Introduction: How to Roast a Pig
Having a pig roast is hands down one of my favorite things to do. There are few other edible, legal party activities that put everyone in a good mood and garner as much excitement as serving moist delicious roasted pork to a large group of friends does. If you've never roasted a pig before for a party or special occasion, and are not a vegetarian or vegan, you've got to read this Instructable and try it.
This pig roasting Instructable chronicles the entire process of having a pig roast, and extends far beyond the process of strictly roasting a pig. "Having a pig roast" is a bit like "having a baby" - there's a lot besides the pig/baby to think about. As a very gross estimate, roasting a pig takes approximately one day of prep, and one day of actual roasting.
To be clear - I am no expert on pig roasting, but then again, few are. I am simply passionate about the subject and have done it a number of times. I have welded my own spits out of steel and also rented motorized spits from party rental supply stores. I have roasted one pig all by itself, two pigs together, two pigs with a bunch of chickens and some multi-headed ducks with chickens. I have learned a lot from each experience and I hope to share some of that info with you now in this Instructable.
**This Instructable is based on a couple different pig roasts that I've been lucky enough to organize or asked to be a part of over the years. I thought I'd share a bunch of different approaches on how to roast a pig, since there really is no "right way" and the more information we share about roasting pigs, the tastier the meat will be. As a result, I am sorry if the images jump around a bit through the different methods.**
Step 1: Preperation - Invitations
Once you've decided to have a pig roast, the first step is to send out the invitations so that everyone can know that you're having a party they should come to. Using antiquated technology like envelopes and the postal service to notify your lucky guests is cumbersome and more of a chore then the first step to getting a great party started.
Instead, I recommend going door to door to all the different homes of your guests and stabbing a hand drawn invitation into their door jams, floors and porches with a fork.
Sure, that's a lot of forks, but if conservation is your number one jam, then what are you doing having a pig roast?
Step 2: Preparation - Decorations
One time we marked the house we were living in at the time with a large banner of two pigs on it so everyone could find the roast easily.
Other decorating efforts include:
- hay bales to sit on underneath some grape vines
- make a pignata - a pig shaped pinata filled with moist towelettes and candy
- signs for the bathroom
- inspirational pig signs to get people excited
- personal expression board (for feedback and guest art)
- vegetarian personal expression board (for vegetarian feedback and guest art)
Step 3: Preparation - Spit
- the spit itself - usually a simple steel pipe no more than 1" in diameter (the pipe will have to fit through the pigs body parts and size is a factor to consider)
- supports for the spit - this can be cinder blocks, steel supports with cradles or pipe welded on the top, sawhorses, rocks, landscaping, other structures and so forth - just preferably not anything that burns
- a method for keeping the spit from rotating - the pig will want to turn back-side-down unless something keeps the spit in position. A handle at the end of the spit and a bag of bricks or a clamp works well to hold the spit in the last position you set it in.
- a means of rotating the spit in a controlled manner. This can be a motor attached with a bike chain, or simply a few bricks and some string. In the second method mentioned, you rotate the spit by hand and use the weight to hold it in place.
- a method for attaching the animal to the spit, can be bailing wire, steel rods sent through the animal, steel prongs at the head and butt of the pig to hold it in place.
- fire pan or pit - if you can dig a fire pit in the dirt or sand, that's great, if not, it's usually necessary to put down some kind of barrier between the coals and the ground so you don't damage or stain anything with all the heat and drippings.
The first spit I made (with my friend Ian) appears in the first photo in this step. It was a 2 pig spit for a real big party, with steel supports and a simple but effective handle on the end. The four positions allow you to actually make 1/8 turn rotations because you can chose to hang the brake (a bunch of bricks held together by steel cable) on one peg for the 1/4 turn, or on two pegs for the 1/8 turn. More on rotating later. Clamps also work to hold the spit in position, but I found the hanging weight method to be much easier and versatile.
Another thing to keep in mind about the spit is that it should be longer than you think. The pigs' legs get stretched out in front of and behind the pig - thus making it's total length longer than you'd expect. Make sure you have at least 5 feet of spit rod if you're roasting a single pig. If you're doing two like I am in the photos, go big.
If it's possible to construct the spit with adjustable height, that can be useful to compensate for the heat of your fire. Height adjustability is by no means a necessity however. I have found that depending on fire temperature, you want between 2' and 3' of distance between the coals and the pig.
