit back and relax, tending to it only once every half hour or so to ensure that the coals are still hot and the pig is not over or undercooking.
Low and slow is the goal. If your pig starts taking on a burnished color within the first hour, you're going too fast. Either slow down the rate at which you are adding coals, or raise the pig a few inches from the heat source (most spits are also adjustable in height).
The last half hour is where all the skin-crisping crackly magic happens, and requires high heat, so you'll want to pile on the coals at the very end, rotating the pig as necessary to expose every inch of skin to the intense blast of heat. If all goes well, it'll bubble into blistery pustules that crackle and dissolve in your mouth. Yum.
If you've never roasted a whole pig or attended a pig roast, I can't recommend it more strongly. It's guaranteed to be the highlight of your summer, and you'll become a local hero.
Just be sure to keep the invite list under tight control and limit the number of extra guests people are allowed to bring. Once word of a pig roast starts spreading, you'll literally have strangers coming in off the street for a sample. We were unscrupulous with our invite policy a couple years ago and ended up with over 150 guests all trying to eat off of a 70 pound pig. Needless to say, most went home hungry.
Don't let that happen to you.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.