Disclaimer: Unlike some of my previous home barbecue posts, in which I drew from years of trial and error experience, this account of roasting a whole hog comes entirely from the perspective of a newbie. I’m sure that there are much more practiced hands at this style of cooking reading this post right now, so I can’t claim to be an expert. But I learned a lot in my first go-round, and plan to keep at it until I have worked out all of the kinks.
So I won’t get sued disclaimer: Grease fires are a very real possibility when roasting a whole hog. Make sure that you build your pit away from the house or other flammable materials, and always have a fire extinguisher on hand. Check out this video just to see how bad these things can get. You’ve been warned.
As a man that takes pride in his ability to cook barbecue, there has always been a void in my background that irked me. While I’ve smoked every cut of pork or beef that I’d care to, I still hadn’t gotten around to going whole hog. I finally changed that a few weekends back.
Because I didn’t want to put all of this time into cooking a pig only to screw it up, I did as much research as I could. I found brains that had done this before, and I picked them. I got as much input as possible, and I think it made all the difference.
There is more than one way to roast a pig, and I weighed all of my options carefully. At first, I found the idea of digging a pit and burying it Hawaiian-style to be very enticing, but I like having absolute control over the heat when I’m making barbecue. If you don’t get the coals right before you cover over the pit, you are going to get yourself into some trouble. I also considered a spit-roast, but I wanted to get more smoke into the meat than that allows, so that went off the table quickly.
Everything in my barbecue background told me that I should do this low and slow, cooking at 200-225 degrees for 12-24 hours. But here is the problem: That works for a 70lb pork shoulder, but do you know what a rack of ribs would look like if it were cooked for 24 hours? How about a tenderloin?
When cooking an entire pig, you have to remember that not everything cooks evenly. While the shoulder and belly will be perfectly done at 190 degrees, the tenderloin will be dry and the hams will be just past overcooked. It was this fact that led me to build a cinder block smoker.
By building a rectangular pit made of stacked cinder blocks, the pig remains suspended above the coals, which you can freely arrange to properly distribute the direct heat, and it can be covered to act as a smoker. When the time comes to refresh the coals, simply pull a cinder block or two off the end, shovel in some coals, and seal it back up. Also, it is a lot cheaper than buying a smoker large enough to accommodate a whole animal.
So let’s say you are one of the dedicated few that wants to try building one of these pits and roasting your first pig. There are two major things that you should realize before sending out the invitations.
1 – You can’t do this alone
Unless you feel like hauling a lot of cinder blocks, wrangling a 70lbs carcass, and being on pit-watch duty all by your lonesome, you are going to need some help. Enlist your friends, entice them with drinks, and make a night (and day) out of it.
2 – It is time consuming
Especially for a newbie, this is definitely an investment of time. Between the planning, provisioning, building, prepping, and cooking, expect to sink quite a few man-hours into this. If the roast is on Saturday, don’t plan on going out on Friday. But it is totally worth it.
Building the pit
NOTE: This builds a 3-stack high pit. If you want, a 4-stack build is also an option, and provides better smoke circulation. Simply add 12 more blocks to the list below for the top row.
36 standard concrete blocks (8”x8”x16”)
1 expanded metal grate (NON-GALVANIZED), roughly 3’x5-6’
3 pieces of rebar, 3-4’ long (if needed for support, depends on the strength of your grate)
2 pieces of plywood, roughly 3’x3’
Aluminum sheeting, 30 sq feet (optional, but recommended to prevent fires)
Hammer and chisel
2-3 roasting pans
2 probe thermometers
40-60 lbs of charcoal (depending on the size of the pig)
The first thing you should do when building the pit is to find level ground. Making sure the bottom row of blocks is level makes all the difference in the stability and heat retention of the pit. In my case, there was no level ground, so we grabbed some shovels and leveled it out.
The blocks are arranged in a rectangle, two wide on the ends, four blocks long, for a total of 12 blocks per layer. Once the base is level, add a second layer of blocks. This is the layer where the grate and rebar will go. Line the inside of the first two layers with the aluminum foil, and place the roasting pans side-by-side in the middle of the pit to catch grease. All of the charcoal goes on either end of the rectangle, so that only the hams and shoulders actually have direct heat under them. This helps the ribs and tenderloin to finish cooking at the same time as the thicker ends of the hog.