When it comes to ground protection - bricks make a great ground liner. Other things I have used include:
- cement board
- sheet metal
Finally, as you'll see in the photos, I created a secondary roasting position for this roast below the main spit with three steel rods welded onto a steel plate. The rods are received in another steel plate in 3 holes. Everything is held in place on the two supports. This secondary roasting area had some chickens on it once we got cooking...more on that later.
The additional photos above show some simpler roasting setups that are rather minimal using simple supports like cinder blocks and saw horses as supports, and a very basic spit clamping system that uses only a c-clamp.
Step 4: Preparation - Wood
Split a whole lot of wood. It takes a lot of hot coals to cook a pig. The bigger the pig, the longer it cooks. For the double pig we went through about half a bed of apple wood that we got from a local orchard in a medium sized pickup truck. Having roasted pigs over wood split from apple, almond, walnut, eucalyptus and madrone trees, I honestly can say that I don't think the type of wood matters at all. The denser the wood the longer it will burn. That's about all you have to keep in mind.
That being said, "apple wood" sure does have a nice ring to it though don't you think?
Some people like the reliability of charcoal briquets for this step, and others, hardwood charcoal like Lazzaro. Use whatever you prefer, but I will say, for the amount of wood we burned in order to keep the fire going for 8 hours, I'm glad we went with split wood over charcoal.
Step 5: Light the Fire
The first step on the day of the roast is to light a fire so that you've already got a good bed of coals burning when the pig is ready to start roasting. Teepee or log cabin, it doesn't matter - get the fire started and start burning down your wood into some nice hot coals.
Ideally it's best to have a side fire that you can use to make coals, then to simply shovel the coals into position while the pigs are roasting. If you don't have room, it's no problem to place new pieces of wood onto the fire, just try to keep the flames from licking at the pig as the outside will burn long before the inside comes to temperature by locating fresh logs off to the side of the firepan.
Step 6: Side Dishes
Sauce is always an important part of the pig roast. There are many approaches to sauce, and lot of options beyond your basic bbq sauce. Some sauces we've made over the years include:
exotic bbq sauces
- mustard seed
- curried ketchup
- balsamic reduction
- citrus glazes with oranges and oregano
- brandy fig sauce
- cherry balsamic sauce
- peach rosemary sauce
* That's right, when you have a pig roast it's best if you don't just roast "a pig". If you're going to go through all the trouble of tending a rotisseri all day might as well throw some chickens, ducks, geese and lambs on there too - accessory meats!
Step 7: The Pig
Alright, let's get into things...
Where does one buy a pig?
Whole hogs can be specialty ordered from the farm itself where the animal has lived, a good neighborhood butcher, or at the meat counter of your local quality supermarket or co-op. Ask around first at the butcher and work your way onwards from there. If they can't get you a whole pig, chances are they know who can, or point you to the pig farm where they buy their meat from.
I have paid as much as $4.00/lb and as little as $2.50/lb for a whole pig. Organic pigs can sell for significantly more depending on the source. You pretty much get what you pay for when you buy a pig, so do a little leg work and chose wisely when ordering.
Some seasoned pig roasters will recommend about 1 lb. of hanging weight pig per person attending the party. I have found that ratio to be much too low. The math on that estimate yields around 6 oz. of cooked pork per person. I'm not going to say publicly how many ounces of meat I expect to eat when I go to a pig roast, but I'll tell you it's certainly more than six. I recommend doubling this sizing guideline and figuring on 2 lbs of hanging weight pig per person attending the party...roasted pork makes great leftovers and soups, so if you go a little overboard, there's no reason anything needs to be wasted.
Fresh or Frozen
The pig may come frozen, but hopefully it will be fresh. If it's been frozen then it will need to defrost over 24 hours or so. DO NOT ROAST A FROZEN PIG. Place it in a safe place where animals can't get to it, wrapped in plastic, and let it thaw. A big plastic tub works well as a holding vessle, or the bathtub, or in a cardboard box in the garage located such that if some juices come out as it thaws that it won't make a mess. If you your pig will come frozen, order it for the day before your pig roast so you can defrost it.
If it's fresh and not frozen, that's great! Simply keep the pig refrigerated, in a cool place, or on ice in a cooler until the morning of the pig roast. Since it's so large, I have learned that having a spare fridge on hand can be nice. Remove the racks from the fridge, place the pig inside, and shut the door. If your pig will come fresh, order it to be picked up on the morning of your pig roast and then you won't have to deal with the "where do I store a whole pig" dilemma.
Regardless of whether you defrosted your pig or not, remove it from the fridge/cooler an hour or so before you are ready to place it on the spit since it's not proper form to cook cold meat.
