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The Food Lab: How to Roast a Whole Suckling Pig

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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Suckling pig is the easiest animal to roast in the world. Don't believe me? You should. You'd have to be a complete idiot to be able to start with a good pig and end up with something nothing short of extraordinarily, flabbergastingly delicious to eat a few hours later. I take that back. Even an idiot can do it. You'd have to be a diabolical madman of unrivaled genius bent on destroying deliciousness in order to ruin a good suckling pig.

Seriously, it's holiday roasting for dummies, and one of my favorite foods of all time.

You know what I've noticed? I don't write about pig nearly as often as I should, given how much I love the beast. I mean, come holiday time every year, I usually try and write a few stories about big, celebratory roasts. Prime Rib? I gotcha covered. Leg of lamb? No problem. Or perhaps you're a ham-fan? Don't worry, here's how to cook either a city ham or a country ham.

But pork roasts? Nope. Not unless you're planning on cooking it on a spit. Well, little piggy, this week I'm going to repay my debt to you and your unique porcine pleasures by honoring you with not one, but four complete guides to serving you up for the holidays in various incarnations. Special thanks to our friends at Pat LaFrieda for selecting some awesome pork for us to work with this week.

First up: suckling pig.

They call it cochon de lait in Louisiana (or France, for that matter), lechón in South America, maiale in Italy, or—my favorite—Spanferkel in Germany. I just call it f%*king delicious. Because a young pig's flesh is so rich in collagen and has yet to develop strong, robust muscle fibers, roasted suckling pigs is incomparably moist, tender, and delicate, bursting with sweet, sticky juices. It's pretty much impossible to overcook suckling pig flesh. Buy yourself one of these pigs, and you are 99.8% guaranteed a juicy centerpiece, more than can be said of pretty much any other animal.

The only tricky part—and in reality, it's not that tricky—is getting the skin crisp.


Shopping

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OK, I lied. Besides getting perfectly crisp skin, the other tough bit is finding a good source for suckling pigs. While technically a pig is only a true suckling pig when it's still drinking its mother's milk (up to the age of around six weeks), you'll often find pigs that are quite a bit older still labeled as "suckling." This is fine. For all intents and purposes, we care about their size and muscle development, not the technicalities of whether or not its lips were firmly clasping its mother's teat at the moment of slaughter.

The best way to get a suckling pig for yourself is to go to an actual butcher and ask them to custom order one. In fact, many supermarkets with a good meat counter will do it for you around the holiday times. Failing that, you can always order online. McReynolds Farms sells whole frozen pigs of all sizes. Just make sure you give yourself at least two days to defrost them in the refrigerator.

As for the pig's size, any pig under about 40 pounds will yield extremely tender meat, and you should plan on at least a pound of dead weight per person—more like a pound and a half, since this is the holidays and everybody should be eating more.

There is, however, another practical consideration: your oven size. I can fit a 20 pound pig in my oven, but only if the pig is stretched across two overlapping rimmed baking sheets, and only if it lies on its side—ideally, you want the back of the pig facing up to maximize surface area for crisping of the skin. I've cooked larger pigs in my tiny oven, but for those, I've had to split them in half with a hacksaw to get them to fit.

Once you've selected a good pig, make sure to keep it well chilled until ready to cook. If you can shove it into your fridge, more power to you. The alternative is to keep it in a large cooler on ice, changing out the ice as necessary, or—worst case scenario—surprise your housemates by tossing the porker in the bathtub and covering him with ice for up to three days, changing the ice regularly, and heading to the neighbor's to borrow their shower.

Equipment and Basic Flavorings

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There's not really any special equipment you need to roast a suckling pig (didn't I tell you it's easy, already?), just a normal oven, and a couple of rimmed baking sheets. If your pig is small enough, you can actually just fit him inside of a roasting pan, curled up like he's ready to take a nap.

A good pig needs nothing but a generous amount of salt, both inside and out, but if you want to get more adventurous, a dusting of freshly ground black pepper and some aromatics shoved into the body cavity won't hurt.

In a nod to my old chef Ken Oringer at Boston's Clio, I like to use handfuls of garlic and ginger. With older animals of any species, aromatics have a hard time penetrating very deeply into the meat, but because a suckling pig has such thin musculature and such a delicate texture, you definitely end up tasting your aromatics in the finished roast. Handfuls of thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, or parsley would do nicely, as would some chopped citrus fruit or even some par-cooked boiled potatoes, if you want the flavor transfer to go in the opposite direction.

The Process

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As I've said, if your pig fits with its back facing up on a single rimmed baking sheet, you're in luck—crispy skin galore. If not, you either curl him up in a roasting pan, or do what I do: take a rack out of the oven and overlap two rimmed baking sheets on top of it, covering the whole thing with foil. Place your pig directly on top, then lift the whole oven rack and re-insert it for roasting.

I've roasted suckling pigs in many different ways—hot oven to low oven, low and slow the whole way, moderate heat, butterflied and blasted—and every single method will deliver juicy, succulent flesh. The way they differ is in the quality of the crisp skin. It's not enough that the skin be moderately crisp, you want it blistered and crackled.

In order to do this, the best method is to start low-and-slow—a 275°F to 300°F oven is ideal—and roast until the pig is cooked to at least 160°F in its deepest joint (the shoulder joint close to the head). This should take around four hours for a 20-pound pig, more or less if the pig is bigger or smaller. By this stage, your skin will be relatively pale and you should be able to rip it with your fingers quite easily of you try, but it'll still be soft. To crisp it up, you want to blast the hog at max heat—500°F is good.

If you've timed everything perfectly, you should be able to simply crank up the oven for the last half hour or so of crisping and have your pig ready to serve. If somehow your timing is way off and your pig is ready before your guests are, don't worry! You can take him out of the oven before the final crisping stage and let him rest at room temperature tented with foil for up to two hours before throwing him back into a preheated 500°F oven to crisp up.

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As with all roasted meats, you'll want to let him rest tented in foil for at least thirty minutes before serving (here's more on the importance of resting meat).

By the way, you'll want to pour off all of the juices that dripped off during roasting into a measuring cup then separate the fat. Save the fat for cooking Ultra-Crispy Rost Potatoes in, and keep the remaining sticky juices handy for pouring over your meat at the table.

Serving

I hate to break it to you, but after all that, there's one more little obstacle: serving. If you were to ask me, I'd tell you that the absolute best way to serve a suckling pig is to get him on to the biggest serving platter or cutting board you can find, stick him in the middle of the table, and let people go at him with their hands and claws. There's so much crazy tender meat that the fingers are absolutely the best way to ensure that not a single scrap goes to waste. Your fingers will get gloriously sticky, but that's the whole point.

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What makes suckling pig stickier and more succulent than a full-grown hog? Collagen. This connective protein is abundant in the flesh of young animals that have yet to develop strong musculature. As collagen is heated, it converts to gelatin, which is what is responsible for making all of the drippings sticky, as well as lubricating and coating every strand of flesh you extract.

If you prefer, you can present the pig at the table, then bring him back into the kitchen where you can break the skin into serving-size pieces and tear off chunks of the flesh and stack them on a serving platter. Don't forget the juicy morsels behind the cheeks!

This is also a good course of action if you suspect that your diners might be a bit squeamish about their dinner looking back at them.

Got questions? Take a quick peep through the slideshow for a step-by-step walkthrough of the process.

Get the Recipe

Whole roasted suckling pig »

Still got questions? Fire away in the comments!

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor 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.

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