You may need to chisel groves into the blocks so that the rebar sits low enough in the concrete and won’t leave a big gap once the top layer is in place. Once the rebar is down, lay the grate over them and add the top stack of blocks.
For the lid:
This can be done with a sheet of tin or thick aluminum, but I chose to use aluminum-lined plywood instead, as the weight of the wood keeps a better seal without having to stack additional bricks on top of it.
Using non-galvanized nails or staples, line one side of each piece of plywood with the aluminum sheeting (not the foil). This helps protect your lid from bursting into flames in case of a flare up.
70lbs whole pig recipe
1 whole pig, trimmed to 70 lbs
BBQ rub of your choice
1-quart apple cider vinegar
Buying the pig
One of the first questions everyone asked me was “Where did you get the pig?” And that is because not every butcher will sell you a whole hog at a decent price. However, those of you in Atlanta can do what I did and head down to the Sweet Auburn Curb market. Two vendors there will sell you a cleaned whole hog, and will butterfly it for you. They typically run anywhere from $2-$2.70/lbs, depending on the total weight.
You can generally estimate about a 60-70% yield of useable meat of the trimmed weight of the pig. A 70lbs hog will feed a group of 40-50 people, depending on the other sides and dishes served. We fed 30, and still had about 20 lbs of leftovers when the smoke cleared.
Prepping the pig
When you bring the pig home, unless your butcher really went above and beyond, there is still some trimming/cleaning that needs to be done. Remove the membrane from the inside of the ribcage, as well as trim off any excess fat or gristly material. In order to butterfly the pig so that it will lay flat, the butcher will split the animal’s spine up the middle. You are going to want to, with a gloved hand or tool of some sort, remove the spinal cord from the pig before cooking. There isn’t anything tasty about spinal cord.
Once trimmed to your satisfaction, wash the inside of the pig out with apple cider vinegar to remove any bone dust that may have settled on the meat during the butterfly process. If you plan to use a rub, now is the time to apply it.
Put the pig in a cooler, covered with unopened bags of ice. Chill overnight.
An hour or two before you are ready to start cooking, heat up a pile of charcoal either in a side-pit or in a charcoal chimney. I actually used my Big Green Egg and shoveled the coals out of that when needed. Bank the coals on either end of the pit.
Once you have stabilized the temperature around 250 degrees, place the pig cavity-side down and cover with the lid. Make sure to periodically add some wood chips/chunks, especially early in the process. It takes a lot of smoke to penetrate all of that meat and skin, so don’t be afraid to get a little heavy handed with it.
Keep one probe thermometer in the ham and the shoulder of the pig. A third to measure ambient temperature inside of the pit is also highly recommended. When the temperature begins to drop into the 225-230 range, refresh the coals accordingly. You are trying to stick as close to 250 as you can.
After about 3 hours, carefully flip the pig over so that it is skin side down. Now is also a good opportunity to mop the pig with additional apple cider vinegar. Cook for about another 3-4 hours, keeping your eye on the temperature of the shoulder and the hand. My total cooking time was about 6.5 hours for this particular pig, but variables like the weather, size of the pig, and temperature consistency will impact the total cook time. Go by temperature instead. When the shoulder hits 190 degrees, the ham should be around 175 (or close to it). At this point, with the help of some friends, carefully remove the pig from the pit however is easiest for you.
Now there is nothing left to do but slice that bad boy open, pull, and serve.
There is something both disconcerting and exhilarating about cooking a whole animal carcass. It was the first time for many of our guests that their food had a face. Some didn’t like that part all that much. But, as I and a few of my key helpers later confirmed, it was quite a delicious face. The cheeks were a special treat I reserved for myself and those that participated in the cooking. (Some other time, maybe over a drink, I’ll tell you about the part where my buddies and I popped open the skull like a paint can and each got a taste of hickory roasted pig brain.)
Overall, the pig was a resounding success with our friends, though I didn’t serve them the slightly overcooked hams or tenderloins. I ran into some temperature control issues at one point during the process, and the end of the pit near the hams ran a little hot. Nevertheless, the shoulders, belly, and ribs came out incredibly juicy and delicious.
If you enjoy barbecue, and especially if you like entertaining for large groups, roasting a whole hog is absolutely something that I would recommend trying at least once.
I know there have to be some veterans that looked over this post to see if I knew what I was talking about. If anyone has some great whole hog tips, please, bring on the comments! I’ll put them into action next time.
- By Jon Watson, Food & More blog