Roasting pigs are young pigs - usually between 30 and 60 pounds, however they can come larger. Pigs that are used to make bacon are generally hundreds of pounds, however that's not a great roasting pig since the meat is older and tougher, so stay away from anything that's over 100 pounds if you're looking for tender juicy meat - additionally, at that size, it just becomes unmanageable. Better to get a second or third smaller pig for your roast.
A 50 pound pig cooks in anywhere from 4 to 7 or even 8 hours depending on your heat source and whether or not you've stuffed it with anything...more on that later. Some fellow pig roasters recommend around 1 hour and 15 minutes per 10 pounds of dead weight pig. I have found that it's actually pretty variable depending on the heat from the fire, the height of the spit above the flames, if the pig is stuffed, and if you are using a motor driven rotary spit, or rotating by hand.
In general, work backwards from when you'd like to eat using the 1hr 15m guideline per 10 pounds of hanging weight pig and add in an hour or so for carving and all the things that take longer than you've planned just to be safe.
Sources for Pigs in the San Francisco Bay Area
Just recently I purchased a whole pig from Ver Brugge Meat, Fish and Poultry in Oakland, CA. Last year I we purchased a tasty pig from The UC Davis Meat Lab in Davis, CA. Whole Foods, and other grocery stores in the area can often special order whole pigs as well. As I said before however, going direct to the pig farm is best and you'll likely avoid the butcher's mark up. If you are in the bay area there are several local pig farms to choose from. Although, this article makes a compelling argument as to why it's better to buy a midwest pig as opposed to a local one. Long story short there is that it takes less carbon to feed the pig local grain in the midwest and ship the dead animal to California than to ship 4 times as much midwestern grain to pigs out west
Step 8: Mount the Pig
This step is fun - just look at the smiles on our faces!
First, wash all work surfaces with hot water and soap. If your surface is too difficult to wash, cover it with a tarp and wash the tarp.
Remove the pig from the plastic wrap.
Take the pig and insert the spit rod into one end - it doesn't matter which on most spits. Slide the rod through it's open body cavity and out the hole on the other side.
If your spit is much larger than 1" in diameter then you might need to break the hip bones in order to slide out the back of the pig. I made the mistake of using a rod that was too thick the first time - not doing that again. Better to go a little smaller on the spit rod and not have to break anything. I don't mind getting my hands dirty, but I do have limits...somewhere.
Slide the pig into position along the spit until you've got it centered in place. Remember to leave room for the legs to get tied in front and in back of the pig.
The photos make it all look very apocalyptic, I swear we washed our hands first and cleaned all of our work surfaces with soap before beginning.
Step 9: Stuff the Pig
With the pig in place and the chest cavity facing up, it's time to load the pig with delicious flavors. Mainstays are salt and pepper of course.
Other flavors to consider using are fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano and marjoram, and dried spices that work well with your flavor pallet - things like juniper berries, bay leaves and whole garlic cloves. Note, there will be a marinade applied to the pig while it roasts to add flavor as well. This is more of a rub applied inside the body cavity.
I've always thrown a few quartered onions inside the cavity and squeezed in a few fresh valencia oranges, but I have really tried not to over-stuff the pig on the more recent roasts that I've done. The more you put inside the pig, the more mass there is to cook, and that means the greater the chance that the meat will dry out or the skin will over-crackle while you're waiting for the center to come to temperature.
The same theory applies to stuffing a turkey - die hard turkey roasters wouldn't dare slow cooking times down with stuffing and risk drying out the bird. I've come to believe the same thing for pig roasting and now try to keep the stuffing to a minimum. The photo above shows us stuffing the pigs with loads of onions and sweet potatoes. That was our first time - those piggies took a long time to roast - and when all was said and done - they were steamed so heavily inside the body cavity that they really weren't tasty enough to eat. Stuff lightly.
Step 10: Sew It Up
It's pretty common to use metal bailing wire to close the pig. If possible, just get regular non-galvenized standard metal bailing wire. Other metal wires will work as well but will likely cost more.
Start at one end and simply sew the pig shut all the way to the other. You can use a variety of stitches to close the pig, but what's easiest to me is just to grab the two laters of skin, hold them together like a fabric seam, and stitch them together using big looping stitches.
A few words about giant sewing needles for meat...
One time I roasted the pig I was without my trusty oversized trussing needle that I made. It was pretty annoying to push the bailing wire through the pig's fatted belly skin with just a pair of pliers, or worse, by hand as you can see in the second photo above. The giant needle is the way to go for sure if you have time to make one and really helps in the stitching step.
