My frequent readers may ask themselves, “what does this have to do with music?”
If that bothers you, feel free to skip this. Likewise, if you’re anti-swine, I totally respect that too but you may also want to skip this post. For the rest of you, read on.I wanted an excuse to write about my experience roasting a pig in my backyard. I call it a “guide” because really, this isn’t really a guide so much as testimonial. Roasting a pig at home is completely commonplace in many households…just not mine and as I will note, there are far more experienced folks out there. I’m simply sharing how it went down for me in case anyone out there’s ever been curious about what it’d take to pull off.
Step One: To home roast or not.
New Holidays: Maybe So, Maybe No
If…you’re an experienced BBQer
…you don’t mind “investing” in a lot of bulky material that you likely will only use 1-2 a year.
…you have crew.
Then hell, you’ve probably already done this before and don’t need some noob like me trying to act like Mr. Cochon.
If you answered “no” to some or all of the above, just know: this process can be/likely will be a complete pain in the ass.
For real, depending on where you live, you may be able to order a whole roasted pig and it almost certainly will be cheaper than home-roasting. It helps if you have a slew of Cantonese or Filipino restaurants around though many BBQ catering outfits can probably hook you up too. If it’s all about the pig, you might just want to order the damn thing and have someone else do all the work.1
But hey, where would the fun be in that?
Step Two: What size you need?
Pudgee feat. Biggie and Lord Tariq: Think Big
The size of the pig we wanted was based on a party of about 25 adults and 10 kids. The rule of thumb I’ve seen is 1.5lbs/person and so we aimed for a pig around 45lbs. We made it through 70% of that before people started to carve it up for leftovers. We could have easily gotten away with a pig that was 5-10 lbs smaller but better to have too much pig than not enough.
Important: The weight of your pig also translates into its length and given that this roasting approach maxes out around 48 inches in length for the roaster, you may want to get a measurement beforehand (if possible) if you’re playing with 70-80 lbs or more.
Step Three: Sourcing your pig
Carla Thomas: Where Do I Go?
At least in L.A., our pig options were 1) direct from farm, 2) wholesale, 3) butcher. Farms can deliver a fresh pig, i.e. one that is selected, slaughtered, cleaned and dressed within hours. If you live within 20 or so minutes of a pig farm, definitely worth a call since you can get a pig on shorter order and you’re likely to save more since you’re cutting out the middleman (obviously, it depends on the farm and the quality of the pig). However, not everyone has that kind of access to a pig farm and the nearest one to me I could fine was still too far for my liking.
With wholesalers and butchers, our choices in pig ended up being between chilled and frozen. Frozen is less expensive; one wholesaler I contacted (Broadleaf Game) quoted me $2.75/lb, by far the least expensive option I found. The problem with frozen though is that you have to thaw it and ideally, do it safely. It takes time, ideally, it would take a fridge unit, and neither of those spell convenience.
This same wholesaler said they could, instead, sell a chilled pig but the cost increased over $1/lb. At that point, the price of the pig was more or less the same as ordering it through a local butcher and since the butcher (Harmony Farms) was closer than Broadleaf, I went there instead. From what I’ve been told, even if you order a frozen pig through a butcher, many will thaw it for you first. With Harmony Farms, they don’t receive frozen pigs, they get them chilled. My 45lber, including tax, was $175, which was a very reasonable price compared to other places I had called. This was not, however, a pasture-raised Berkshire. I could have gotten that for more like $335 but that was too rich for my blood.
The butchers I called all needed a few days lead time: usually no later than Tuesday and delivery was on Thursday. Most pig roasts don’t happen spontaneously so normally this shouldn’t be an issue but again, if you need a pig faster, you can try a wholesaler or a pig farm to get it faster than a butcher who has to outsource.
From what I understand, any dead pig you buy is already going to be cleaned and dressed. Butchers (but not wholesalers I expect) will give you the option of keeping the head and feet. You may as well since A) it looks good and B) the head and feet can be used to make stock and C) pork cheek is great. However, if you keep the head, ask the butcher to split the head for you; that will make easier to put the pig, butterflied, on your grill. Or, if you have a machete and mallet (and who doesn’t?) you can split it yourself.
