Why It Works
- Because sucking pig is so rich in collagen, it's moist, tender, and delicate, bursting with sweet, sticky juices.
- You don't need any special equipment to roast a suckling pig. Just an oven and a couple of rimmed baking sheets.
A 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 pigs 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, I'm going to repay my debt to you and your unique porcine pleasures by honoring you with a guide 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.
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 freaking delicious. Because a young pig's flesh is so rich in collagen and has yet to develop strong, robust muscle fibers, roasted suckling pig 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.
How to Shop for Suckling Pig
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 their lips were firmly clasping their 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 it 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
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 it inside of a roasting pan, curled up like it'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 Cooking Process
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 it 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 is moderately crisp, you want it blistered and crackled.
In order to do this, the best method is to start low-and-slow—a 275 to 300°F (135 to 150°C) oven is ideal—and roast until the pig is cooked to at least 160°F (71°C) 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 if you try, but it'll still be soft. To crisp it up, you want to blast the hog at max heat—500°F (260°C) 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 it out of the oven before the final crisping stage and let it rest at room temperature tented with foil for up to two hours before throwing it back into a preheated 500°F oven to crisp up. The skin should feel hollow when tapped and crack when poked with a wooden spoon.
To get my pig out of the oven, I completely remove the oven rack with the two baking trays and pig still on it and set it on my range. From this point, it's easier to transfer the pig to a single tray to rest. Your pig will have shrunk a bit as it cooked and with a bit of creative chiropractic movements, you should be able to get it onto a single tray depending on how big it was to begin with. As with all roasted meats, you'll want to let it rest tented in foil for at least 30 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 roast potatoes, and keep the remaining sticky juices handy for pouring over your meat at the table.
How to Serve Roasted Suckling Pig
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 it onto the biggest serving platter or cutting board you can find, stick it in the middle of the table, and let people go at it 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.
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 it 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.
1 whole suckling pig, about 20 pounds (see notes)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
20 whole cloves garlic
One 6-inch piece fresh ginger, cut into 1/2-inch slivers
Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C). Have a large work table ready and lined with plastic to make cleanup easier. Season pig inside and out with plenty of salt and pepper. Fill cavity with garlic and ginger. If pig fits on a single rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan, place it on the baking sheet back-up and transfer to the oven. If pig is too large, remove a rack from the oven and place on your range. Overlap 2 rimmed baking sheets so that they fit on the oven rack and line the whole thing with foil. Transfer the pig to the overlapped baking sheets then lift the whole oven rack and return to the oven so that the pig is in the center.
Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the shoulder blade registers at least 160°F (71°C), about 4 hours. If ears or tail begin to burn, cover with foil and continue roasting.
Increase oven temperature to 500°F (260°C) and cook until skin is crisp all over, about 30 minutes longer. Remove pig from oven, tent with foil, and allow to rest for 30 minutes. Serve by tearing skin into serving-sized pieces and removing flesh with your fingers and piling it onto a serving platter.
You can order suckling pigs from your local butcher or from online resources. Plan on a pound and a half of weight per person. You can feel free to substitute the garlic and ginger with any aromatics of your choice such as herbs, other vegetables, or fruit. Your pig can be removed from the oven and left at room temperature tented with foil for up to two hours after step 2 and before proceeding with step 3 if you need to do so for timing purposes.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 12 to 16|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 36g||47%|
|Saturated Fat 13g||64%|
|Total Carbohydrate 2g||1%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 2mg||9%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|