To make the giant needle:
Get some 1/4" or 1/8" steel rod and grind the tip to a point on the grinding wheel. Then, pound the other side of the rod flat using a small sledge and an anvil. Drill a small hole through the pounded side and you've got yourself a freakishly large needle! The bigger the better on the needle as pushing it through the belly skin is a one, or maybe two handed job. The more steel there is to grab when your hands are all slick and you're staring at a 60 pink pound pig in front of you, the better.
Once the pig is all sewn up, the final step, which is totally optional, and probably not healthy for the future of our world, is to have a small child tenderize the meat with a baseball bat.
Step 11: Secure Pig to the Spit
Now there are a few different ways to secure the pig to the spit. If you are using a commercial spit then slide the retaining spikes into position around the pig's jowls and literally into the rear end, and lock them onto the pig by tightening the set screws. These, coupled with some bailing wire used to secure the trotters onto the secondary bar is all you need. This process is shown in the first photo and is pretty straight forward.
If you have made your own spit then you'll need come up with something a little more inventive. I chose to drill holes through my spit rod and insert additional smaller diameter steel rod into those holes. Then, I used bailing wire tied around the front legs, mouth and that smaller diameter steel rod to secure the pig in place. See second photo above. That way, when you rotate the spit to cook the pig evenly, the pig doesn't just flop around to it's lowest point (back down, legs up).
The first time I roasted a pig I got a little overzealous and drilled several holes all along the entire spit rod. See third photo in this step. Once the pig was on I took 1/2" steel rods and skewered the pig into position hell-raiser style, in addition to the bailing wire. This was overkill, and a little scary for people to see in hindsight. Since then I've opted for simply creating a hard point on the spit rod and securing the pig's feet to that point at the front and back like the scenario I've described in the previous paragraph.
Step 12: Chickens and Ducks and Stuff
Remember the chickens that have been brining in a delicious bath of salt, lemon, herbs and spices from step 6? Give them a good rinse and throw them onto the spit too. The chicken roasting device that I created is a bit crude, but works very well. You simply sandwich/clamp the chickens between the three rods and place it on the spit. The photos above show them getting loaded up - they look as if they are going to escape...they did not.
The key feature of the chicken roasting level is to have whatever is there be basted in the juices of the pig roasting above it. Chickens roasted in pork drippings are some of the best chickens around.
The second photo above shows the chickens getting secured to the spit using just a simple BBQ skewer that passes through a hole in the spit rod. Many options here, do what's easy and exciting for you.
Step 13: Roasting & Turning
With all the animals affixed to their respective spits, it's time to put them over the fire and begin cooking. At first, watch the roasting process closely and get a feel for how hot your fire is. You don't want to burn the outside of the pig before the inside comes to temperature. Move coals away from the pig if things get too hot. Add coals with a shovel if things look like they aren't hot enough. You'll know the fire is too hot if your skin begins to crack or get crispy in the first hour or two.
If you are using a commercial spit then the motor will turn the pig constantly at a slow speed the entire time. Until recently I had only roasted animals on non-mechanized spits. The same effect can be achieved by rotating the pig every 15 minutes or so. Set a timer and remember to keep it close by. When the alarm goes off, remove the hanging weight or clamp holding the spit in place, give the pig a 1/4 or 1/8 turn, replace the weight or clamp, and go do something else for the next 15 minutes. This process sounds tedious, but it's really not. Checking back in with the pig on this kind of basis is probably a good idea to make sure everything is proceeding as planned, and if given the choice between motorized and manual rotation, I think I'd choose manual just because it's fun to hang out with the pig for a while.
Step 14: Basting
Basting the meat while it cooks is important to add flavor. I like to mix up a simple cuban inspired mojo of sorts made from olive oil, fresh garlic, fresh oregano, salt, pepper, orange juice and lemon juice. Baste the roasting animals every time you rotate the spit, or more.
There are many possibilities on marinades here and very few rules. In general, I have stayed away from typical BBQ sauces since they are thick and don't penetrate the meat very well. Additionally, you don't want to put anything on the outside of the pig that will burn over the many hours of cooking, so it's best to stay away from sticky, sweet glazes until the very end. If you do decide to glaze, keep in mind you'll only be treating the skin and not the meat.
Instead, I usually save the sweet sugar, tomato or honey based sauces until after the pig is carved, and pour them over the meat before serving, or let people serve themselves sauce as a side and just serve the meat un-sauced.