Almost all the instructions I found suggest you should dry-brine or marinate the pig overnight. If you want to do it extra fancy, buy a meat injector so you can get some of that marinade deep into the hams and shoulder. I’m sure, if properly done, it makes a big difference but seriously: you’re roasting a whole f—ing pig. Your guests are not really going to stand around saying, “you know, I think you should have brined this longer.” I didn’t think the marinade, in my case, added anything but I also didn’t have a giant syringe on hand either.
If you do need to ice the pig overnight, a big ass cooler would be ideal but realistically, you can get away with a non-insulated tote/bin so long as it’s big enough to fit your pig + ice packs. I used a 35-gallon tote which was perfect for a 45lb pig. If you can find a supermarket that sells either 7 lb or 10 lb packs of ice, those are ideal. Make sure you have them over and under the pig but one batch should be good to last you overnight so long as the tote is somewhere that’s relatively cool.
Step Four: Build your roaster
Raekwon feat. Ghostface and Cappadonna: 10 Bricks
This is where things get real. And where it’s important for you to have crew. Trying to do this by yourself isn’t impossible but it’s a sizable undertaking and a pain in the ass if you try it solo. Hey, you’re feeding people a whole pig. Some of your friends will be down to help.
My template for a pig roaster came from the Three Guys From Miami site. It’s not the easiest site to navigate but I appreciate their laid back (yet thorough) style, especially around the various construction tips they give. The Three Guys (3G) roaster is above-ground (vs. pit in the ground). Using standard 8x8x16 cinder blocks (which you should be able to buy at any hardware store at less than $1/each), they construct a roaster that is appx. 4×8. Here’s what mine looked like:
Since cinder blocks have giant holes in them, you want to make sure you’re not leaving those holes horizontal. Solid wall going vertically is your aim. Ideally, you want the roaster over concrete (never asphalt; it’ll melt) though you can also build it on dirt. Grass isn’t ideal since burnt grass = not a flavor sensation you want. The 3Gs recommend some kind of aluminum sheet base which both is useful for reflecting heat but also protects whatever is beneath from your coal ash or burn marks. Home Depot sells sheets but they were rather expensive; if I recall, a 1×2′ sheet was $10-15. Instead, I just used double layers of aluminum foil. The way I’d recommend is building your roaster two a two-cinder block height. Then drape foil down the sides, across the bottom, and then up and over the other side. Do this the short way, then come back and do it the long way, thus having at least two layers of foil on top of one another. Those 16″ of foil on the sides will help reflect heat and trust me: they work very well, especially in reflecting light. Watch yourself!
The desired roaster height is open for debate. 3G says it should be four cinder blocks high (32″) but one of my co-pilots is an experienced pork BBQer and he really felt like 24″ (3 blocks) was high enough. I noticed that these guys use a similar cinder block construction but theirs is even shorter, so 24″ seemed fine. If I had to hazard a guess here, the height makes a difference in terms of the ability to slow cook this. You’re using indirect heat (more on this later) and if the pig is too low and close to the coals, you may overcook it. However, I also think the challenge with going higher is heat management the other way; there’s a danger in undercooking or at least, taking longer than you originally budgeted for. I’d say, somewhere between 22″ to 32″ will work for you. However, even if you go with the shorter set-up, you still may want that extra “ring” of blocks as a way to create a “top” to the roaster that isn’t directly on the pig itself. Again, I think the approaches here all work relatively well regardless.
Step Five: Build a grill
Gang Starr: Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?
The pig grill is similar to what you’d use on a fish: two separate grills that you’ll sandwich the pig between, allowing you to flip the pig securely. Most grills are two parts – a frame for stability and then a mesh attached to it. My grill design is also 3G-inspired though not exactly to their instructions. It’s worth noting: there’s no single way to do this; depending on the materials, you can build the grill all kinds of different ways and it’s mostly dependent on what you have access too. That 3G site has many examples of what people have used. The two most important rules are:
1) Keep it light, if possible.