Step 15: Cook Side Dishes
As the pigs, chickens and ducks roast over the fire and the end of the cook time starts to approach, it's time to start cooking all the other side dishes. Potatoes can be wrapped in tin foil, thrown directly into the fire, and cooked for 35 - 45 minutes turning them from time to time. Corn can be soaked in water and then grilled in the husk over some extra coals from the fire on a wire grate.
Nice side dishes include roasted veggies, home baked bread, beans, salads, cole slaw, and of course as I said before, plenty of sauce for the meat.
Step 16: Remove Pig From Spit
After anywhere from 4 to 8 hours have passed since you started roasting the pig, depending on the size of your pig and the temperature of the fire, the pig will be done cooking. The skin should be dark golden brown, and very crispy. Joints should wiggle freely, juices should run clear, and when you place a thermometer into the thickest parts of the pig you should get an internal temperature of at least 140 degrees F. What temperature to cook your pork is up for debate depending on what you've learned. I cook pork to around 140.
Remove the spit from the fire and place it back on the work surface (wash all your surfaces first). Use a wire cutters to cut and remove all of the bailing wire from the front and back legs and free the pig from the spit. Remove the spit rod by sliding it out of the pig.
Take the wire cutters and snip every stitch along the pig's belly. If you pull the wire it will simply rip through the delicious belly meat and make a mess. Instead, take each stich out individually with a needle nose pliers. Pretend you are a surgeon and the pig is your patient.
A clean pair of work gloves, some clean towels, and a little patience helps a lot with this step, and the next. The pig is piping hot, everyone wants to eat and the whole party will be watching your every move, so you've got to do it right.
Once the body cavity is opened up remove all of the stuffing and herbs. If juices begin to flow and collect on the worksurface, place a rock underneath one of the table legs to create an incline on the table. Then, take a pot and place it under the low point on the table to collect the juices.
Step 17: Carving
This step is a little tough to do for the first or even second time. I've taken a pig butchering class from 4505 Meats in San Francisco, CA and I still have trouble breaking whole animals down quickly and easily. The important thing to remember is that the meat will be tasty no matter how it comes off the bone, so have a drink, don't stress, work fast and dig in.
First, sharpen a knife, or two, and find an extra person or two to lend you a hand. Work the knife between the shoulder and hip joints to remove the four legs from the roast. These roasts can be treated as their own discreet pieces and handed off to another carver. By far the most meat will come off of these pieces which include the pork shoulders and boston butts.
You should be left with the trunk/torso of animal. This contains the belly, loins off of the back, tasty marbled meat from the neck and jowl, and the also delicious, but hard to work for rib meat. Save the skin and begin to carve out the loins as that's the most easily accessible and edible meat that will come off this section. After that, go after everything that's left sorting the parts into different serving platters and pots. Skin is good to snack on - people will eat it so don't throw it away! Bare bones make a great soup stock. Dogs like cartilage and strange off-cuts not suitable for serving. The best meat should go onto platters for your guests.
It can be useful to cut the ribs with a hack saw off of the spine. If you are pulling the meat and don't want to serve "on the bone" pork, just work the meat off the bone by hand. I leave the spine relatively intact once the loins are off - there's definitely some meat along their but it's best to pick at it with some friends rather than try to spend the time removing it so you can be served.
Place a knife between two of the neck vertebrae just behind the ears and cut the head of the pig off. For some reason, everyone really likes playing with the pig head.
Once you've gotten the legs and carcass carved up pretty well, serve your first round since you can always continue carving as people begin to eat so that the meat doesn't get cold. In general, it's taken me between 30 minutes and 1 hours to carve up all the pork and chicken and people's mouths can only water for so long, so best to serve and then keep working as people begin to eat.
Step 18: Serve
This is the easy part, load up all the side dishes and meat platters on a big table and ring the dinner bell!
Step 19: Party
Once all the meat is carved up it's important that as the host you remember to enjoy yourself. At the roasts I've put on, me and my friends have been working literally all day by the time everyone is eating and the music starts up, so I try to remember to put the pig parts down, wash my hands, grab a cold beer, and have some fun.
Step 20: The Head
For some reason people are really really fascinated with pig head. No one wants to eat it, but everyone wants to play with it and wear it as if it were their own head.
I think this is because secretly inside, a lot of us really wish that we were animals instead of people. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes, once we've had a few drinks, and are in close proximity of a roasted pig head, this desire comes out for all the internet to see.
There's surely more to say about roasting pigs, but this is a good start, and I'll do my best to update the Instructable with all the good tips that I'm sure will come in as comments.
Best of luck on your pig roasting adventures and be sure to invite me - I'll be looking for the fork in my door.