2) Under no circumstances should you ever use galvanized steel. It’s toxic.
The latter is tough because you’ll find that a lot of potential materials you might want to use – chain-link fencing or chicken wire for example – are made from galvanized steel. I ended up settling for uncoated rebar, which you should be able to find at any decent hardware/construction material store. You will want to scrub it before using since they don’t exactly arrive very clean.
Rebar is cheap and plentiful and welds easy but it’s also heavy. In an ideal world, I could have found stainless steel or aluminum rods but Home Depot didn’t have anything like that so rebar was the fall-back. And it’s fine as such but again, if you have access to lighter/easier-to-clean materials, I’d recommend that.
My grill covered the same square area as the roaster: 4×8. You want it such that the frame rests on the cinder blocks, especially along the “long” way as this will bear most of the weight. That meant three 9′ rebar rods going the long way and five 4′ rods going across. I misjudged the measurements so my grate was actually about six inches longer than it should have been; not a huge deal since it didn’t really affect how weight was being distributed. Just remember: you have to flip the grill, therefore, you want your long rods to have “handles”. Six inches each is sufficient.
The 3G design only calls for two long rods but they also call for the heavier (1/2″?) gauge which I found to be extremely heavy and therefore impractical. However, in settling for the 3/8 gauge, I was worried the grill would have been too light to take the weight. In the end, I’m not sure if I needed that third 8′ rod or not. If you’re cooking a smaller pig, you may be able to get away from using it. The cost isn’t much though and while it adds weight, the mesh is so light, I thought the trade-off was worth it.
Now, in the ideal world, you have access to welding equipment. I did. My neighbor welds and he showed me how to weld everything together.
You, however, may not have neighbors with an arc welder in their backyard. That’s ok. There are ways to get around welding the frame together, namely by tying them together using strong, steel wire (again: non-galvanized). What I found to work – and this is genius IMO – are these stainless steel cable ties. Seriously, best things ever for the job here. Strong, stainless steel so it won’t poison your guests, and if you snip them off, you can use pliers to twist the excess into a second set of ties, thus doubling their value.
For the mesh, at Home Depot at least, you should be able to find uncoated steel re-mesh which happen to be…4×8. It’s perfect for what you need it for since the proportions will match your rebar frame exactly (though I find it useful to have a bolt-cutter on hand to trim off the stabby points, of which there will be many). To attach the mesh to the frame, just bust out more of those stainless steel cable ties. Important: for the best weight distribution, you want the mesh directly on the 4′ rods, not the 8′ rods.
By the way, total cost of the roaster at this point: cinder blocks + grill material = $100-125 (I don’t remember exactly, but in that ballpark).
Step Six: Roast the pig
Skip Easterling: Keep the Fire Burning
If I haven’t noted this already: a pig roast is a lot of trouble but it’s not actually that complicated. That includes the roasting. For most of you, you’ll be roasting this over indirect heat, flipping it, and then you’re done. That’s it. It’s like cooking burgers (assuming your burger weighs as much as a small child and looks like a dead pig). The key thing here is heat/coal management.
You want to start with around 20lbs of coals; I’ve seen some that recommend 30 but I don’t think the difference is huge. My neighbor brought over a charcoal chimney and I already had one so we basically made two batches, then immediately made a second batch on top of that first batch, getting us to around 15-20 lbs of coals. You can also just dump a bag’s worth of charcoal in the middle, douse it with lighter fluid and light that on fire. We were trying to avoid fluid-flavor and the chimneys are more efficient in any case. Either way, the goal is to have a pile of hot coals which you will then use a shovel or rake to split into the four corners of your roaster. (It’s not a bad idea to get some aluminum grill pans to catch all the fat that’s going to render out. Just makes clean up easier later and they’re cheap.)
While the chimneys are lighting up, get your pig out, spread it butterflied, skin-side down, on the mesh of your base grill.
Then take the second grill and put that on top of the pig, sandwiching it between the two meshes. Then use more of those stainless steel cable ties (told you they were useful) and tie the two securely. The goal here is to flip the pig using the two grills together without the pig sliding out during the flip.
Once the coals are good and hot and you have them in the corners, put the grill on the roaster and then cover it with foil. You really want to seal in the heat so don’t be shy with the amount of foil you use. That’s why that extra level of cinder blocks can be useful: you put those on top of the grill edge (just be careful they don’t fall on someone’s foot), then foil on top of that, using stones to weight down the edges. You’ll want to allow for some oxygen flow in so you don’t want to cut it off completely but with foil, it’s unlikely you’re going to build something airtight anyway.
The 3Gs say they don’t use a thermometer to stay on top of the heat. I say: if you have a digital remote thermometer that will allow you to keep track of the heat inside the roaster: why not? Otherwise, the 3Gs rule of thumb is that they try to make sure there’s about 5lbs of coals always going at any given time. Their method is to wait every 40 minutes and then drop cold coals on your hot coals. I don’t like this system because 1) if your coals go cold, then dropping new coals on top won’t do a thing. And 2) it’s easy to miss the hot coals when you’re trying to drop coals through a grate. It’s like playing pachinko.
The better system, in my opinion, is to keep at least one chimney going at all times, so that you always have a source of hot coals. Ideally, if you have a kettle grill on hand (your basic Weber), you can light a chimney, dump those coals when they’re ready, and then start up a new chimney while you add hot coals to the roaster from the grill. That way, you never get caught out there with existing coals that are too cold to light the new ones you need.
Temperature-wise, the roaster should be somewhere between 180-225; I’d aim to keep it around 200 however long you can. Again, if you don’t have a thermometer, that’s ok but then you’ll just want to time it so that new coals are being added every 30-40 minutes.
Assuming you have a constant temperature, for a 45lber, you’ll want to keep it skin-side down for 2 hours, then flip. To flip, take the foil off carefully (since you’ll need to put it back on), have you and a friend (or two) grab the handles of the frame – they likely won’t be hot since the long rods won’t be over the heat directly but have gloves ready just in case – and then carefully flip the pig so it’s skin-side up.
Here’s what mine looked like right after the flip:
Return it to the roaster, put the foil back on, and wait another 90-120 minutes.
At this point, an instant-read thermometer is ideal since it’s the best way to gauge if the pig is done. The FDA recently lowered the safe temp for pork from 165 down to 145. Keep in mind that the pig will continue to cook even while resting off heat so you want to build in some of that time as well. The 3Gs recommend that once you reach the desired temp, you momentarily remove the grill, move the grill pans out of the way and recollect all the coals in the center. Then you flip the pig back to skin-side down and then roast the skin for about 10-20 minutes to crisp it up but without charring it. I thought this was too much trouble so I didn’t bother but if you want a super-crispy skin, it’s the way to go; otherwise, the skin won’t be very edible using a single-flip method. But hey, if you like dogs, pig skin is a nice treat for them.
Here’s our finished pig (but no second flip):
Step Seven: Eat pig
Evaristo Quintanales: A Comer Lechon
My favorite way is to slice the pig down the skin-side, pull the skin back and open it up (it should be relatively easy with a sharp knife to separate skin from pork) and then let folks pick wherever they want to eat from. The tenderloin tends to go quickly, as does the pork shoulder. The hams are big enough to take a while to dig through and eventually, you’ll get down to the ribs and belly too. Don’t sleep on those pork cheeks if you still have the head intact. Hot sauce + vinegar slaw = a must and personally, I like warming up some tortillas on the grill and making my own tacos.
Definitely try to butcher whatever meat is left and put it aside: it makes for an excellent chili or a pork sandwich. Also if you’re inclined: it’s easy to make a basic stock out of leftover skin, bones and other parts, especially if you have a crock-pot/slow-cooker.
So there it is…how to cook a whole pig in seven (not so) easy steps. Bon appetit.
(Special thanks to: Loren, Danny, Matthew, Bernie, Sean S., Sean T. and Sharon for all their help in making this pig roast possible)